Saturday, November 11, 2006

DVAR TORAH: Vayera (Abraham's Dysfunctional Family)

Delivered before the VBS Library Minyan on 11/11/06
By Matt Rutta

This Torah Portion is jam-packed with important narrative. Among the events in Vayera:
-Abraham, having just circumcised himself, is visited by three men on an exceptionally hot day.
-Abraham plays through the pain and cooks them every mashgiach’s nightmare: How do you convince a frum guy that he’s breaking Kashrut?
Genesis 18:8: “He took curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared and set those before them and he waited on them under the tree as they ate”
-Sarah is told by the visitors that she will have a child. She laughs.
-Abraham denounces God’s plan to destroy Sodom & Gemorrah. A minyan becomes 10 decent people in a larger community of evil.
-Abraham’s relative, Lot, is visited by the angels. Shunning hospitality, the townsfolk demand Lot surrender his visitors. Lot offers his single daughters in lieu of his guests.
-God allows Lot and his family to escape before he destroys Sodom, but Mrs. Lot just HAD to look and turns to sodium chloride
-Thinking they are the last people alive, Lot’s daughters get their father drunk and unconscious and rape him to get themselves pregnant and propagate the species.
-Abraham plays the old Wife-Sister Switcheroo against King Avimelech for the second of three times the exact ploy happens in Genesis
-Sarah conceives, bears, and weans Isaac
-She expels her maid Hagar and her son Ishmael
-Hagar, who is too depressed to watch her son die of dehydration, is assured by God that everything will work out for the best and great things are in store for Ishmael. 2,500 years later, Muslims claim descendancy through Ishmael, but this is not written here.
-Last but certainly not least, arguably the most important and certainly most disturbing story in the book of Genesis, the Binding of Isaac

Abraham’s Dysfunctional Family

See the headlines: Land of Moriah, Canaan : Bearded Cult Radical Dodecacentigenarian ties middle-aged son to altar in attempted ritual murder. Son barely escapes with life. Wife dies from shock.

Up to this point there haven’t been any perfect “Cleaver” families in the Torah. Adam blames Eve for the Tree of Knowledge incident, Cain murders his brother Abel, Ham does something unspecified to a naked Noah, and midrashically Terach has a row with his 3-year-old son Abram after the latter decimates all of the statues in his idol shop. So Likewise, Isaac has his problems with his sons Jacob and Esau, Joseph isn’t exactly the favorite sibling of his other 11 brothers, Aaron and Miriam don’t exactly approve of Moses’ wife, Saul and Jonathan are at each others throats, and deceit, theft, and murder embroil the lives of David’s sons. So Abraham with all of these negative influences should hardly be expected to have a perfect family. Abraham may be the most righteous person who has ever lived in the first 20 generations of human existence, but he’s not about to be nominated for father of the year.

The Akeidah is not a very Jewish story. Child sacrifice is shunned in the Bible and is more comparable with Pagan Molech or Baal worship. Abraham is too submissive in this story. It would classically work in Islam but not in Judaism. Islam means “complete submission”; Yisrael, on the other hand, comes from a phrase meaning “he who struggles with God as with men and is victorious. The quintessential Jewish story is therefore that of Abraham’s response to Sodom and Gomorrah. God has finally found a worthy human representative in the world in Abraham and therefore notifies him of his plan to destroy the evil cities. Abraham uses very strong language to indicate that he doesn’t approve of God’s plan.

God and Abraham act as foils in these stories. I don’t make such a radical statement when I say that God is imperfect. The Lord is a developing and maturing God. Much like a new parent He is experiencing his creations and learning from them. God originally was exclusively known by his moniker of Elokim. A God sitting only in Judgment and showing no compassion. You got tricked by a snake? Too bad, you’re gonna die. He wipes out the entire earth because he’s fed up with human evil, but he learns from this that he has given humans certain freedoms that he had not given any of the other animals and with the free will which he has given to them, they might make mistakes, such as his perfect specimen Noah who ends up getting completely drunk and making a fool of himself. God resolves to no longer destroy the earth. Rather than these being design flaws, they are devices to make the world a little more interesting. From eating of the Tree of Knowledge, people are no longer utter slaves to a routine of ignorance that all other animals are consigned to and this take away some of the boredom and keep God on His non-anthropomorphic Toes.

