October 30, 2004 - 15 Heshvan 5765
Annual: Genesis Genesis 18:1 - 22:24 (Etz Hayim, p. 99; Hertz p. 63)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 18:1 - 18:33 (Etz Hayim, p. 99; Hertz p. 63)
Haftarah: II Kings 4:1 - 37 (Etz Hayim, p. 124; Hertz p. 76)
Prepared by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser
Little Neck Jewish Center, Little Neck, NY
Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director
In the guise of three angelic visitors, God appears to Abraham at his tent. The divine messengers, who are greeted with eager hospitality, foretell that a son, Isaac is to be born to Abraham and Sarah. Sarah laughs at the prospect of further fertility.
Subsequently, God reluctantly informs Abraham of His intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, together with the cities' morally corrupt inhabitants. Abraham unsuccessfully intercedes with God, citing the just cause of any righteous citizens. Not even ten worthy individuals can be identified, however. The corruption of Sodom seems confirmed as the men of that city, with apparently salacious motives, surround Lot's house, demanding, to no avail, that he surrender his two angelic guests to them. Lot and his family are spared, escaping the destruction of the cities, although Lot's wife is turned into a pillar of salt when, contrary to God's instruction, she gazes back at the desolation.
Seeking refuge in a cave, Lot's daughters induce their father's intoxication. Their subsequent incestuous unions produce Ammon and Moab, progenitors of morally suspect, historic foes of Israel.
After immigrating to Gerar, Sarah is taken by Abimelech and ultimately restored to Abraham, in a literary reprise of the "wife-sister motif" of the previous Parsha. As promised, Isaac is born. He is circumcised and weaned. At Sarah's behest, Abraham banishes Hagar and Ishmael. Mother and son survive their wilderness exile, fortified by angelic guidance and a divine promise that Ishmael, too, will found a nation.
Abraham effects a covenant with Abimelech. God "tests" Abraham, commanding him to offer his beloved son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. Compliantly and all but silently taking his son to Mount Moriah, Abraham places him atop an altar, but an angel stays his hand as he raises the sacrificial knife. Abraham's reverence for God, and God's covenantal promise of blessing to Abraham are both confirmed with renewed vigor.
Theme #1: "The Just Goes to Show You"
"Abraham came forward and said: 'Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You. Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?'" (Genesis 18:23-25)
- "This verse can be read as a declarative statement: 'The Judge of all the earth shall not deal justly.' If you want a world, there cannot be strict justice. If you want strict justice, there can be no world. You are trying to grasp the rope at both ends. You want the world and you want strict justice. If you do not let go of justice, there will be no world." (Genesis Rabbah 49:25)
- "Insofar as You are Judge of all the earth, if You judge the whole based on the majority, You will, no doubt, destroy them forever, for the majority of human beings are evil." (Sforno)
- "Abraham's struggle to apprehend the nature of God's purposes assumes that God must act according to a principle that man can try to understand. That principle is the passion for righteousness. 'Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?' he protests. It is this faith in God's justice that gives rise to the argument with God, whose intent to destroy Sodom appears to raise serious conflict with the patriarch's conviction about His moral governance of the world." (Nahum Sarna, JPS Genesis)
- "Abraham's argument with God raises one of the most troubling and recurring issues of theology. Can God's justice be judged by human beings according to standards of human justice? The alternative is to assume - tautologically - that whatever God does, regardless of how unjust it may seem to us, is by definition just. Whatever God commands must be done without question or challenge… Such an approach is the first step to fundamentalism. The Sodom narrative appears to reject the fundamentalist approach and to suggest that God has submitted Himself to at least some human judgment through the covenant." (Alan Dershowitz, The Genesis of Justice)
- "We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states." (U.S. Declaration of Independence)
Questions for Discussion:
- Genesis Rabbah and Sforno seem to agree that true justice is at best elusive. What are the benefits and the challenges inherent in this view?
- If non-fundamentalist religion means subjecting divine law to human standards of justice, on what basis are we to make such judgments? How are we to distinguish between moral absolutes and transitory societal mores?
- By referring to both "the Supreme Judge of the world" and "the good people of these colonies" the Declaration of Independence seems to echo Genesis 18. Why would the American Founding Fathers embrace this specific image of God? Note that the Declaration also refers to the "Creator" and "Providence."
Theme #2: "In a Bind"
"God tested Abraham." (Genesis 22:1)
- "The only purpose for all the tests mentioned in Scripture is to teach man what he ought to do… Abraham did not hasten to kill Isaac out of fear that God might slay him or make him poor, but solely because it is man's duty to love and to fear God, even without hope of reward or fear of punishment. This idea is confirmed in Scripture, where it is distinctly stated that one thing alone, fear of God, is the object of the whole Torah with its positive and negative precepts, its promises and its historical examples." (Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed)
- "This trial was not a test developed by God to find out what He did not know. Rather, God made a demonstration - the root of the word (nisah) being from nes, meaning wonder or sign - which Abraham performed at God's direction, as an example and banner to all peoples, for them to follow." (Abarbanel)
- "Since man's actions are entirely in his own control - if he so wishes he will take an action, and if he does not so wish he will not take the action - it is called a test from the perspective of the one being tested. But God, by imposing the test, commands him in order to transform his potential into action, so that he will earn the reward for a good deed, not merely for his good heart and intentions." (Nachmanides)
- "How else, then, can we read Genesis 22 except as Abraham's testing of the Lord, as well as the Lord's testing of Abraham?… If what the Lord has promised for Isaac is to happen, Isaac cannot die. If, on the other hand, Abraham has been mistaken, if his vision has been false, then his lord is a false god, a slayer of children, a breaker of covenants. The angel of the Lord, which interrupts Abraham as he raises the knife to slay Isaac, not only vindicates Abraham's vision and values, but also vindicates the Lord." (Kenneth Gros Louis, Literary Interpretations of Biblical Narratives)
- "As Abraham, in loyalty to God, was about to kill his son, God spared Yitzhak. Now God tests our faith even more terribly, for he has taken our Yitzhak. But Israel's covenant with God for freedom, for tolerance, for security, for peace - that covenant must hold. That covenant was Prime Minister Rabin's life work. Now we must make it his lasting legacy." (President Bill Clinton, eulogizing Yitzhak Rabin)
Questions for Discussion:
- The reader of the Bible is told explicitly that God's command to Abraham is a "test." Does this necessarily mean that Isaac will be spared? Do we know exactly what is being tested? Abraham's willingness to sacrifice all? His willingness to stand up to God? His ability to trust God to spare Isaac?
- How do you imagine Abraham's "test" affected his relationship to God? To Isaac? To Sarah? Isaac's relationship to God?
- If Abraham was testing God and had faith in the outcome, how is our reading of the Akeidah affected? Was Abraham telling the truth or obfuscating when he said "God will provide the lamb" and "We will worship and we will return to you?"
- In a free society where we openly identify and practice our tradition, and willing self-sacrifice for the faith is rarely demanded, how does the Akeidah continue to speak to contemporary Jews?
- How similar is the "covenant" described by President Clinton to the Biblical model? How does a democratic State of Israel measure success in the "more terrible test of faith" it faces? How is God also tested in this context?
Parshat Vayera is read on October 30, 2004. On this date in 1735, John Adams, the second President of the United States and a major architect of the Declaration of Independence (cited above), was born. Like Isaac, Adams succeeded a beloved "Father of his Nation" to leadership. Perhaps Adams was thinking of the lessons of our Parsha when he wrote: "The Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation. If I were an atheist, and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations."