Sunday, November 17, 2019

Dvar Torah – TDOR 2019 – Vayeira – Hayyei Sarah

Every year on November 20, Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) is commemorated globally to remember those transgender people lost the previous twelve months to violence. In the United States, the list has been larger this year than in any previous year records were kept. This list is available at

A close look at the murders on the list reveals that the majority of these people were African American women, killed in the South. The sad reality is that these murders often go unsolved. Because of this, we do not know the definitive motivations for these deaths.  But we can presume two causes: White Supremacy and Religious Extremism, both of which are on the rise in the US and globally in the current era.

I would like to focus on religious extremism from the standpoint of our Torah readings. Last Shabbat we read Parashat Vayeira, which coincidentally was my B’Mitzvah[1] parasha. It is also the source of the Torah readings for Rosh HaShanna, so the text is very familiar. To me, Sefer Bereshit, the Book of Genesis, is the most difficult book in Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, and this Parasha, this section, is the most difficult parasha

We find that God reveals to Abraham the plan to destroy Sodom and ‘Amorah. Abraham then bargains with God to save the cities, if only a few righteous people are found, starting at 50, and working his way down to ten. At one point he says to God, Hallila Lakh, it would be a desecration of Your Name, to do this.

Yet, in Parashat Lekh L’kha, read two weeks prior, and twice in Vayeira, when God tells Abraham to drive out Hagar and Ishmael, and when God tells Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, Abraham doesn’t argue with God, he doesn’t tell God this would be a desecration of the Divine Name. His response? He gets up early in the morning and eagerly does God’s bidding.

Further, Jewish tradition tells us that Abraham studied and followed ALL of Torah in the Academies of Shem and Eber.  I have a huge problem with this tradition. Surely if this were so, Abraham would have challenged God, saying, “Are You not going to prohibit child sacrifice? This would be a HUGE desecration of Your Holy Name!” But Abraham does not do this. He speedily and eagerly carries out God’s command.

One Midrash even states that Abraham actually DID kill Isaac. It was only through the resurrection of the dead, a theme repeated in last week’s Haftarah, or prophetic reading, that Isaac survived.
So, if we examine the outcome of the Aqeida, the binding of Isaac we see some startling results.  Our tradition teaches that Abraham passed this tenth and final Divine test, but did he really?

  • When Abraham goes back down the mountain afterwards, Isaac does not go with him
  • The Torah never records Isaac speaking to Abraham again.
  •   The Torah never records God speaking to Abraham again.
And moving into Parashat Hayyei Sarah, this Shabbat’s reading, we find that Sarah dies immediately after the Aqeida. In Rabbi Yishmael’s Barraita on homiletics we learn that adjacent sections of Biblical texts are thematically related. We can thus presume then that the Aqeida was the proximal cause of Sarah’s death.

Further, when we next encounter Isaac in the Parasha, in the fifth reading, he is found in B’er L’hai Ro’i. This is critical. This is where Hagar, his co-mother, and Ishmael, his half-brother live.  Presumably Isaac was so traumatized by the events of the Aqeida that he went to live with Hagar because he needed motherly comfort. The text states that when he married Rebecca he was comforted for the loss of his mother.

The Rambam, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, teaches in Hilchot De’ot, the Laws of Human Characteristics, Chapter 1 Law 4, that we are to take a middle of the road approach to all of our characteristics. We are not to deviate from that in any way in either direction, because to do so can lead to disaster. Those who follow this law are considered wise.

Only a few very righteous people are able to take extreme positions.  Note that while permission is given to deviate from this middle permission, that does not mean that it is required. The Rambam goes out of his way to emphasize how important the middle of the road position is.

We see elsewhere in Torah, such as in the case of taking the captive war bride, that permission is given because human nature is understood. This doesn’t mean it is encouraged, and in fact the Torah states that bad things will happen if one does this.

The same is true here. If one takes any extreme position, bad things will occur.  Such is the case with Abraham.  He took an extreme position in his relationship with God, and he lost everything that was important to him.

In Avot, the last book of the Talmud we are told to turn it and turn it because everything is in it. We cannot take Torah at face value, but rather we must challenge it deeply.  Such is the case here.  It is easy to take our tradition for granted. But when anyone takes religious traditions for granted, tragedies occur, be they the Aqeida or senseless killings by people who claim to be defending God’s honor.

We are obligated to save lives over all Torah commandments, so we must challenge the traditions and texts such as the Aqeida.

We pray for a time when we no longer need to mourn over the loss of anyone killed through Sinat Hinam, senseless hatred.

Shabbat shalom.

[1] Note that the term B’Mitzvah is a gender neutral replacement for Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah, coined by Rabbi Joshua Berkenwald of Congregation Sinai, San Jose CA.

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