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Parashat Hashavua Vayeira 2013 / 5774 - The Akedah: Avraham, Sarah, and When to Argue With God

17.10.2013 by

Our portion of the week, Vayeira, contains a number of very dramatic events. I would like to focus on some of the most striking, and look at Avraham's response to them. 

Avraham and Sarah are childless. In last week's parsha, Lech Lecha, Sarah suggested to Avraham that he take her maidservant, Hagar, as a wife, in order to have a child with her. He does so, and in this week's parsha, that son, Yishmael, misbehaves, and Sarah, who in the interim has given birth to Yitzchak,  demands of Avraham that he evict him and his mother from the family home. We are told that Avraham was reluctant to do so, very upset with the idea of throwing his son out of the house, and it is only after God promises him that He will take care of Yishmael that Avraham acquiesces, and sends Hagar and Yishmael on their way.

This week's parsha also tells us of the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Amorah, which Avraham argues against with God, requesting that the cities be spared if even ten good people could be found in them. God agrees to Avraham's terms, but, apparently, not even ten good folks could be found in these sinful cities, and they are destroyed.

The most dramatic story this week is the Akedah - the Binding of Isaac. God decides to test Avraham, and commands him to take his beloved son, Yitzchak, and offer him up to Him. We are told that Avraham immediately acquiesces, wakes up early in the morning, and goes directly to sacrifice his son.

What stands out is this: in the stories of Sodom and Amora and the expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael, Avraham argued with God's justice. He bargained with Him over the fate of Sodom, and did not agree to send Yishmael away until God explicitly ordered him to do so, and guaranteed Yishmael's safety and future. And yet, when asked to sacrifice his heir, the son he had always hoped for, he immediately agrees. Why does this impossible commandment not warrant at least an argument, a question, an "Avraham felt badly about the sacrifice of his son" moment, parallel to what he expressed with Sodom, Amorah, and Yishmael, from Avraham? Avraham has surely learned from these two events that he is allowed to question God's justice, to argue with Him. Why does he not exercise that right in regards to his son's life?

Perhaps a distinction needs to be made between God's justice - the destruction of Sodom and Amorah, the choice of Yitzchak over Yishmael and the need to make that choice clear by expelling Yishmael - on the one hand, and God's religious demands - the Akedah - on the other. It may be that the difference in Avraham's behavior is rooted in the difference between justice, about which we can argue with God, and worship, about which God makes demands which we must simply follow. Justice is a theory, a concept, and we can argue with God about how to achieve it, about what is fair and what is not. But when God demands an act of loyalty, of obediance, of faith, we are in a different arena, and must simply obey, and do whatever it takes to make our faith apparent, manifest, even by sacrificing our beloved son, if that is what God demands.

I am troubled by this idea. The notion that in the arena of faith there can be no argument, no moral or ethical discussion, leads, it seems to me, to jihad, suicide bombers, and, yes, the sacrifice of our children for our religious ideals. I find myself wishing that Avraham had taught us, by arguing with God over the Akedah, as he argued earlier, that we are also allowed to question the moral/ethical dimension of religious ritual, the rightness of how we show our faith in God, and not limit this freedom to negotiate with God to legal areas. Why is a faith-act free of moral consequences?

Perhaps, in order to solve this difficulty,  we need to access Sarah's response to the Akedah, as it is understood by some of the Rabbis,  in next week's parsha, Chaye Sarah. We are told, at the beginning of Chaye Sarah, just after the story of the Akedah at the end of Vayeira, of Sarah's death. The midrash connects the two events: when she heard about the Akedah, Sarah died. We could understand her death as simply a result of shock, a reaction to the horror of the thought of losing Yitzchak. But the Aish Kodesh, Rav  Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro, who was murdered by the Germans in the Warsaw Ghetto, sees it differently. Sarah's death was not the result of weakness. It was a protest, an attempt to communicate to God that He can sometimes make demands which are too great, and that He should not do so. God sometimes seems cruel in His choice of the acts of faith He demands of us, and Sarah is protesting that cruelty, both here, in the Akedah, and in the future, during the darkest moments of Jewish history, when faith in God was a horrible thing to have, a source of suffering, pain, and death. 

Perhaps Sarah's message is that, although Avraham felt that he could not argue with a direct demand of God to do an act of faith, we actually can, and should. As in legal questions, where Avraham taught us that we can voice our opinions, and that God does want to hear what we think is just and unjust, we also have the right to question the morality, the fairness, of what faith in God sometimes asks us to do.  Just as we learn from Avraham that we are able, and obligated, to demand justice from God in the realm of His legal decisions, we learn from Sarah that we are  also meant to demand that same justice in the realm of our faith, our obedience to God, and our loyalty to His commandments.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

Why does this impossible commandment not warrant at least an argument, a question, from Avraham?Rabbi Shimon

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