Parashat Vayeira includes a lot of stories, each one having some negative or ambiguous aspect, even the birth of a long (really long) awaited son. I often avoid discussing the near-sacrifice of Isaac here, but I think I’ll stop dancing around it.
As Abraham recovers from his circumcision, three angels come by and he and Sarah are generous with their hospitality. The angels announce to Abraham that Sarah will bear a son, the second time he’s heard this. Note that Sarah is not told directly but overhears and laughs incredulously, then denies laughing.
Then it’s off to Sodom. God tells Abraham that it will be destroyed. Abraham gets God to agree to spare the city if there are even 10 righteous people in it. Of course, there aren’t. When two angels go to rescue Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family, the rules of hospitality (including not letting a mob attack your guests) are upheld in a bizarre reflection of Abraham’s experience. Yes, Lot protects his guests, but offers his two young virgin daughters to the mob in their place. It takes some convincing, but the angels manage to effect a rescue (except for Lot’s wife, who looks back and turns into a pillar of salt) when Sodom and nearby Gomorrah are destroyed. Lot’s daughters later get him drunk and seduce him; the resulting babies are the progenitors of Moab and Ammon.
After Abraham once more uses that “Sarah’s my sister” line, this time on Abimelech, Isaac is finally born, circumcised, and weaned. Later, Sarah declares she doesn’t want Ishmael around to “play” (not defined) with Isaac, nor be considered a co-heir. This is especially mean, since Sarah presented Hagar to Abraham to bear children in her name, the same way Rachel and Leah will give handmaids Bilhah and Zilpah to Jacob to bear legitimate heirs. But God sides with Sarah, so Abraham banishes Hagar and his beloved Ishmael to the wilderness. God speaks to Hagar once more, opens her eyes to a nearby spring and assures her that Ishmael will also father a great nation.
Sometimes, the most disturbing episodes in the Torah are especially terse; the Cain and Abel story takes only 15 verses. The near-sacrifice of Isaac, referred to as the Akedah (binding), is told in only 19 verses. God tells Abraham to take “your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac” and offer him as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah. When Abraham is about to kill his son is he stopped by an angel (not by God, who apparently never speaks with Abraham again), now that he has proven he fears God and has not withheld his son, his only son. (Note the missing “whom you love, Isaac.”) Abraham sacrifices a ram instead and returns, apparently alone, to the young men who had accompanied them, and they go on to Beer Sheva.
Why doesn’t Abraham question God’s command? Does he think there’s no point in bargaining as he had at Sodom? Does he see believe this is just another test of his faith? If so, does he pass it? Is he too stunned to do anything but obey? Is he relieved at not killing his son, angry the task had been given to him, or even despondent that he hadn’t been allowed to fully demonstrate his faith by killing Isaac?
In Sunday school, we are told that this story is intended to demonstrate that God does not want child sacrifice, a not uncommon practice in ancient times, even, apparently, in Israel. Shalom Spiegel, in The Last Trial, reads the Akedah as an attempt to connect the new, preferred norm of animal sacrifice, in place of human sacrifice, to a revered personage like Abraham, writing, “This was a daring innovation and was not at once accepted.”
But this is a story, not part of a legal code. There is no statement condemning human sacrifice in general. In fact, according to Judith Civan in Abraham’s Knife – The Mythology of the Deicide in Anti-Semitism, there are hints in the Bible (e.g., Jeremiah 19:5, Ezekiel 20:25-26, Micah 6:6-8, Lev. 18:21 and 20:4, Deut. 18:10) “that the outgrowing of child sacrifice was a long and a hard process.” Doubts lingered for centuries as to whether a ram was enough of a sacrifice. Commentaries over the centuries suggested that Abraham had indeed sacrificed Isaac and scattered his ashes on the altar, after which he was resurrected. In early Christian texts, such as the Epistles of Paul, Isaac is identified with Jesus. In the Epistle to the Hebrews in the Christian Bible, “Abraham reconciled the ideas that he would be the father of many nations even though he must kill Isaac, by having faith in resurrection.” (Devorah Schoenfeld, Akedah: How Jews and Christians Explained Abraham’s Faith)
Some commentaries suggest that Isaac did not return with Abraham because he was traumatized, so he spent two years in Paradise to recover, or two years studying monotheism with Shem. As Rabbi Samuel Z. Glaser notes in Biblical and Greek Ambivalence Towards Child Sacrifice, “Thus, the ambivalence inheres not only in the biblical text (redacted or not), but in the commentators who feel that even if Abraham did not actually kill his son, he severely damaged him in one way or another.” Still other ideas: Abraham had misunderstood God’s command (Midrash), or God’s mind was changed (Ibn Ezra, 12th c.), so Abraham’s hand was stayed.
