Vayera: A Chronic Pain in the Innermost Part of Jewish Theology
Torah is the center of Jewish life. No doubt it is not absolute truthfulness of its words which has made it perpetual, but rather its transcendence comes from our ability to spiritually connect to the text. Torah’s text is sometimes a fountain of inspiration, while at other times it serves as a basis to questions which affect our humanity and our state of being. One cannot “connect”, love, or even respect if he is not able or chooses not to evaluate and criticize.
Parashat Vayera tells us 5 different stories and it is possibly the most difficult Portion in the whole Torah. First, Abraham and the angels; Second, Sodom and Gomorrah – including the story of Lot and his daughters; Third, immigration to the land of Abimelech; Fourth, the expulsion of Hagar; Fifth, the binding of Isaac. No doubt the latter is most difficult, to sacrifice your own son? The classic commentaries explain this act of Abraham as a complete submission to the will of God and an act of bravery. I however find it very difficult to read the story of the Akeda (Binding) as a positive act. I do not believe that God tests us in such ways, and as I said, I believe that we can and should read the text critically and not always literally. I could suggest that the Akeda was an act of “temporary insanity”, however that would be to completely misunderstand what is written and to ignore the conflict which it raises in my perspective.
If we move back to the first story of the Parasha, the Midrash tells us that Abraham was sitting at the gate of his tent, and that God was visiting him (Vayera! God appeared), fulfilling the precept of Bikur Cholim (visiting the sick). When Abraham detected the images of the three foreigners in the desert he literally ran out to them! But wait a minute, wasn’t he sitting with God? Here we find the first big teaching of this Parasha: God is not supposed to isolate you, shouldn’t disconnect you from anything else, it is quite the opposite.
Abraham receives, serves and feeds the foreigners, who we later find out were angels, and they announce to him and to Sarah who was not able to conceive that in a year they will have a son. It’s remarkable and extremely interesting that the continuity of the Jewish People is announced in such a moment. We become transcendent when we manage to connect with the other and when we are willing to put God Himself aside in order to encounter the “divinity”. This does not need to be paradoxical. The divine is not necessarily an entity, but a condition which reveals itself in many situations in our lives, and perhaps in our attachment to “our structures”, such as the gate to our tent, it goes unnoticed.
The second scene between God and Abraham is when God announces the upcoming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham confronts God, trying to negotiate the future of those two cities and their inhabitants. And here we see (and we’ll get back to this later) that the interaction with the divine is a dialogue and not a monologue and that disagreement is a possibility.
On another instant the divine presence is mentioned when, later on the story line, Abraham and Sarah arrive at the land of Abimelech.
Abrahams tells Sarah: say that you are my sister, in this land there is no God-fear, and they may try to kill me in order to take you. By this assumption Abraham expresses that from his perspective there is a connection between God-fear (faith) and an ethical social behavior.
In the last story of the Torah portion, the Binding, Abraham silently submits and attempts to sacrifice his own son, to kill him, because this is what God asks him to do.
In another opportunity I have explained that the title “Avinu” – Our Father – for Abraham came because he is a figure which can contain the huge variety and heterogeneity of the people of Israel, his descendants.
Having this in mind, we can see in Parashat Vayera and particularly in Abraham’s behavior, two different theological models. The first is that of faith as the basis for social action, for the sacredness of human life. In this model God is a dynamic and dialogical entity. God-fear (faith) is what Abraham recognizes in the story about Abimelech as respect towards social frameworks and human life. In the second model there is no dialogue. There are commands and fulfillment, there is no place for questions, and this kind of behavior, which seems to some of us irrational or insane, is not. It is religious fundamentalism in which each word is taken as truth, and therefore this literal reading doesn’t include questions but obedience.
Now, we could use this opportunity to look away from ourselves, pointing this conversation to the religious fundamentalism of our neighbors, which is certainly very popular nowadays. But speaking about others instead of about ourselves would be an easy solution. Abraham Avinu, remember? Our Father! We should ask ourselves which parts of this DNA are among us today.
If you’re asking yourself, do we have any kind of religious fundamentalism in the Jewish people? Just look at the calendar – a few days ago we remembered that the prime minister of the state of Israel was killed by another Jew, “in the name of Torah”.
Another interesting example is the part of the discussion in Israel regarding which should be the boundaries of the state of Israel. From left and right there is a deep discussion about strategic issues, succeeding sometimes to be pragmatic, with some different perspectives of religious romanticism, but it is another voice which says: we want the whole land of Israel and we are determined to sacrifice whatever is required in order to keep is that way, because It’s God’s gift to the Jewish People. And in this way we are accepting the perpetuation of the circle of blood between two Peoples, “in the name of God”.
And after I mentioned that I want to talk about us, but actually I spoke about the “others” among us, I wish to remind that there is something related to fundamentalism that un-literal Jews should consider as well. Maybe in a more symbolic way we should ask ourselves, what are the values we blindly idolize? What are the things that they hide from our eyes? What are we sacrificing – our society? our families? Our kids? Our own selves? You probably know what your answer is – money? Career? Prestige? Exaggerated body work?
And I ask myself how to explain what, from my perspective, a theologically correct state should be. And the clearest word coming to my mind is struggle. Yes, the struggle. We should celebrate the struggle. The struggle with our frameworks, the struggle with communication by being committed to dialogue, struggling with the literal understanding of Torah specifically and of course of many other things in our lives. We should keep ourselves far away from the places in which there are no questions, no doubts, because in those places the struggle stops being a challenge and becomes disgrace, which we will carry forever.
Rabbi Nico Socolovsky