Parashat Vayera / פרשת וירא
Torah Portion: Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
This week we read the story of the Binding of Isaac, the Akedah in Hebrew. Here Abraham is put to the ultimate test when God commands him to sacrifice his son:
And God said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you” (Genesis 22.2).
This story is familiar to many. It is what communities read when they observe a second day of Rosh Hashana. It is by far the most haunting story of all of Torah.
The tradition asks us to see Abraham as the model of the faithful man, but others in history who have felt oppressed and at the mercy of their persecutors, have focused on Isaac, rather than on Abraham, going so far as to suggest that Isaac was actually sacrificed that day. During the Crusades, for example, Jews wrote about their communities as if they themselves were Isaac, except, unlike in the Torah, where an angel of God stays the hand of Abraham, these communities felt as if the knife actually landed on them, striking true.
I, too, like to turn the spotlight on Isaac. For me, Isaac represents the vulnerability of all people. I can’t help but imagine Isaac lying on the altar, perhaps naked, bound by his own father, watching as the sunlight glistens off the tip of the raised knife. Can there be a more perfect example of vulnerability than Isaac awaiting his fate in that moment of, what I call, utter human nakedness?
We are all Isaac from time to time. We feel pressed upon by our circumstances, by other people’s expectations of us, by our own expectations of us. When we feel such pressures, we feel vulnerable. Sometimes we make mistakes that seem to expose us for the person we try not to be. When we feel exposed, we feel vulnerable.
It’s important to remember that Isaac survived his ordeal. God halted the execution and provided Abraham a ram to sacrifice. Isaac goes on to have a good life, the least tumultuous life of any of the patriarchs, in fact. Isaac moves past the vulnerability he experienced on the altar, as we move past those moments of vulnerability in our own lives.
Sages see Abraham as the exemplar of faith, but to my mind, Isaac is the real exemplar. I imagine Isaac knew in his heart that he would live to see another day as he lay there bound. I imagine Isaac knew that, despite what his father was prepared to do, God would not let it happen. We, too, are capable of possessing that same faith. No matter how vulnerable we may feel, we will make it through our ordeal. God, however we understand God, will be there to save us.