As I noted here previously, the story was reinterpreted to suit times of persecution (ancient Roman, medieval Europe): “(A)s Rabbi Leonard A. Sharzer, MD (Associate Director for Bioethics of the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies, JTS) writes in Ultimate Values and the Akedah Story, some Talmudic commentators felt Abraham didn’t go far enough, since he did not actually sacrifice Isaac (Babylonian Talmud Gittin 57b). And medieval commentators were familiar with many examples of men who had slaughtered their families and themselves during the Crusades. ‘For Jews in the rabbinic period and the Middle Ages, ‘their sufferings and sacrifices exceeded by far everything endured by the original Akedah’s father and son.’ (Shalom Spiegel, The Last Trial, 21) They were sympathetic mainly to Abraham’s being thwarted from demonstrating his devotion to God.’”
The portion ends with news of the family of Abraham’s brother’s Nahor, including Rebecca, who will be chosen to be Isaac’s wife in next week’s considerably more peaceful Torah reading.
The teacher told the story about Lot leaving Sodom & Gomorrah before its destruction. He stressed how God to Lot to take his wife and flee out of the city. He pointed out that Lot’s wife became a pillar of salt. After the lesson he asked if anyone had a question. One child asked, “What happened to the flea?” ·
Two church attenders had just come from church and a sermon on Sodom and Gomorrah from Genesis. “You know, George, I always thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were man and wife.”
His friend replied, “I can believe you, because I thought the Epistles were the wives of the Apostles.”
A Different Take on the Akedah (excerpt)
[From “Without Feathers,” by Woody Allen, Random House, NY, 1975, p.24 of the hardback. I send the whole thing out occasionally, but the section below seems particularly appropriate somehow. IGP]
And so he took Isaac to a certain place and prepared to sacrifice him but at the last minute the Lord stayed Abraham’s hand and said, “How could thou doest such a thing?”
And Abraham said, “But thou said –
“Never mind what I said,” the Lord spake. “Doth thou listen to every crazy idea that comes thy way?”
And Abraham grew ashamed. “Er – not really…no.”
“I jokingly suggest thou sacrifice Isaac and thou immediately runs out to do it.”
And Abraham fell to his knees, “See, I never know when you’re kidding.”
And the Lord thundered, “No sense of humor. I can’t believe it.”
“But doth this not prove I love thee, that I was willing to donate mine only son on thy whim?”
And the Lord said, “It proves that some men will follow any order no matter how asinine as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice.”
And with that, the Lord bid Abraham get some rest and check with him tomorrow.
Top 25 List of Best Pregnancy Jokes Ever (selections)
By CorCell November 12, 2015
20. What is the most common pregnancy craving?
For men to be the ones who get pregnant.
15. What’s the oddest stage of pregnancy?
When people aren’t sure whether to congratulate you or buy you a gym membership.
12. How many days are there in a month?
Each month has an average of 30-31 days, except the last month of pregnancy, which has 1453.
3. And (what do I say) when they ask: “How much weight have you gained?”
“Enough to make your life pretty miserable when I sit on you.” (I used to threaten to sit on my husband when I was pregnant if he got snarky. IGP)
2. My wife’s pregnant and my doctor asked me if I had ever been present at a childbirth before.
I replied, “Yes, just once.” The doctor asked, “What was it like?” I said, “It was dark, then suddenly very light.”
Quotes about Guests
- Visits always give pleasure — if not the arrival, the departure. ~Portuguese Proverb
Santa Claus has the right idea: Visit people once a year. ~Victor Borge
- Mankind is divisible into two great classes: hosts and guests. ~Max Beerbohm
- Visitor’s footfalls are like medicine; they heal the sick. ~African Proverb
- We dare not trust our wit for making our house pleasant to our friend, so we buy ice cream. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson