Let’s all take a couple of breaths together. Let’s find a place of calm.
I know Shabbat is supposed to be a time of calm, the taste of Olam HaBa, the world to come, when the lion lies down with the lamb, the Israeli Jew and the Palestinian live as good neighbors.
But this Torah portion, Vayera, feels nearly impossible to talk about calmly. So I might not be so calm, just a heads up. How many of you have felt so calm since October 7? I find myself either in tears or on the verge of them more times a day than I’d like.
Vayera contains three stories tough stories— Sodom and Gomorrah, the story of Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael and the Akedah, the binding—sacrifice—of Isaac. This year, it feels like these stories are cutting viscerally into my very soul.
Sodom and Gomorrah: Abraham argues with God to prevent collective punishment on these two wicked cities: if there are 50 innocents, 40, 30, down to 5, the cities can be saved. Good for Abraham. God can’t find them.
Does that sound familiar— Hamas couldn’t find innocents among babies and Holocaust survivors?
And some people claim that the non-Hamas Palestinians aren’t innocent? Children aren’t innocent? Really?
Then there’s Sarah demanding that Hagar and Ishmael be sent out into the wilderness, ostensibly to die. Midrash has it that maybe Ishmael was doing something he shouldn’t to Isaac—maybe sexual, maybe bullying, maybe just teasing. But Sarah, who had offered her slave woman to Abraham to fulfill God’s promise, wanted them gone from the camp. God saves them, but…
Dan Rather asked in his recent Substack post, about the heartbreak unfolding in this land the Torah tells us God promised to Abraham: “Where do we begin? It’s a deceptively easy question to ask, but the choice one makes shapes everything that comes next.” He only went as far back as a few centuries ago.
I’m thinking we might have to start here in this Torah portion, to think about how we got to this place. The two mothers of the two sons of Abraham were at war with each other. While Hagar did not treat Sarah well, she was a slave, a person of no power in the family, while Sarah held some power. And Sarah is able to send Hagar and Ishmael away, because God told Abraham to listen to his wife. While it’s a win for women that God tells Abraham to heed his wife, did it really have to be in this instance?
And then there’s the Akedah, the near sacrifice of Abraham’s son, Isaac.
Did you know that the Qu’ran has a version of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son? Only it’s Ishmael, rather than Isaac. And in it, Ishmael is a willing participant, because following Allah’s will is so important in Islam.
Their interpretation has much to offer, because it identifies what might be called inconsistencies in the text and resolves them. They don’t buy the disinheriting of the first born within the traditions at that time and place. Given the number of times the Torah denies primogeniture to the first born, it’s not a convincing argument, but it is an understandable one. They also note the description of the son Abraham is to take as “your only son.” Isaac was never Abraham’s only son, while Ishmael was.
It’s a really tough text. We have volumes of commentary on this story, trying to find the spiritual lesson. And we have a midrash (Sanhedrin 89b, Genesis Rabbah and Rashi) that raises some of the inconsistencies the Qu’ran tries to resolve:
God pronounces, “Take your son.”
Abraham responds, “I have two sons.”
God replies, “Your only one.”
Abraham answers, “Each of them is the only child of their mother.”
God pushes, “The one you love.”
Abraham pushes back, “I love them both.”
And finally, God makes the choice crystal clear, “Isaac.”
I have loved this midrash, but this year, right now, this midrash is disturbing. We are talking about killing his child. WHAT GOD ASKS THAT OF A PARENT???
The best I can come up with this year is this—and it’s not great: That this is a text AGAINST child sacrifice. God stops it once Abraham has proven his submission.
BUT WHAT GOD ASKS THEIR FLOCK TO SACRIFICE THEIR OWN CHILDREN?
These three stories in this one parasha seem so true to what we are living through now.
And these competing narratives all have validity: both in the two competing stories of the Akedah and the ones we have been telling ourselves since 1948. Both Jews and Palestinians are what historian Benny Morris described as “Righteous Victims”. And both our narratives arise from fear—fear of destruction, of exile, of death, of misery, of powerlessness.
So what in God’s name are we supposed to do? You can try all the tips I share with people: breathing, meditation, being out in nature, taking news breaks, whatever can calm your nervous system.
I know that I don’t know what the right answer is, how to resolve this millennia old tragedy.
And maybe that’s the start. Maybe we have to realize that we don’t have the answer, and we have to keep asking questions. Maybe we need to listen to the Other—as long as we all acknowledge their humanity, as long as we can keep our hearts open. Don’t turn the other cheek, but listen to Hillel: don’t do to someone else what is hateful to us. And remember Rabbi Akiva’s favorite part of the Torah: Love the stranger, because we have been strangers.
As Valerie Kaur, the Sikh activist, teaches, “See no stranger. You are a part of me I do not yet know.”
She also taught that we don’t know if this darkness is the darkness of the tomb or the darkness of the womb. What if we come out of this horror with the possibility of a new beginning? What if, as Yuval Harari suggested, we become the Northern Ireland of the 2020s? Something no one saw coming, something that seemed impossible?
That’s my hope and prayer: that while the time is dark, so dark, that we are in the darkness of the womb, that soon we will awaken in a new world—Olam HaBa, and peace will be possible. That no one will ask anyone to sacrifice their children and no one will come after them. That we will be able to speak of new ways of being. It’s not impossible. Or maybe it’s just that impossible things happen every day.