On the Weekly Torah Portion of Vayera

Abraham and Issac<br /><br /><br /> Rembrandt van Rijn, 1634This week’s weekly Torah portion, vayera (Genesis 18:1 – 22:24), continues to focus on the patriarch Abraham, whose epic life can be seen as a metaphor for the ideal spiritual path. It is in this week’s parashah that Abraham is undergoing the most demanding spiritual test that anyone can possibly undertake: the sacrifice of his son Isaac.

On the face of it, this is a cruel and inhuman story. There are few things more barbaric than human sacrifice, and one wonders why such a story is part of Abraham’s life. In his book, The Weekly Parashah in Human Language, Avraham Burg, a practicing orthodox Jew who served as a Speaker of the Knesset and Chairman of the Jewish Agency, writes: “It cannot be that Judaism, which is a religion of humans as much as it is a faith in God, would turn Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his sons into evidence for the right faith. If this is faith, it is not my faith. If this is success, I wish to fail. My children! Your life and your longevity, my beloved, are the very essence of my faith. For you the world was created and for you I wish to change it and repair it.” (Burg is talking about “sons” in the plural, because earlier in the parashah Abraham banishes his other son Ishmael, along with his mother, Hagar).

Burg believes that God was testing Abraham to see whether humanity has reached a level of maturity and individuation that would allow it to exercise independent critical thinking. He believes that Abraham’s blind obedience—in contradistinction to him arguing with God regarding God’s plan to destroy Sodom—is a major failure which disappoints God greatly. It was for this reason, writes Burg, that the instruction to spare Isaac was not communicated to Abraham directly by God but via an angel. In fact, no further communication between God and Abraham is mentioned from that moment on until Abraham’s death, an indication, according to some modern commentators, that God was unhappy with Abraham.

Such speculations, which have no support in the text or anywhere in older Jewish literature, may stem from an attempt to relate to scriptural stories as accurate accounts of the lives of historical figures. These stories may have never been intended as such: they may be more useful and immediately relevant when understood as metaphors for the challenges that we are confronted with as we endeavor to live the spiritual/religious life in earnest, here and now.

At the opening of the previous Torah portion, Abraham receives the instruction lekh lekha (לֶךְ לְךָ), i.e., go within and locate who you really are, beyond any false notions of self. In this week’s Torah portion the expression lekh lekha appears again, when Abraham is instructed to offer his son:

קַח נָא אֶת בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר אָהַבְתָּ אֶת יִצְחָק וְלֶךְ לְךָ אֶל אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם לְעֹלָה…
Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love,
and go [lekh lekha] to the land of Moriah
and offer him there as a burnt-offering… (Genesis 22:2)

Here again the word “go” is a translation of the Hebrew lekh lekha. But the difference between the two occurrences of the instruction is staggering. In the previous parashah, which can be said to be a metaphor for the initiation into the spiritual life, Abraham gets in touch with the incredible promise that such life holds:

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל אַבְרָם לֶךְ לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ: וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ וֶהְיֵה בְּרָכָה: וַאֲבָרְכָה מְבָרְכֶיךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ אָאֹר וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה:
Now Y-H-V-H said to Abram, ‘Go [lekh lekha] from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Genesis 12:1-3)

Indeed, when one embarks on the spiritual path, when one gets in touch with spirit for the first time, one is overwhelmed by the vistas that open up. Just like falling in love, one is sure that nothing can ever go wrong, and that “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil for you are with me.” (Psalm 23:4). It is then that one has the intoxicating realization that the state of inner bondage that one feels, the state of mitzrayim (the Hebrew name for Egypt, which literally means “duality of boundaries”) can come to an end and one is on one’s way to realizing a new freedom, metaphorically described as “a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Exodus 3:8). But the move from one reality to the next is not instantaneous. Before the promise gets fulfilled, one has to walk through the desert, which is neither the land of bondage nor yet the promised land.

