This is the D'var Torah on Parsha Vayera that I gave this morning at Shacharit Services at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. I am a First Year Rabbinical Student, as well as an Ensign in the US Navy's Chalplain Candidate Officer Program. It has been my life's goal for over 12 years now, since I was Honorably Discharged from the US Marine Corps, to become a Chaplain for all servicemembers of all faiths or none, and a Rabbi for my fellow Jewish travelers in uniform.
Last year, I presented the D'var Torah on the same Parsha here on DailyKos, which was also one of my application essays for school. I must have been on to something, since they actually let me in (or maybe it was the ridiculous sums of money to the International Jewish Conspiracy I made... I don't know).
This year, now that I'm a full fledged Rabbinical student, I've had the advantage to learn a great many things that I didn't know before: Mishna, Gamara, Talmud, writings people like the Ramban, etc. I've used this newfound knowledge to take another look at the Akkedah, the tale of the binding of Issac, in a new light, wondering if my views would be different.
They were, to some extent. I still have a problem with the story, and what it seems to represent to more fundamentalist-natured people of not only my own faith, but Christianity and Islam.
I present my new D'var Torah below:
Where do we get our sense of morality? And where do we get the courage and fortitude to act out that morality in the face of great adversity, when the loud voices inside our head are telling us to just go with the flow, do as we're told, and not question. Where do we get the strength to listen to the kol demamah dakkah, the quickly diminishing voice telling us to stay our hand, plant our feet, look straight into the face of power, and say, “No.” What part of those voices is reason? What part of those voices is emotion?
I wonder what voices were present inside Abraham's head in the moment that he heard:
Please take your son, your only son, the one you love, Issac and go away to the land of Moriah and bring him up there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains, of which I will tell you.
What voices were present inside his head three days later, as he stood up on that mountain in Moriah, with Isaac, bound upon the wooden altar. This is the Abraham who, when confronted with the genocide of Sodom and Gomorrah at G-d's hand, bargained with G-d on behalf of a people he did not know for the sake of innocents he was convinced existed. This is the Abraham who would not cast out Haggar and his other son, Ishmael, until G-d has assured him of their safety. This is the Abraham who lied to King Avimelech because he did not trust G-d to keep him safe, until G-d told him unequivocally not to worry. This is the Abraham who laughed in the face of G-d when he was informed that he would have a son with Sara as he approached a century of existence. The same Abraham who stood on that mountain ready to bring down the knife on that very son because G-d commanded him to.
Our sages have done some pretty admittedly spectacular efforts to make both Abraham and G-d come out with as positive a spin as possible. Rashi's commentary suggests that G-d never included the actual sacrifice in his instructions; that instead, G-d's intent was for Abraham to simply bring up to the mountain. The implication is that Abraham may have misheard G-d. But if this is the case, what else did he hear incorrectly?
The word G-d uses to tell Abraham to sacrifice his son is no command at all. G-d uses the word “Na,” a word used hundreds times in the Torah as a request. And not just any request, mind you, commentator after commentator emphasizes that this word means an entreaty; an earnest or humble request. This is the only time in the whole Torah that this word is attributed to G-d: this implies to me that G-d is giving Abraham the ability to say, “no.”
Except that Abraham does not. Does he hear this as a request? If he does, does he recognize his ability to deny it? Does he freely volunteer to do it, or does he, as we use to say in the Marine Corps, treat it as if he is being voluntold.
Abraham seems not to question what G-d has asked of him, he doesn't even say yes. He just goes and does, with haste, without question. Mishnaic commentary offered in the name of Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar states that Abraham's act of saddling his own donkey, rather than having his servants to it, is illustrative of him being overcome with great emotion. Rabbi Simeon states that great love and great hatred can cause people to act outside the social order of things, implying that Abraham takes this particular action himself out of a powerful love of enacting G-d's will.
Now, I think Rabbi Simeon brings up a very good point about strong emotion, but stops far short for my tastes, confining this observation to a little bit of manual labor rather than killing his son as a human sacrifice. I can accept that is was Abraham's strong emotions toward G-d were overshadowing his clear judgment and his already proven precedent of questioning, doubting, and bargaining with G-d; but I do not think great love is the emotion guiding Abraham forward and silencing his internal and external dissent. In the last moment when it appears that Abraham will do the deed and kill his son, an Angel swoops down to stay his hand, proclaiming:
"Do not stretch forth your hand to the lad, nor do the slightest thing to him, for now I know that you are a God fearing man, and you did not withhold your son, your only one, from Me."
Notice what the Angel acknowledges in Abraham: not love, not faith, not trust, but fear. Abraham had suppressed the voice in his head, the kol demamah dakkah telling him G-d gave him a choice, telling him he could question, or bargain, or outright refuse, telling him that killing his son just might be wrong, because he was acting out of fear. Why does he feel this way? Having witnessed the utter destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the cursing of Avimelech, the sending away of Ishmael and Haggar, maybe Abraham's faith at this point was predicated on fearing a G-d that could visit upon him despair and destruction, rather than loving G-d who had provided him so much. Is this really something that we can call, “faith?”
And so, I think that this was a trial that Abraham failed. He failed because what once was love and trust of G-d had converted to fear of punishment. He failed, because he rushed to the edge of a moral precipice, traveling 3 days with no contemplation, lied to his son about his mission, and was prepared to step off that precipice with nary a dissenting thought in his head. All because of fear.
Even if I believe that Abraham has failed in this trial personally, I believe he succeeded for us all, because we can see him as a human, flaws and all. He is not some perfect mythological figure who can do no wrong, he is a man whose failings can be an example to provide us with direction, here and now. Have faith in G-d, but do not let it become blinded by unbridled passion, such as love, hate, or fear. Make sure that what that faith tells you to do is still moral and sound. For history is filled with a great many evils done in the name of a higher power, where the one who commits the evil believes he is acting soundly and justly. And know that there is always room for questioning, and room to say no, because there is no Angel of the Lord standing by to swoop down and stay our hands at the last moment as with Abraham. Know instead, that the metaphorical angel is your right to evaluate the situation, listen to the kol demamah dakkah, and say, no.