Torah Portion: Vayera
Book of Genesis
October 30, 2015
What are the limits of self-sacrifice in the name of God? This is the gnawing question (the “elephant in the room”)when “God puts Abraham to the test” (Gen. 22:1) asking him to offer his son Isaac as a human sacrifice on the altar.
In a previous test of Abraham’s faith, God asks him to uproot his home, his family, and everything he is familiar with to blindly follow a path to a new land that he does not know. And Abraham obeys. After being asked to give up his past, now-with the request to sacrifice his son Isaac-Abraham is being asked to forgo his future! Where, in all these tests of faith is Sarah his wife, or expressed concern for the wellbeing of Isaac his son? Are they merely pawns in a greater cosmic drama? Faith in God, at what cost?
Rabbi Norman Cohen, former provost of Hebrew Union College, writes, “We are all like Abraham; so involved in our outside world-our careers, interests, and principles-that we do not or cannot see that it is our child, or spouse or parent that is bound on the altar. We are so adept at sacrificing that which is truly important to us on the altars we have erected that we may ask whether we are capable of hearing the cry of the angel before it’s too late.”
Pat Nixon, the wife of the late President Richard Nixon, is quoted as saying: “I have sacrificed everything in my life that I consider precious in order to advance the political career of my husband.” How sad it is to look back on one’s life and realize the people, places, and moments that now seem so important were sacrificed in the interest of career advancement or positions of principle.
The God I believe in-the God of Israel-is a God “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.” (Exo. 34:6) This is not a God who determines faith in relation to one’s willingness to sacrifice family. This is not a God who places one life above another. This is not a God of terror and violence, but of compassion and graciousness. When one takes the time to honor familial and social relationships, or the success and accomplishment of others, one honors God.
Lest we forget, in the end an angel of God prevented Abraham from carrying out the human sacrifice of his son. The message conveyed by this story four thousand years ago rings true today. God is not discovered in the actions of the dead martyr, but in the eyes of every living soul.
Rabbi Howard Siegel