Thursday, October 17, 2013

Vayera and Unreasonable Demands

Ask children what their least favorite statement to hear from their parents and they will probably say, “Because I said so.” And yet this is exactly what our patriarch Abraham hears.  This is all that he is offered.

In this week’s portion we read of the well-known command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. God says, “Take your son, your favored one, whom you love, Isaac and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” What does Abraham do? “So early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. He split the wood for the burnt offering, and he set out for the place of which God had told him.” (Genesis 22:2-3)

There is no discussion and no debate. We see only a willing and obedient response. Can you imagine a more unreasonable, and perhaps even irrational, command? Sacrifice your son. Sacrifice the son you and your wife have prayed and longed for throughout your many years. (Abraham is 100 and Sarah 90 when their son Isaac is born.) Abraham’s only response is: “Hineni—Here I am.” Sarah is silent. She is surprisingly absent from the story. Still, Abraham does not question?  He offers no debate?

The ancient rabbis imagine there was more discussion between God and Abraham. God says, “Take your son.” Abraham responds, “I have two sons.” God then says, “Your favored one.” Abraham retorts, “This one is favored by his mother Sarah and the other favored by his mother Hagar.” God says, “Whom you love” Abraham wonders aloud, “I love both Isaac and Ishmael.” And God then commands, “Isaac!” Now the meaning is clear. The intention is understood. The son through whom the promise of future generations of Jews is to be realized is to be taken and offered as a sacrifice. The debate is over. Abraham has no choice but to observe and follow God’s demand.

Soren Kierkegaard, the Protestant theologian and religious existentialist, sees in Abraham’s response a virtuous ideal. Abraham becomes in his eyes a “knight of faith,” a man who knowingly subsumes his own reason to the will of God. Because God says so becomes the basis of Kierkegaard’s theology.

I remain troubled by this interpretation. I cannot imagine standing silent in the face of such a command. I cannot imagine as well heeding such a demand even after a lengthy debate. Ask my parents. “Because I said so,” never motivated me. And it most certainly rarely, if ever, offered me a measure comfort.

One year, my very young, but attentive son Ari, asked me the following question as we were returning from services where we listened to the reading of the Akedah, “Abba is there anything that you love more than me?” I said, “There is nothing that I love more than you and Shira.” And the relentless questioner continued, “What about God?  Abba, you talk about God so much.  Don't you love God alot?” And I understood and said,“That does not change my love for you.” “But what if God asked you to... How do I know that you love me more than anything?” And then I said, “Because I said so.”

We continued silently, each alone with our own thoughts. And the Torah filled the silence, offering its soothing words about a father and son: “And the two of them walked on together.” (Genesis 22:8)

The root of the Hebrew, emunah—faith, means trust and security. In fact emunah is related to the word uman, craftsman. Why? It is because a craftsman is confident and secure in his or her skills and abilities. Thus faith suggests confidence and trust.

Kierkegaard remarked, “If anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according to the outcome, he would never begin. Even though the result may gladden the whole world, that cannot help the hero; for he knows the result only when the whole thing is over, and that is not how he became a hero, but by virtue of the fact that he began.” (Fear and Trembling) 

At a certain point, discussion, debate and dialogue, must conclude. Trust and confidence must take hold of our hearts. We must take that “leap of faith” and bound forward.

There are moments when “Because I said so” becomes reason enough.

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