Parshat Vayera (Genesis 18:1-22:24)
Last week, my four-year-old announced gleefully, “It’s almost Kislev!” He is joyfully anticipating the next Jewish month because of my personal custom to declare the holiday-free month of Mar-Cheshvan a family-wide post-holiday sugar detox. My son’s excitement makes perfect sense – except that it is only the second day of Cheshvan. I answer somewhat incredulously, “It’s almost Kislev?” “Yes,” he says, “Only twenty-eight days!” Somehow, what is for me a necessary moment of rebalancing, and for my older children a long ordeal to endure, is, for this child, an opportunity to anticipate the sweetness to come. This same child declares, “Only eleven months ‘til I’m five!” I wonder at his patience, his optimism, his certitude that his desires will all be fulfilled in good time, that the order of his world will not disappoint him. I congratulate myself on not responding “No, it’s not.” Who says 28 days until next month isn’t “almost”?
In Parshat Vayera, the father and mother of the Jewish people anticipate, fulfill and nearly cut short their lifelong dream of becoming parents. Three angels arrive to announce the imminent birth of Abraham and Sarah’s long-awaited child. As they leave, God decides to disclose the plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah to Abraham because “I have singled him out, so that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep God’s way, doing what is just and right.” (Gen. 18:19) God gives Abraham the chance to object, to verify the justice of an act-of-God that at first appears indiscriminate. Abraham receives this courtesy because he has a responsibility, through his children, to perpetuate justice in the world.
The parsha follows this exchange with a series of instances of parenting in moments of crisis. When the angels arrive in Sodom, Abraham’s nephew, Lot, greets them. Having learned some of Abraham’s manners, Lot invites them home, defying local practice to scorn strangers. As angry neighbors gather at his door, Lot, his guests, and his family are in danger. In crisis, Lot rushes to sacrifice his daughters to save his guests and himself. The midrash suggests that Lot first chose to live in Sodom in order to adopt their misguided morality. A normal person would sacrifice himself to protect his daughters. Ironically, the midrash credits Lot’s hurry to relinquish his daughters to the mob with inspiring the daughters’ later decision to inebriate him and conceive children by him.
Leaving Sodom, the Torah returns to Abraham and Sarah, who, after decades of waiting, are blessed with a son, Isaac. Sarah disapproves of young Isaac’s relationship with Ishmael, Abraham’s son through Sarah’s handmaid, Hagar. Sarah wants Ishmael and Hagar sent away, and though Abraham hesitates, God tells him to trust Sarah and he complies.
In Hagar’s parenting crisis, she and Ishmael run out of water in the wilderness and she is sure her child will die. She leaves Ishmael under a tree and waits at a distance for death to overtake him. God provides a spring, reassures Hagar, and allows Ishmael to grow into another great nation. Hagar is a bit better at crisis-parenting than Lot. We can hardly fault her as she gives up hope anticipating the unjust end.
As the parsha draws to a close, God tests Abraham with his crisis-parenting moment, demanding that he sacrifice his beloved, long-awaited Isaac. This horrifying episode raises many questions. What was Abraham thinking? Would he really have sacrificed Isaac? Does God really want Abraham to agree to sacrifice his child? If this was a test, did Abraham pass? And if so, why? Some Modern interpreters suggest that Abraham actually fails, that God wants him to argue, as he does to save Sodom. But reading the text at face value, Abraham passes.
So how does the father who goes so far as to raise the knife to slaughter his child become our role-model? Is he better at crisis-parenting than Lot or Hagar? Perhaps there is a hint in a few strange details of the account of the akedah, the almost-sacrifice.
The midrash says Isaac is thirty-seven years old at the time of the akedah. The pair leaves home with a donkey, two servants, wood, a knife, and a firestone. Isaac waits three whole days to ask where the sacrificial animal is. Abraham answers simply, “God will see to the sacrifice, my son.” Abraham and Isaac are described both before and after this question as walking, the two of them, together. The midrash posits that Isaac understands what God has asked of Abraham, and goes willingly. How could they both walk so contently towards disaster— for more than three days?!
Maybe Isaac walks together with Abraham, not because they are both of one mind to go through with the sacrifice, but because they are both certain that God is of one mind with them not to go through with it. When Abraham says, “God will provide,” maybe he and Isaac are so certain that they can confidently continue the journey with their trust in each other, and in God, intact. Maybe, having investigated God’s justice at the beginning of the parsha, Abraham no longer needs to be convinced. Maybe they do not object because Abraham has internalized and passed down “God’s way, doing what is just and right,” and they know it will be okay. Perhaps God is not testing whether Abraham is loyal enough to sacrifice his child, but whether Abraham and Isaac understand God’s ways enough to trust that God won’t let him go through with it.
We all face obstacles—from small everyday frustrations to worldwide crises— that threaten our sense of what is just and right. Faced with the bitterness in life, we can be drawn like Lot, to protect ourselves at the expense of those we should protect, or like Hagar, to distance ourselves, looking away as disaster overtakes us. But if we are to live up to the legacy of Abraham and Isaac, our job is to strengthen for ourselves and inspire in our children the confidence that the world is just, that dreams are possible, and that we will continue to walk together through the bitterness, in unrelenting pursuit of the sweetness that is to come.
Rabbi Shira Shazeer is the school Rabbi at Metrowest Jewish Day School in Framingham, MA where she coordinates the Judaic Studies program and teaches music. She studied in the Scholars’ Circle at Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, and received her rabbinic ordination from the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in 2010.
Learn more about the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College on November 6 at Ta Sh’ma (Come & hear), a Fall Open House & Day of Learning for prospective rabbinical, rav-hazzan and cantorial students.