The Parasha of Vayera
Shabbat Shalom. Thank you all for being here today and sharing this wonderful occasion with me.
The Parasha of Vayera tells three of the most famous stories in Jewish tradition: the story of how Abraham and Sarah struggle for a child before giving birth to Isaac, the story of the binding of Isaac, and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Not only is each of these stories iconic in its own right, but they are three of the most ethically complex stories in the Jewish tradition, posing questions that are not easy to understand or to answer.
Sarah allows Abraham to use Hagar, her Egyptian maid, as a concubine, with the promise that if Hagar gives birth, then she and Abraham will bring the child up as their own. Hagar has a child, and Abraham names the baby “Ishmael,” or “God Hears” in Hebrew.
A few years later, when Ishmael has grown to a young boy, the angels come and tell Abraham that he will have another son, this time with Sarah. Sarah laughs at the news that she will have a child, when she is far too old to be able to conceive, but she does indeed give birth to a son. They name him “Isaac,” meaning “he will laugh” in Hebrew.
Sarah develops an antipathy towards Ishmael, not simply because he is not her son, but also because she catches him on multiple occasions mocking Isaac. Sarah tells Abraham to “Cast away this bondwoman and her son, because he shall not inherit with my son Isaac.” Abraham is reluctant to do so, as Ishmael is his own son after all. He believes that his wife is over-reacting, but God insists that even if Ishmael is sent away, he will still become the father of a great nation.
In the fifth aliyah, Abraham wakes up early one morning, gives Hagar some bread and water, then sends her and her son off into the desert, just as God and Sarah had insisted. Naturally, their water runs out quickly, and they are left in the dry heat of the sun, thirsty and hungry. They wander around the open desert until they spot a tall bush. Hagar puts her son in its shade to escape the beating sun. At this point, an angel comes down and says to Hagar not to be afraid; Ishmael will become the father of a great nation no matter what. The angel tells her to open her eyes, and she sees a well. She fills up her gourd and gives it to her son. It is said that Ishmael became of the founders of the Arab nation. He truly was, just as God had promised, the father of a great nation.
In the seventh aliyah, which is told at greater length, Abraham is told by God to take Isaac to the top of a mountain, and sacrifice him as a burnt offering. Abraham obeys without hesitation, and takes with him wood, kindling to make a fire, a knife, and of course his son Isaac. The two of them walk up to the top of the mountain, and Abraham builds an altar and binds Isaac to it. Just as he is bringing his knife to his son’s throat, an angel calls to him. “Stop! Stop!” The angel cries. “God has put your faith in him to the ultimate test, and you have indeed shown that you are willing to sacrifice your own son in obedience to God.” Immediately after, Abraham spots a ram behind him caught in a thicket. He takes it, places it on the altar, and proceeds to sacrifice it instead of his son. It is clear that God despises human sacrifice, which was common among the people of the time, but the sacrifice of animals is acceptable.
And God tells Abraham that Isaac will become the father of a great nation, and through him all the nations of the Earth will be blessed. Years later, when Abraham dies, Ishmael and Isaac are reunited at his burial in a fond and brotherly fashion, despite their rivalry.
This brings me to the first theme in this Parasha: tolerance, or “Souvlanout” in Hebrew.
Abraham showed tolerance by allowing Hagar to stay in his household, despite that fact that she mocked Sarah. Isaac was tolerant towards Ishmael making fun of him. Sarah, however, wasn’t. On the contrary, she retaliated, by demanding that Abraham cast Hagar and Ishmael out of their household. The parasha suggests that Sarah’s instinct was right; perhaps if they had not left, Abraham’s family would have fallen apart. This goes to show that there is no rule whether to tolerate or to react. The question is always: what is the right decision in this particular situation: tolerance like Abraham and Isaac, or retaliation, like Sarah?
We can find many fine examples of tolerance in everyday life. For example, not so long ago the Paralympics took place in London, and they were the most hyped games ones since their creation in 1948. Where once disability was hidden away, today difference is celebrated and disabled people are celebrated for their achievements. All over the world we see the constant fight for equality of gender, race and religion. Not only must we try to be tolerant of difference, but we must also fight intolerance. For example, the charity that I am supporting for my bar mitzvah, the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC), here in Tel Aviv, The ARDC is a non-profit organization that helps political refugees, mostly from from sub-Saharan Africa, seek asylum in Israel. These people have been under violent attack in recent months here in Israel. They are consistently refused refugee status even though according to the UN Refugee Agency, 90% of those who cross the border into Israel are refugees according to international law. Far fewer people are granted refugee status in Israel than in any other Western democracy. Those who are refused live without legal status and rights. The ARDC helps them find jobs, education for their children, healthcare and psychological aid: fighting to make this corner of the world a more tolerant place.
However, as many feats of tolerance there are, there will be as many if not more of intolerance. Racial prejudice, sexism, and discrimination against the disabled are all examples of people being intolerant. People are afraid of the unknown and the different. Four hundred years ago Galileo was imprisoned for heresy for proving that the Earth revolved round the Sun and not the contrary. Think of Apartheid in South Africa. Look at the violence against African refugees in Israel. Think of the Palestinian people who suffer under the Israeli occupation.
The way that Isaac and Ishmael united at Abraham’s burial offers us a vision of how Jews and Arabs could, should, and we hope will one day live together in Israel, even if they are traditionally enemies. We surely all believe and hope that one day that will be possible.
The next theme is that of obedience. When Sarah asks for Hagar and Ishmael to be sent away, she is given an unappealing image to the reader. She has, after all, promised God to care for Ishmael as if he were her own son. How can she send him away into the desert to die of thirst and starvation?
