Insight on the Weekly Torah Reading: VaYera

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The Holy Sojourner

By Michael Chessen

The life and times of Abraham, as documented over the course of our current and previous Torah readings, is that of a man on the move. We might reasonably have expected, that following the banishment, uprooting and dispersion which characterized the twenty generations of human development preceding Abraham, the reward for an individual who finally sought to fully live up to having been created in God's image would be his being allowed to put down roots.

Certainly, Abraham and Sarah's initial physical journey into Canaan was vital to their spiritual aspirations. However, we learn much about what drove the parent figures of the Jewish people by observing the description of their now advanced age in this week's reading of V'yera. When Abraham and Sarah learn that they are due to expect the birth of a son, this seems "laughable" to Sarah because, as the text relates, she and her husband were "well advanced in days"(Genesis 18:11). The relevance of using days rather than years as a yardstick for measuring age is well expressed by Solomon in Proverbs(10:27): "The fear of the Lord prolongs days, but the years of the wicked shall be shortened". In marked contrast to the wicked, who inflict evil upon themselves by anxiously worrying in measures of years, the paradigm of secure faith is that of Abraham and Sarah, taking life one day at a time. And each day was utilized to the fullest in order to demonstrate the importance of active faith in God, primarily through simple acts of loving kindness.

Rabbi Isaac Bernstein cites the Torah's repetition of Abraham's need to deceive royalty concerning his wife as a poignant illustration of the vital role which the fear of God plays in ensuring moral behavior. After having sought to protect himself from possible harm in Egypt by saying that Sarah was not his wife but his sister, Abraham again uses this tactic with the Philistines. Whereas upon the revelation of the truth in Egypt, no explanation of the need for Abraham's tactic had been necessary, Abraham needs to explain to Avimelech, king of the Philistines, that he had been forced to deceive him because he had perceived the absence of the fear of God in his kingdom. (Genesis 20:11). While Egyptian society made no genuine pretenses to being moral, the Greek influenced society of the Philistines recognized the need to abide by certain moral principles in order to benefit the whole of humankind, and therefore apparently viewed itself as being "enlightened". However, the problem with a moral code which does not recognize divine guidance and retribution is that there ever lurks the potential of human rationalization intervening to abrogate it.

Finally, Abraham's exemplary level of faith faces the ultimate test in the difficult story of the Binding of Isaac. Whereas the "sudden" appearance of the ram to be offered as the true sacrifice is certainly a great comfort to we the readers, Abraham actually found more comfort in the symbolism of the state of the ram than in its physical presence. The ram was "tangled in the brush" (Gen. 22:13). The Hebrew term for "brush" alludes to the term for "complication". For Abraham, challenges were not something to avoid, but a welcome means of more fully serving God, and a potential opportunity to more fully disseminate appreciation of the concept of holiness among humanity.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!

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