How long will one have to stay in this nowhere land, in which one is no longer a slave but not yet free? Until all attachments are shed and one fully embraces the reality that one is already free. God’s call to Abraham to “sacrifice his son” is a call to let go of his deepest attachment on his road to complete freedom. This is a preamble to the story told in Exodus, where the people of Israel had to stay in the desert until the last adult coming out of Egypt, who was still tinted with notions of being a slave, passed away. Only those who are rid of any and all traces of attachment to the state of mitzrayim—those who realize that they are already free—can walk into the Holy Land.

The story of the almost-sacrifice of Isaac, known as the akeda (עקדה; literally “the binding”), is meant to demonstrate that Abraham’s center of gravity is not this world with all its trappings, but God and God alone. He is the embodiment of “For God alone my soul waits in silence” (אַךְ אֶל-אֱלֹהִים דּוּמִיָּה נַפְשִׁי –Psalm 62:2). He is truly free from any attachments to mitzrayim and is willing to go all the way when tested. It is for this reason that a few chapters later, when God speaks to Isaac, he refers to Abraham as avraham avdi (אברהם עבדי – Genesis 26:24), “Abraham my slave.”

* * *

Referring to Abraham as “God’s slave” may, at first glance, contradict what was said earlier, that by this act Abraham is demonstrating his complete freedom from mitzrayim. The concept of “God’s slave” (עבד ה’), which first appears as a description of Abraham, is later developed by the prophets. It is normally mistranslated as “God’s servant,” probably because the word servant sounds cleaner and more respectful. But eved literally means slave; a servant would be mesharet. And the use of eved is intentional, since a slave has nothing of his/her own. A slave’s clothes, body, spouse and children all belong to the master.

In ancient Israel, where slaves were still part of the culture and the economy, calling someone a slave was a great insult. It was the same in Arabic: calling someone an ‘abd (عبد), which means a slave and comes from the same root as the Hebrew eved, is a grave insult. But in both languages, to be a slave of God—eved adonai in Hebrew, abdallah (عبد الله) in Arabic—is the greatest honor. And in both languages, this word is also closely related to the word for worship. In other words, in both these Abrahamic religions, as well as in Christianity, worshipping is done through complete surrender, through relinquishing all attachment to anything else and fully aligning oneself with God and God alone. Abraham’s willingness to shed his attachment to his son—graphically described as being willing to sacrifice him—fulfills this ideal to the highest.

As the great 11th century Hebrew poet Yehudah Halevi wrote:

עַבְדֵי זְמָן עַבְדֵי עֲבָדִים הֵם –
עֶבֶד אֲדֹנָי הוּא לְבַד חָפְשִׁי:
עַל כֵּן בְבַקֵּשׁ כָּל-אֱנוֹשׁ חֶלְקוֹ
“חֶלְקִי אֲדֹנָי!” אָמְרָה נַפְשִׁי.
Slaves of time are slaves of slaves—
Only God’s slave is free:
Therefore, when each human asked for their share,
My soul said, “God is the share for me!”

* * *

The story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son at God’s command is found in both Christian and Muslim texts. It was mentioned by both Paul (“By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac.” – Hebrews 11:17) and James (“Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?” – James 2:21), as well as in the Qur’an (“[Abraham] said: O my dear son, I have seen in a dream that I must sacrifice thee. So look, what thinkest thou? He said: O my father! Do that which thou art commanded. Allah willing, thou shalt find me of the steadfast.” –Surah 37:101).

Jews and Christians are surprised to realize that Muslims believe that this son—whose name is not mentioned in the Qur’an—is Ishmael, rather than Isaac. Search the internet, and you will find learned discussions “proving” either that it was Isaac or that it was Ishmael, depending on who the writer is.

Again, if one ceases to look at scriptures—whether the Torah or the Qur’an—as historical accounts of events that happened in space and time but rather as metaphors for our own spiritual journey right now, the question of who is right is irrelevant. The really important issue is the example that Abraham set in his willingness to go all the way.

Copyright © 2014 Igal Harmelin-Moria
(Copyright does not pertain to illustrations)