Vayeira: Balancing Our Commitment With Our Compassion
When God created humanity, things didn’t go so well the first time. Or the second time. Or even the third time. From Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit to Cain killing his brother, Noah getting drunk and violated by his son to the Tower of Babel, every iteration of the relationship between God and humanity has been flawed in one way or another. So it was no small feat when, in last week’s portion, God chose to create a covenantal agreement with Abraham as the hand-picked favorite. From that moment forward, God proclaimed, Abraham would be the progenitor of God’s people, and God would look after Abraham’s family for all generations to come. If all of humanity wouldn’t play nicely by the rules that God set forward, then perhaps more specific terms could be set in order to encourage one family to adhere to God’s dictation.
Parashat Lech Lecha was the story of God choosing Abraham and Parashat Chayei Sarah is the story of Abraham’s legacy. But in between, in Vayeira we see the ways in which Abraham and God work on their partnership, work on creating the rules for how a human being is to serve God with reverence and dedication.
In the study of Mussar, Judaism’s process for mindfulness and meditation, there are many characteristics that must be cultivated in a thoughtfully engaged Jew. The most thoroughly embodied in this week’s portion is the characteristic of Z’rizut, translated as either alacrity or zeal. Throughout the portion, Abraham demonstrates not only a commitment to God’s law, but a willingness to jump at any opportunity to participate in holiness, even if that would wind up getting him into trouble.
At the beginning of the parashah, Abraham is sitting in front of his tent when strangers appear before him. Abraham is recovering from the self-performed circumcision, the physical sign of the covenant, and yet, despite what must have been considerable pain, he sprung forward, offering these visitors hospitality and kindness. No matter his own circumstances, Abraham demonstrates a willingness to put the needs of others ahead of his own, serving as a model for the kind of compassion and leadership that would become calling cards of Jewish tradition.
There is a common sentiment found in the scholarship of Jewish commentary and interpretation that says that the Biblical characters with whom God had strong relationships were already aware of Jewish law, even before they were formally written down. This thinking suggests that Abraham and Moses would have kept Kosher, even if that meant they were doing so before the laws of Kashruit were written down. The same could be said for tzittzit and kippot; the scholars wanted to validate their own understandings of the laws by retroactively imposing their views on the characters that helped to shape Jewish tradition. Whether or not this concept rings true (I would suggest it doesn’t), Abraham demonstrates in his enthusiastic welcoming of strangers that kindness and welcoming are Jewish values long before the Torah could give us any laws to instruct us, long before there was any kind of rule requiring it. If ever there was a depiction of the innate compassion of the Jewish people, it is in this section of the Torah.
But Abraham’s willingness to spring into action to serve a higher purpose is not a uniformly positive experience. As a matter of fact, it is only a few chapters later that we read about Akedat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac, in which God instructs Abraham to sacrifice his son to God, and Abraham doesn’t even blink. Not only does Abraham move forward with God’s request, but he makes no attempt to negotiate, no attempt to argue. In fact, he arises early in the morning in order to attack the task at hand with zeal and determination. It never occurred to him, it would seem from the telling of the story in the text, to suggest an alternative to God, or to beg God to reconsider. No, Abraham rises to the test God demands with the faith and obedience that had evaded humans in all the past iterations of the interactions between them and God.
As modern readers, Abraham’s two expressions of zealotry tell very different stories. In the first case, Abraham is putting the needs of others at the forefront of his expression of his calling as God’s chosen one. The blessing he has received is able to be given to others, and he rushes to do so without a thought given to his own needs. Yet, in the same portion, Abraham puts his relationship with God before the wellbeing of his son, risking the entire future of his empire because of a blind faith that God would take care of everything in the end. The fact that the ending works out ok, that God does, in fact, intervene does little to placate the concerns of those who look on with horror as the value of human life is so casually discarded by Abraham’s alacrity.
One of the hardest things about the study of Mussar is that it is very difficult to find a sense of balance. When studying Anavah (humility), for example, it is very difficult to find the right combination of confidence and humility. Too little humility and hubris can inflict you with endless suffering. Too much humility, though, and you would never have the confidence to move forward with your life in the world. Mussar, when practiced most thoughtfully, is found in the moments of balance, in being able to cultivate enough to make meaning in the world without going to extremes.
Abraham is, in many ways, the progenitor of our modern understandings of religious zealotry, for better and for worse. He is willing to put his covenant with God above all else, and is willing to risk any personal harm or loss if it means maintaining God’s favor. This is not a message that comes through nicely with the modern world. We know all too well what it looks like to have people take their faith in God to the extreme. Religious extremists behave badly with their own actions, believing that if they are faithful to God, God will save them from whatever fact or science may have threatened them in the first place. People put their faith in God more than they put their faith in one another, and the result can be both deadly and devastating.
Liberal Jews are then faced with a challenge: if we are to live in the modern world while engaging with our text in a meaningful way, we have to figure out what to do with texts that teach lessons that are difficult to internalize. It does us little good to throw away the Binding of Isaac simply because it is unsavory. It does even less good for us to layer excuses and interpretations that don’t further our understanding of what is actually written in the original document. At a certain point, we are forced to come to terms with the fact that the Torah always has something to teach us about the world in which we live, but sometimes that lesson is: here’s what you shouldn’t do. We don’t read the story of Abraham to learn about the perfect way of engaging with God. If that were the case, an angel of God wouldn’t have had to come down to correct Abraham’s behavior. There is a reason that we wind up receiving a negative commandment as a result of this story. This story is supposed to teach us that there ARE religions in the world that expect child sacrifice, and that we are never to be so committed to our relationship with God that we lose sight of the value of the human beings in our lives. Now, some of that we learn from the Torah directly. The story clearly depicts the notion that God doesn’t want the children of Abraham to behave in this way. Others are more subtle, are impacted by our time and distance. What do we do, for example, with the parts of the Torah that tell us how to behave with integrity when dealing with our slaves? (More on this to come when we get there) With today’s perspectives, it would be impossible to find anything redeeming about this. Having slaves is immoral in any form, let alone considering the way we treat them. But the Torah is a book that is also acutely aware of the community to which it is speaking. Too radical a departure from the everyday, and the text would be thrown away altogether (as it is too often today). But with incremental shifts, with pushes toward the better direction one step at a time, the Torah has the potential not only to change the paradigm in which the people find themselves, but create a world so beautiful it would be unrecognizable to future generations.
Abraham takes his relationship with God incredibly seriously. He is willing to go to enormous lengths to make sure he is the loyal servant God desires. And after the disasters that have been most previous relationships between humanity and God, it isn’t a surprise that this is a bit of a pendulum swing. But Abraham teaches us the power of both positive and negative role models. Abraham shows us what it means to give of our best selves, both to God and to other people, as well as teaching us what happens when we let our alacrity get us into trouble. In order to be thoughtfully engaged people of faith, we have to find a healthy space in the middle.