Saturday, November 3, 2012

Parashat Vayeira – Akida

It was suggested to me that I think about writing a new sermon that relates to the storm. I had a few strings of ideas but none that I was able to push through to something I liked. I'll be using this, which I wrote last week before the storm for my homiletics class, at services today.
            Last week, I mentioned the beginning to the story of the binding of Isaac – or the Akidah – and used Rashi’s commentary on “Your son, your only one, that you love, Isaac,” as some proof that Abraham also loves his son, Ishmael, who is the only one of his mother, just as Isaac is the only son of his mother. But what good is this father’s love if he is so willing to slaughter is favored child? This is a difficult story to contend with, for how can our first patriarch be so cold and thoughtlessly obedient that he was willing to sacrifice his own son, and what kind of G-d do we pray to that would ask this of such a faithful servant? Has not Abraham already proved his worth, by moving when and where G-d commands, by trying to do his best to keep peace in his home, between his own household and that of his nephew Lot, between his wife and her servant, between his sons? And when it comes to blind obedience, Abraham has already shown he will not always cow down; he bargained with G-d to allow him to find enough righteous people to warrant saving Sodom and Gemorrah. Abraham manages to get G-d to agree to spare the whole city if he can find enough righteous souls, and haggles G-d down from 50 righteous people to 10. Of course, it turns out there were not enough righteous to save any but Lot and his family, but still, that Abraham was willing to try to save this town of wicked strangers makes his willingness to sacrifice his own son all the more disconcerting.
            Being that it is so disconcerting, there is much Midrash on this to try to ease our discomfort with this story. My favorite was one I learned from my childhood rabbi, Doug Segal. I distinctly remember that one Rosh HaShana he told us a story he had made up himself of G-d asking Sarah first to sacrifice Isaac and she would not. She argues that G-d promised her this child, G-d promised her and Abraham that through this child would their descendants become as many as the number of stars in the sky. Basically, Sarah knew that G-d couldn’t possibly want Isaac dead, or those promises could not have been made, and she called G-d’s bluff.
            Rashi points out these inconsistencies in G-d’s word, but rather than use them to show that Abraham knew it was a test all along and was secure in knowing he would not really have to finish the job, Rashi uses it to explain Abraham’s confusion and hurt over the matter. In fact, many of Rashi’s comments on this parasha suggest that Abraham was easily confused. Why didn’t G-d tell Abraham at first to slaughter Isaac, but went through this back and forth with him about which son? So as to break the news in steps, to be gentler about asking Abraham to kill his son, lest his mind become disoriented and addled. And why did they travel for three days before G-d pointed out the right mountain to up on? If G-d were to point out the first mountain they came to, it would “bewilder and confuse Abraham unexpectedly, and addle his mind,” but if G-d were to wait more than three days, Abraham would have time to change his mind about the whole thing. And once the angel appears to stop Abraham, Abraham expresses confusion that G-d should promise him one day that Isaac will be the line from which many descendants will come, and then tell him to kill Isaac the next. After the ram appears, and the angel has already told Abraham that G-d does not want Abraham to harm his son, according to Rashi, as Abraham performs each piece of the sacrificial ritual, Abraham calls to G-d, “May it be your will that this should be as if it were my son.” We already learned it is not G-d’s will for this to be as if it were Isaac!
            There are many who say that this was a test of Abraham’s faith and ever-present loyalty to G-d, and he passed. What if this was a test of Abraham’s sanity and ability to continue to be a strong leader and he failed? What if G-d really expected Abraham to call his bluff, as Sarah did, and sent the angel and the ram at the last minute, because G-d realized that Abraham might go through with it?
            I think that too many people in the world today have difficulty remembering to open up their ears and hearts to G-d’s voice and will. I wish for you all to have some deep connection to G-d and that you feel that the things you do with your life are the direct will of G-d for you. But if you should ever hear a voice telling you to kill for G-d, please don’t. This of course, sounds exaggerated, but extend it to your general conscience. Probably none of you in this room have ever or will ever feel a great sincere urge to kill, but maybe to hurt, and possibly even to hurt yourselves. Even if it feels like it’s coming from so deep inside you it must be from G-d, do not do it. We can learn from this parsha that it is never really G-d’s will that we cause ourselves or our loved ones pain. And there may not always be a ram to stop you in time.
            At least not one that readily appears. As we go on with our lives, we will all have to continue to struggle with this story. As Jews, it is a part of our regular yearly Torah reading for Parashat Vayeira, and the traditional reading for Rosh HaShana. As you continue to contend with this story on your own terms, and as you grow and face your own challenges and have to make decisions about sacrifices of your own, may you all find your own rams, your own alternatives to causing harm, and may G-d grant you all peace. Amen.