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VAYERA: The Sermon I never Gave

11/12/2020 12:00:51 AM


Rabbi Jeffrey Myers

Permit me a moment to tell you an incredible story. A few days after the massacre, the FBI reached out to me. They needed to process Pervin Chapel, but did want to touch the ark and disrespect the Torot. So the Special Agent in Charge, Bob Jones, called me and asked me if I could come to the building and assist them, as they wanted to be respectful of the Torot. What an incredible gesture. I arrived with great trepidation, as I was terrified to enter Pervin Chapel for the first time since the massacre, even though I knew I was in the safe hands of the FBI. I will spare you the particulars of my time in the building that day, except that I offered before and after my gratitude to the men and women of the FBI for their care, their concern and their professionalism, as I think it was either 4 or 6 teams from around the country who processed the crime scene non-stop. Fast forward a bit to the moment that I was about to climb the bima steps. There, on the right hand side of the lip of the bima, where I always put it, was my D’var Torah. The papers were still in a neat pile. This is what I planned to say that day, and I humbly offer it in memory of our eleven martyrs.

“Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test.”  We all know this story very well. We read it not only as part of the annual cycle of Torah reading as the fourth reading of the year, but also on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.  Ostensibly this is supposed to be a test of faith – will Avraham follow God’s command and sacrifice his son?  “And Avraham picked up the knife to slay his son.  Then an angel of the Lord called to him from heaven: ‘Avraham! Avraham!’  And he answered, ‘Here I am.’ And he said, ‘Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him.  For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.’”  We then read a few verses later: “The angel of the Lord called to Avraham a second time from heaven, and said, ‘By Myself I swear, the Lord declares: Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your favored one, I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore…” This certainly seems like a magnanimous reward for divine faith.  Avraham passed the test.  Or did he?

In last week’s portion, Lech L’cha, God puts Avram into a deep sleep, and consummates a covenant with Avram, promising that Avram’s descendants will be as numerous as the stars. God also informs Avram that his descendants will be enslaved in Egypt for four hundred years. Yet Avram says nothing; he does not question God. Why didn’t he ask him anything about this future enslavement?

In the beginning of this week’s portion, Avraham is sitting outside his tent when three strangers approach.  He and Sarah model what hospitality is supposed to be, and we come to learn that the three strangers are angels, and that indeed one of them seems to be God in the form of an angel.  When told that God is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Avraham not only shows compassion for his fellow human beings, but chutzpah by challenging God and negotiating to find ten righteous human beings.  The prophet Jonah does not show compassion.  He runs away from God and responsibility, as he would rather have God destroy Nineveh than have them repent.  

Now here is what troubles me: If Avraham has the chutzpah to negotiate with God to save thousands of strangers, why doesn’t he show that same temerity when told that his descendants will be enslaved in Egypt for four hundred years, and now commanded to sacrifice his son?  Where is his outrage? Why does he not question God, but just follows orders?  Why is any test of faith necessary?  God knows what the end results will be, so why do this at all?  Why doesn’t Avraham respond with the following:

Avraham: I obediently followed your command to leave my home and go to a new land.  I have done all that you have asked of me. Sarah and I had given up hope that we might ever have a son when you chose to bless us with Isaac.  What reason could you have for commanding me to do this?

God: [Thunder. Lightning. All sorts of special effects.] Who are you to question me?  I am God!

Avraham: Well, it’s just that, you permitted me to question the fate of all of the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah, and even negotiated what I think is a very fair settlement, and there were no special effects.  When I ask you about this, you get all huffy.

God: Do as you have been commanded.  

After this test, we read “Avraham returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beersheba; and Avraham stayed in Beersheba.” What happened to Isaac? I suggest that Isaac ran away from home, terrified and scarred from this watershed moment.  Where might he have gone?  When Avraham buries Sarah at the cave of the Machpelah, Isaac is not mentioned, so we can assume that he is not present. We meet up with Isaac several chapters later when Avraham’s servant has brought back Rebecca as his bride, and the text tells us that Isaac was settled in the vicinity of Beer-lahai-roi, not Beersheba where Avraham lives. This is the same place where Hagar, Ishmael’s mother fled after Sarah chased her out of the family encampment. Perhaps Isaac moved in with his brother? 

What happened to Sarah?  The next chapter in the Torah is Chayei Sarah, where we read that Sarah died.  And the text reads that “Avraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.” I suggest to you that this event was so catastrophic that it killed Sarah.  Also note that only Avraham mourns, for, as I suggested, Isaac is not there.

While the Torah, and the vast majority of commentators I might add, go out of their way to praise Avraham, I cannot do so here.  To me, Avraham did not pass the test. He failed, and as a result, Sarah died and he and Isaac became estranged.  I know what you are thinking: Rabbi, this is heretical.  Aren’t you questioning God?  In short, yes I am.  I don’t know why God chose this test.  I don’t know why God found it necessary to do any testing.  Again, the sages of old have struggled with this text, and strive to put God and Avraham in the best possible light.  Absent Divine inspiration, I do not know if I will ever find satisfactory answers to my questions.

Perhaps that is part of what being alive is about.  We at the Tree of Life have faced not one, but two difficult, challenging times in our lives, where we do not understand why something is happening.  I firmly believe that God is not the One testing us like He did Avraham, pushing buttons in some Divine control room. We turn to God for support and answers.  Answers might not be forthcoming, but that does not mean that God is not there.  If you have ever utilized a search engine, you know that you have to enter the information just right to find the answer.  It might not be that there are no answers, but that we are asking the wrong questions.  That is what our journey called life is about – seeking answers to big questions.  May each of us be Divinely inspired to ask the right questions, and may the Holy One guide us to answers in this sacred journey called life.

May the memory of our eleven martyrs always be for a blessing. 

Wed, February 24 2021 12 Adar 5781