Vulnerable Isaac

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.

Moving Right Along with Faith

A year ago, I posted this commentary on Parashat Lech-Lecha. I can’t recall what motivated me to pursue the theme of  moving forward with life despite uncertainty. This year, however, uncertainty is everywhere. Israel faces unrest. The battle against ISIS rages on. The largest hurricane to ever hit the western hemisphere threatens Mexico. At home, politicians jockey for position in the early stages of a presidential race. Meanwhile, each of us has some kind of conflict in our lives awaiting resolution. And yet, we keep pushing forward. For many of us, it is faith that enables us to look forward to each new day, never knowing exactly what that day will bring.

Now, in focusing on the Avram (He will only become Abraham upon entering the covenant through circumcision.) this week, I do not also address the story of Hagar and Sarai (She, too, will become Sarah only after Avram enters into the covenant.), but their story is also one of faith. Sarai, barren in her old age, permits Avram to consort with her handmaiden, Hagar, in order to produce an heir. Things don’t go so well for Hagar once she conceives, and eventually she and her child, Ishmael, are sent off to the wilderness to fend for themselves. Meanwhile, Sarai at 90 miraculously gives birth to Isaac, and the narrative of our people’s founding family continues. For both Hagar and Sarai, each facing an uncertain future, God comes to provide reassurance and a promise of a better day for them and their sons.

It is God’s reassurance — or, perhaps, our faith that there is a God whose very presence makes for a better day — that first enabled our ancestors to carry on and that has since enabled the Jewish People to endure and to thrive throughout history. To endure and to thrive requires faith. As individuals and as a People, we are, indeed, the children of Abraham and Sarah.

 Lech-Lecha / פרשת לך־לך
 Genesis 12:1 – 17:27

In the Mishnah, the seminal body of rabbinic literature that developed within the first two centuries CE, the rabbis teach: “With ten tests our father Abraham was tested and he withstood them all–in order to make known how great was our father Abraham’s love [for G-d]” (Mishnah Avot 5:3). Because the rabbis of the Mishnah don’t enumerate the tests, it fell upon later authorities to speculate what they were, and by all accounts most of the trials take place in this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, between chapters 12 and 17 of the Book of Genesis (Bereishit, in Hebrew). (See for the Mishnah text and two interpreters’ lists of the trials.)

One trial, in particular, catches my attention this week. The parashah begins with God famously telling Abram, (God had not yet given him the name “Abraham), “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). Abram responds to this command by taking his wife, Sarai, their nephew Lot, and all their possessions on an epic journey to the land of Canaan. God’s call to “go forth” was Abraham’s first test, according to Maimonides, and he passed with flying colors. However, it is the next test that jumps out at me.

No sooner does Abram arrive in the land of Canaan and God promises “I will assign this land to your heirs” (Gen. 12:7) that we read: “There was a famine in the land…” (12:10). Apparently, Canaan was not yet the “land of milk and honey” that Abraham’s descendents would eventually find it to be. Rather, after the long journey from Haran, Abram, et al, find themselves in a barren wasteland. Imagine how shocked they must have been. How would Abram respond to this trial: stay put and inhabit the land or move on to more hospitable environs?

We receive our answer right away: “… and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land” (ibid.). Abram chose to relocate to a land where he and his family could find physical sustenance. Perhaps he suspected from his experience of frequent drought in that part of the world that the sojourn in Egypt would be temporary, as we find in the next chapter it was. We don’t know; the text is silent. Perhaps Abram wanted to tough it out in the barren land but those around him talked him out of it. Perhaps he had no idea if his move to Egypt would be temporary or permanent. Again, we don’t know.

What we do know is that Abram had a difficult decision to make: stay or go? If he stayed, he’d be jeopardizing the welfare of his wife, nephew, slaves and livestock. If he left, he might be betraying his God, who brought him there. Or maybe Abram understood that this initial visit to the land, accompanied by building altars here and there, was just that: a visit. Maybe he knew that eventually the land would belong to his descendents, and he saw this visit as an opportunity to scout out the land, to check out the property that his children and his children’s children would, in the future, occupy and build up into a great nation. In that case, there would be no reason not to keep going. So many possibilities. What to do?

We can’t know what was going through Abram’s mind at the time, but we can imagine his angst because we’ve all been there. We’ve all found ourselves at one time or another pursuing a dream or taking a chance on something that we hoped would bring us happiness and security. And we’ve all had an experience of disappointment when the dream fell short of our expectations or the chance we took didn’t bear fruit. We’ve all been in that place where we’ve asked ourselves “What now?”

What the sages teach us is that Abraham was a man of faith. Whenever God called to him, Abraham answered. He responded to each test, never turning his back on God even though he might have been forgiven for doing so on any number of occasions, such as when God commanded him to sacrifice his son Isaac. Here, too, when Abram was faced with a “what now” situation upon landing in the midst of a famine, we can be certain that he approached his dilemma with the faith that somehow everything would work out in the end. He might not have known exactly how things would work out, but he trusted that God would take care of him and his heirs over the long haul.

When we find ourselves at a crossroads, at a place of despair with an unknown future, do we exhibit the faith of Abraham? Do we act, as did Abram, with the belief that things might be rough now but further down the road they’ll get better? Do we move on, as did Abram, even though we can’t be 100% certain if we’re making the “right” decision? Taking action in the face of uncertainty is the very definition of faith, in my opinion. Abram couldn’t know for sure where his journey would lead, nor could he be sure that God would always accompany him. He couldn’t be sure of anything, but he had faith, and that was enough.

Don’t get me wrong: exhibiting faith doesn’t mean we live without some degree of anxiety. Abraham was human and so are we. There would be something wrong with him and us if we didn’t fret over the future from time to time. I imagine Abraham lost a lot of sleep in times of trial and that he sweat profusely. Who wouldn’t? We shouldn’t think for a minute that Abraham didn’t face his future without some trepidation.

What makes Abraham’s faith so remarkable is not that he didn’t stress out in times of uncertainty — most likely, he did — but rather, as a pioneer in the belief of the One God, he had no experience to go on that would have told him that God would always be there with him through the good and the bad. And, yet, Abraham took action over and over again and found that God WAS there. It is precisely BECAUSE of Abraham’s experience that we know, no matter how bad things get, God will always accompany us on our journey. 

When we find ourselves in lands that are parched, in promised lands that promise us little more than privation, may we remember how Abram pushed forward with faith. With Divine love always with us, let us overcome our occasional fears and doubts and keep moving right along. One day we just might find ourselves dwelling in a land flowing with milk and honey.