Abraham listens to Sarah when she asked him to send Hagar and Ishmael into the desert. Then, later on, he accepts God’s demand that he sacrifice Isaac, his own son, solely to prove his faith in God. He seems to suffer from blind obedience. Sometimes, just doing what you are told is not the right thing to do.
We encounter blind obedience regularly in our day to day life. It is a somewhat natural instinct to have towards certain dilemmas. Think about it: when Abraham took Isaac all the way up to the top of the mountain, did Isaac really believe his father that they were going to sacrifice a ram? This was the first time that Abraham had dragged his son along to a burnt offering. Why didn’t young Isaac, as conspiratorial as children are, work out that this was more than a coincidence, and made a run for it? Surely with his nimble legs he could have outrun his hundred year old dad back down the side of the mountain. Well, he could have. But he didn’t. Unfortunately, he too was a victim of blind obedience. Abraham was unaware to the fact that God was testing him, and Isaac was too afraid to disobey his kind father. They were both completely oblivious to their certain fate, until God finally intervened; both to save a child’s life and a grown man’s guilty conscience.
But the real question is why did God set up this conundrum in the first place? Was this his idea of a game; playing around with people’s minds as if they were toys? In my opinion, he did this for the same reason that people commit crimes, or take drugs. Maybe God just got a little bored, up there sitting on a cloud, with nobody to talk to except his collection of little angels. But luckily he caught himself, just as Abraham was bringing his knife to Isaac’s throat. We even learn an important lesson from this story, and in the end, no harm was done. Except for a pretty awkward conversation around the dinner table later that evening.
This Parasha seems to give Sarah a bad image; she is depicted as stuck-up, selfish, and mean. However, after further reflection, you realize that in fact she isn’t as irrational as first thought. She was right to have revolted against both her husband and her maid. She didn’t want to grin and bear it, she did what felt instinctive to her: to stand up and fight.
Abraham, however, was the exact opposite. He did what he was told, without a second of hesitation. To the extent that he even considered killing his own son. And he is not given a particularly appealing image himself. He is depicted as a bully, even though the only thing he did wrong was doing what he was told. But as I said earlier, sometimes that’s not the right thing to do.
In this respect, Abraham and Sarah are complete opposites. Abraham is the goody two shoes; always doing what he is told without even thinking about it. Sarah, is the activist: constantly revolting to try to make things be the way she wants them to be. And then Isaac is just the innocent one in between, whom we don’t really know what is going through his head: whether he knows about his father’s intentions, and if he is aware of his older half-brother’s mocking.
A lot of Judaism revolves around obedience. Like why we give each other presents on Chanukah. Why would we celebrate the anniversary of an oil lamp lasting eight days? Light bulbs last months these days: you don’t see me rejoicing over it. And why can’t we eat fish without visible scales? What logic can possibly back up such a rule? What does it change in practice? Are scaly fish tastier? Are scale-less fish poisonous? Is it really just because the rabbis didn’t have strong enough glasses to see these microscopic scale?
To tell the truth, I still don’t know.
Such dilemmas aren’t just found in the Bible. These are the kinds of things we face in our lives every day. Think of Martin Luther King in the United States in the sixties, standing up for his rights and losing his life in his fight against injustice. And it’s not just the brave fighters for civil rights who need to think about these issues: For those of you who don’t know, I sail on the Seine every Saturday. To make a sailing analogy, it is a common situation on board a yacht that the skipper gives out an order, and the crew carries out that order without a second thought, even if it is a bad idea. Who is to blame when something goes wrong on the sea? The skipper or the crew? I think the purpose of this parasha is to remind us that throughout our lives we may face situations that require us to think, rather than just to behave in a certain, conformist way. Sometimes we need to be brave enough to disobey. We must have the insight not to tolerate intolerance. This can be hard, as Abraham and Isaac found out, but we owe it to our conscience as Jews and as human beings.
It’s been an amazing journey getting here all the way from France. We discovered that organizing everything from abroad is not necessarily the easy way out, and I think my mum and dad might have occasionally regretted the decision, but now that we are here, we can definitely say it was worth the sleepless nights.
I have a lot of people to thank. My papa Cyril has sat with me almost every morning as I adventured through my Parasha. I would like to thank my mum Natasha for her editorial eye and more than that for having organized this all, because if it wasn’t for her we wouldn’t all be here today.
My brothers Ido and Albie for always being there and never letting me forget it. Oma and Opa for their constant love, generosity and their dedication to their family and to their Jewish life. I am sorry that my other grandmother, Nanny, was not able to be here, and I remember with great love Pop, my grandfather, who passed away in 2006. He would have been overwhelmed with pride to see us all gathered here today.
I am immensely grateful to Rabbi Arbib and the Neve Schechter community for welcoming me and my family so warmly this weekend. I’m also grateful to our synagogue Neve Shalom in St Germain en Laye and Rabbi Floriane Chinsky for helping me prepare for today, particularly with her comments and ideas for my drasha.
Most of all, I want to thank you all for having made the journey to Tel Aviv to help make this day as special as it is – some of you just came from around the corner in Tel Aviv, or from up the road in Jerusalem, Meitar, Haifa or Modi’in, but rather a lot of you have come from London, Paris, Cracow, Rome. And Cacsipoon Daniel Vock has come all the way from New York. It really wouldn’t be the same without you all, and I am so grateful and glad to see you here.
Shabbat Shalom to all!
3 November 2012