Vayeira 5760 – Gilayon #106


Shabbat Shalom The weekly parsha commentary – parshat


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Parshat Vayera


Transforming the Burning Voice


Shalom Bahbut


The story of the binding of Isaac provides us with the opportunity to
grapple with one of the central issues facing modern society within both
the religious and society/political realms. G-d addresses Abraham in
this event on several occasions. The first time, at the beginning of the
test, it is written: "After these events, G-d tested Abraham and said to
him, 'Abraham', and Abraham said, 'Here I am.' 'Take your son, the only
one you love – Isaac – and go to the land of Moriah and bring him as a
burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you.' "

Here G-d suffices calling Abraham's name once because Abraham answered
immediately to G-d's demand to sacrifice his son. Much has been written
and said about Abraham's readiness to sacrifice his most valued
possession. Abraham is usually held in esteem for his willingness, but
this act can also be viewed as the readiness to follow instructions
without engaging any internal struggle. This course of action would not
distinguish Abraham from others in the society he lives in. That is,
upon hearing the first voice, when he immediately answered G-d's command,
Abraham did not demonstrate any exceptional courage, but rather conformed
to the ways of his time and environs. Upon the second calling, when an
angel of G-d addressed Abraham to stop him from slaughtering his son, it
is written: "G-d's angel called to him from heaven and said, 'Abraham,
Abraham,' and he said, 'Here I am.' 'Do not harm the boy. Do not do
anything to him. For now I know that you fear G-d and you have not
withheld your only son from Him." (Genesis 22:11-12)

Here the angel was obliged to call Abraham's name twice, for he
otherwise would have refused to listen to the angel. Abraham could not
believe that after the first command a second command would follow to
nullify the sacrifice of his son. Through a burning desire to obey G-d's
commandment, Abraham wanted to fully carry out His command and sacrifice
his son.

The Midrash makes the following comment about this event: "And he said,
Do not harm the boy, etc. Where was the knife? Three tears had fallen
from the ministering angels upon it and dissolved it. 'Then I will
strangle him,' he [Abraham] said to Him. 'Do not harm the boy,' was the
reply. 'I will bring forth a drop of blood from him,' he pleaded. 'Do
not do anything to him,' He answered, 'do not inflict any blemish on him.

For now I know – I have made it known to all – that you love Me and you
have not withheld, etc. And do not say, 'All ills that do not affect
one's own person are not ills,' for I value you as if I had asked you to
sacrifice yourself and you did not refuse. (Genesis Rabbah: 56:7)
According to the Midrash Rabbah, Abraham wanted to inflict some blemish
on his son. Abraham likely had difficulty accepting the second command
because he would place himself in conflict with contemporary mores, which
were in agreement with the first command. Abraham's greatness lie in his
openness to listen to the second voice.

Throughout the history of the Jewish people, the binding of Isaac has
become a prototype of the willingness to sacrifice for Kiddush Hashem.
Nevertheless, the message is still transmitted from the binding of Isaac
that no human being should be sacrificed for any purpose whatsoever for
all humans are created in G-d's image. G-d also cannot require the
sacrifice of life, even in the case of saving other human lives, or as
another religion teaches, to save all of humanity. Therefore, the fact
that the binding of Isaac does not conclude with the death of Isaac
demonstrates one of the basic teachings of Jewish philosophy, that the
end does not justify the means.

Today, throughout the world including Israel, the first voice is often
heeded to – which makes people zealous about the justness of their cause
and willing to wage war over religion, ideologies, and between
individuals and society. The inherent dangers do not need to be
elaborated on. History is filled with "ideological" wars and much
ensuing bloodshed, where each side believes that G-d is on their side.
Unfortunately, we as a people are not immune to this destructive
tendency.

It is more difficult to listen to the second voice calling for
compassionate understanding, a quality which places a positive value on
the building up of a humane society. The saving of our father Isaac is
opposed to the destruction involved in the taking of human life, even in
the case where it appears to be a commandment of G-d.
Just as Abraham struggled with idolatry that accompanies human sacrifice
even when it appears to be a commandment, modern humanity must struggle
with those forces pushing us to obey its destructive impulses. When we
are prepared to follow in Abraham's ways to save the "young boy", we will
succeed in realizing the words of G-d to Abraham:
"And Abraham will become a great and mighty nation, and through him all
the nations of the world will be blessed. I have known him so that he
will command his children and his household after him, and they will keep
G-d's ways, doing charity and justice…" (Genesis 18:18-19)
The time has come that the Jewish people everywhere rediscover its
original mission among the family of nations and will again teach to
listen to the second voice "to save the young boy."

Rabbi Shalom Bahbut, director of spiritual services in Italy, is a
lecturer in physics at the School of Medicine, University of Rome.

Translated by Evelyn Ophir