Abraham needs to sort out his priorities. It had been three days since Abraham circumcised himself and according to midrash it was the hottest day in history as God had decided to unsheathe the sun to help Abraham convalesce. If it was too hot, Abraham would assume that no guests would be coming and would stay in bed to allow himself to heal. Yet Abraham played through the pain and when three guests showed up, Abraham opened up his tent to them. It is said that Abraham was the most hospitable man who ever lived. Whenever anyone came around he would offer them food and water free of charge, provided they bentch, and thank God -- one single monotheistic God as opposed to pagan ones they may have known – after their meal. If not, then they could pay huge bills. So Abraham apparently gained a lot of converts in his Bedouin tent. So when these three men arrived, Abraham treated them just as he would treat any other guest: Lavishly.

When God reveals to his new human representative that he’s going to destroy Sodom & Gomorrah, Abraham denounces God’s swift and severe Judgment. “God forbid… um… You forbid that the Judge of the earth does not act justly! We see revealed in Abraham the divine aspect of רחמים, of mercy and compassion, while God is stuck on smite-mode. Abraham ultimately fails at this endeavor, but he is the first to test God’s justice, a true grandfather of Israel.

Yes, Abraham was a mitzvah man and was party to Bikkur Cholim (Visiting the Sick), Hachnasat Orchim (Welcoming Guests), and Social Action way before it was hip… or incumbent… or even known to observe mitzvot.

However compassionate Abraham may be for the wicked people of the desert plain, including his estranged nephew Lot, he shows no compassion for his children. He is willing to expel Ishmael from his home and mechanically kill Isaac for the whim of God. Only through God’s intervening mercy for father and son does Abraham relent.

In last week’s episode of the Simpsons, the Golem of Prague – yes that golem – would execute anyone’s command if it was placed – in writing – into its mouth. Abraham is a golem, a cold monster of clay. God places into his head a command. Abraham! Abraham! Hineni! The monster is activated and does the will of its Creator.

I wonder the inflection of Abraham’s response to Isaac’s query “here is the wood and the knife, but where is the goat for the sacrifice?” Was there more to this conversation after Abraham cryptically said “God will provide” or was the filial dedication so strong that Isaac, like his father, remained silent? Do you really think that a young adult would not be able to overcome his father who is into his 120s? Isaac is not an idiot, he knew what was going on. When Abraham bound him to the altar he had to realize something was up. He didn’t do anything to stop his father. He was a gift from God and now God was going to take him away. Sure, if Isaac died, then the promise by God that the Chosen People from the Covenant of the Parts would be born through Isaac would not be fulfilled, but then again, God is the Ultimate Authority on everything. And now Abraham, who had scoffed at God’s valid reasons for destroying Sodom and Gomorrah stands silently with his innocent son who he is ordered to slay. How does he not find in this a perverse miscarriage of Justice for which he has every reason to call God on?

It is possible that Abraham, the very first Jew, may have been the source of many of the Jewish stereotypes through history. He’s argumentative against God’s perception of Justice. He likes to haggle in the case of the number of righteous people through which God would save Sodom. He’s tricky and misleading when he pretends that Sarah is his sister. And his children would probably need therapy due to abandonment issues and attempted filicide. On the positive side, Abraham is hospitable to guests and abundant with kindness. From his cisterns and his granaries he gives amply to both his friends and to strangers. All this when he himself is in a lot of pain. Likewise, we host guests in our houses for seven days when, God-forbid, someone dies. Abe’s a Jew through-and-through.
Mai Nafka Mina? What is the lesson we need to learn from Abraham’s story? It is so common a situation that people just don’t have time for their families. It used to be that every morning and every evening families would dine together, and talk. Nowadays people are so rush-rush and the world is so hectic that people don’t have the time to sit with their families.
The Talmud in Masechet Ketubot requires a certain amount of commitment to family. Every man has a responsibility to his wife and by extension to his family. Every leader in the bible was too busy saving the world to care for and have a relationship with his family. This is why Kollel Yeshivas would shut down once a month to force the scholars to go home and spend time with their spouse and family.
So my message to you is to not be too busy for your families. Sure, the people in the bible were great, what with fighting battles against enemies and against corruption within the Jewish people, but they are clearly imperfect with their family lives. At least sit down for a Shabbat dinner once a week, a day which God ordered us to cease from all of our toil and to be with our families. Do this and you can attain something that Abraham never did: Shalom Bayit, a home of peace.

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