May 25, 2018 |

Vayera follow up

Follow up to my Vayera d'var from last year

When Vayera came around again this year, I talked about my previous d'var with my Torah study group. The big question, for me, was: OK, if Abraham's error was to doubt G-d's justice, is this parasha telling us that G-d just wants blind obedience and/or faith? Just obey, just have faith, no matter how bad what G-d does seems?

A wise member of the group said: No, Micah tells us what G-d wants from us - "to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with Adonai." That "walk humbly with Adonai" part is what Vayera addresses, but the rest is equally vital. Other prophetic messages too.

How, then, do they fit together? How can trying to kill your own son be just or merciful? Well, consider that Vayera simply places in sharp relief the central question of religion, the question of theodicy, or "why bad things happen to good people." Just as in the Book of Job, Vayera makes us confront the fact that if G-d exists, all of the misery is in G-d's intent. It is G-d, not bad luck, that places Abraham on Mount Moriah with a knife to his son's throat - but it would also be G-d who put Isaac in the path of a bandit or army.

The Book of Job provides only a frustrating answer from the whirlwind: "Were you there"? Which always sounds like,"sit down and shut up." Though it's an honest answer, in the sense that it's the only one we have.

Fine, but the true answer of Vayera, and Job, is not just that we have to obey and have faith right up to the bitter end. G-d does not just talk, G-d acts. That action makes "were you there?" also a message of hope. Isaac IS saved, even though it seemed impossible. The boy in the haftorah DOES revive even though apparently dead.

It would be easy to imagine that the lesson is, "do anything horrible you think G-d asks." Our own common sense suffices to discount that answer. Too many people think G-d talked to them, who clearly were fooling themselves. If G-d seems to be directly telling us to do something against halakha, that's a good sign it ain't G-d. Perhaps that's why the haftorah shows an instance of pure grace, to show us that the point is not obedience and reward. Instead, the message must be, "never give up hope." And "have faith that even if your life is wrecked, somehow it will all be for the best in the end."

Note that, "the best," is not what we may think is the best. As Leibniz said, G-d makes the best of all possible worlds but even G-d cannot make a self-contradictory world and retain meaningful free will. I don't think we're being promised "it's all going to work out in Heaven," the Christian answer, either. There are real, permanent consequences of the Akedah. Sarah dies. Isaac and Abraham never speak again. Likewise, Job recovers but his children are still dead. But G-d in Tanakh tends to concern himself much more with nations and humanity as a whole than with individuals. So the promise is at least, "am Yisroel chai." And -- a point worth making while a hurricane born of global warming sweeps over the East Coast -- humanity will survive. At the very least, we have a fair chance, and even a second chance when we mess up. And like Abraham on Mount Moriah, even when G-d's test seems to have destroyed all we care about, keep doing the right thing, and have hope.

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Manny Jacobowitz

Joined: December 12, 2010

Manny and his two kids are members of Congregation Beth Shalom. He approaches Torah as an actor and lawyer, looking for character motivation.

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