Avraham and Sarah Swim Against the Stream

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat VaYera

The Akedah Actualized Avraham’s Potential

HaKtav VeHaKabbalah lingers over the word nisah in 22;1, a word I only saw translated “tested,” Hashem tested Avraham. R. Mecklenburg rejects the possibility (he cites “the commentators”), because Hashem knows the future [a mouthful; we usually assume people have freewill regardless).

Whatever his philosophical position on how to balance divine foreknowledge and freewill, the commentators he is following instead adopted the position I know as Ramban’s, the nisayon was for Avraham to actualize his potential. He was until then fully committed to Hashem to the point he would do whatever commanded, including sacrificing his son, but any of us, including Avraham, is still elevated by being so commanded and bringing potential to fruition.

A Lesson or an Example

Until now, he has been echoing others. He now adds, though, that the word nisah then cannot mean test. He first suggests a German translation, written in Hebrew letters, which I think means tempted, Hashem tempted Avraham, I think by assigning him a difficult task.

He spends more time on Bereshit Rabbah’s suggestion, Hashem raised Avraham like a flag, nisah coming from nes, Avraham’s remarkable act stands as a high bar/flag to other nations, who will all see it as a model to emulate. He then asserts, surprising in our faithless times, that after Hashem testified to this in the Torah, no one doubts the story, we all assume it really happened, as if we had seen it ourselves. Avraham thus becomes a model, of how to serve Hashem with all one’s heart and soul, a model for the world, not only for Jews.

The word nisah still niggles at him, because nes/flag has the root nasos (he says), where nisah comes from nasoh. He resolves the problem with the claim that heh as the third letter of a root means the word really has a two-letter root, similar and related to other words with those two letter roots. Nisah is basically the same as any words with an ns beginning. Especially because nes means a sign or symbol and nisah (if we switch the samech for a sin, but he does not seem to care) means to lift up, as we do with symbols.

 Hashem gave Avraham the chance to actualize his clear commitment, R. Mecklenburg reads the verse to say, in the process making him a model for all humanity, an example of full devotion to God.

Mockery and Laughter

When Sarah names her son, she says anyone who hears it yitzachak li, 21;6, a word R. Samson Raphael Hirsch thinks can refer to two types of laughter. Natural laughter wells up unbidden, hard to quell in the face of something funny. But the pi’el construction (which I think he thinks yitzachak also fits), signals a more ironic laughter, summoned to poke fun at the gap between what a person thought to do and actually accomplished.

He thinks Sarah hints at the disbelief she and Avraham faced from their neighbors, who found their temerity laughable, were cynically amused by the pair’s thought they could change the world, buck the tide of paganism, move the world to a monotheistic track.

For a long time, they were childless, with no hope of a future. Now, people would find equally risible their dreams for this newborn, their thought he would bear their world-changing aspirations. Yitzchak conveys how the world sees Jews now and until the end of days, the time when Tehillim 126;2 comes true, when yimalei sechok pinu, our mouths will fill with natural laughter, which rises up like our breath, and reflects only happiness.

And then, he will be Yischak, with a sin, as the mockery of Jews will turn into our happy laughter at God’s salvation. Bimherah be-yameinu, we must say at this troubled time, ve-yashmi’enu Hashem besorot tovot, we hope and pray Hashem sends us good news soon.

Avraham Doesn’t Feel Safe with Intellectual Morality

After the Sodom story, the Torah tells us Avraham went to Plishtim, where Sarah was again taken. This time, though, the king takes umbrage at the Patriarch’s subterfuge of saying Sarah was his sister, having put the king in a position to sin, and asks Avraham what made him do it. Avraham replies, 20;11, that he realized there was no fear of God in this place.

Malbim detects a profound point about law and morality. People might be sophisticated (he says they might be a philosoph gadol, a great philosopher), might set values, laws, and social norms, but if they are solely intellectual, they will be wiped away when temptation comes.

When that happens, the people’s intellect will join in murder or rape or whatever evil, says Malbim, because all that keeps people from such sins is fear.

[Before we continue with his comment, the recent Hamas atrocities, and the reaction of certain liberal circles, sadly point to a stark example of his idea.  I am also currently reading Jon Meacham’s excellent And There Was Light, where American slavery is another example of people of great intellect and learning making an ideal of the unjustifiable. And, of course, the Holocaust. When people want, they can justify almost anything.]

Morality Depends on Fear

Fear of God is the only answer, says Malbim [sadly, events suggests even that is not always enough, because God fearing people convince themselves God wants whatever they want]. When a person or people know God sees all, rewards and punishes accordingly, it grants the ability to resist temptation, as Mishlei 15;33 says, the fear of God is the discipline of wisdom. Malbim thinks Avraham was telling Avimelech his nation’s good character and just actions did not impress him, because it was not grounded on fear of God.

In a parenthesis, he adds such fear can only come with belief in hashgachah pratit, that God sees and knows all our actions; where people believe in the eternity of the world and the absolute laws of nature, they cannot come to the necessary kind of fear. And then, there is no trusting what they will do when they see a beautiful woman, whose husband is a barrier to their desires.

[It reminds me of a much-ballyhooed study of a few years ago, which found that ethics professors are no more moral than the rest of us. Malbim, 150 years ago, was pointing out our intellects do not rule us as much as we might think, and temptation can circumvent our well thought out positions, or bring us to change them, as I have seen happen too much these last years. Only fear of a God Who sees and knows helps, he hears Avraham say.]

It Was Poverty and Prospects

When the older daughter of Lot urges her sister to join her plan to have their father impregnate them, 19;32, R. David Zvi Hoffman rejects the possibility they thought the whole world had been destroyed (he seems to think it too ridiculous to consider). Nor could they have worried they would be ostracized for being remnants of a city so abhorrent that God destroyed it, because they were saved by God’s intervention.

So what would lead them to turn to their father for a sperm donor? R. Hoffman thinks it was their being far from other people, without significant possessions, no real hope of recovering their financial status, since their father was already old.

Desirous of children—not to save the world, he means, just because many men and women want to have children—seeing no other good options, they used immoral means, as true daughters of Sodom (R. Hoffman’s words). Worse, actually, because their need to inebriate their father suggests Lot would have objected had he been sober, meaning what they were doing wasn’t acceptable even in Sodom.

Another example of morality, here the impoverished morality of Sodom, yielding before a strong personal desire.

Avraham in our parsha becomes a symbol of service of God, in a world where he and his wife were laughingstocks for thinking they could show the world a different way, when that world thought its intellectual morality sufficed, for all that Sodom gives us a good example of where it was overwhelmed by people’s insistence on fulfilling their desires.

About Gidon Rothstein

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