The Binding of Isaac in this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, is often read as an isolated story. However, reading it in the context of Abraham’s relationship with God puts this episode in a new light.
Abraham, who argued and bargained when God condemned the sinners of Sodom and Gomorrah to death, is completely silent when God asks him to bring his son Isaac up to Mt. Moriah as a sacrifice. The silence is deafening. Why doesn’t Abraham protest?
When God first spoke to Abram (as he is called before Genesis 17:5), God promised that if Abram would leave his native land and follow God, that he would become “a great nation,” having many descendants. (Gen. 12:2) Then God promises, “To your offspring I will give this land.” (Gen. 12:7) More promises of descendants follow:
- “I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth.” (Gen.13:16)
- “’Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ And He added, ‘So shall your offspring be.’” (Gen. 15:5)
- “I make you the father of a multitude of nations.” (Gen. 17:5)
- “Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac, and I will maintain My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come.” (Gen. 17:19)
- “It is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued.” (Gen. 21:12).
God promises Abraham many descendants five times, and says twice that all these offspring will come through Isaac: seven promises.
God has presented Abraham with a splendid paradox: Either Isaac will die childless, which would mean that every promise that God has ever made to Abraham will not be kept, or Isaac will live and have children. Both conditions can’t be true.
We are told at the beginning of this incident that it is a test. The five promises of many descendants and the two statements that they will come through Isaac are not the only reassurances that God has given Abraham going into this test. When Abraham argued for sparing the lives of the righteous in Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham asks, “Shall the judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Gen. 18:25). Abraham is really asking two questions: First, what kind of God are you — a loving, merciful God, as I have come to know that you are, or is there a terrible, destructive side to you? Second, is there a benefit for being a good person in this world? Abraham receives the answer to both questions: When God agrees to spare Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of just 10 righteous men (Gen. 19:32), it demonstrates that God cares about and protects the righteous.
So far, God has kept every promise of prosperity, protection and offspring made to Abraham. He must have wondered whether the flow of blessings would continue.
Going into this great test, Abraham is almost sure that Isaac will live. However, there is that little bit of doubt, hence Abraham’s silence. There is a teaching in Judaism and in Hinduism that if you always speak the truth your word becomes law in the universe. (Isaiah 55:11; Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 2) The Chassidic Koznitzer Rebbe said that “if one is careful of what he says, making sure that none of his words are meaningless, ‘whatever comes from his mouth shall he do.’ (Num. 30:3) God will do as the person says. All blessings will be fulfilled and their words become like edicts to be implemented.” (Soul of the Torah, p. 304)
In other words, God enlists our partnership through our belief, words and actions. However anxious he may be, Abraham’s words reflect his faith in God. He says to his two servant boys, “stay here and we will return to you.” When Isaac asks his father, “Where is the sacrifice?” Abraham answers that God will provide the sacrifice. These words come true.
God enlists our partnership through our belief, words and actions.
Abraham follows God with perfect faith, but not with blind faith. It is a trust informed by the intimate relationship between them, developed over years. Abraham knew God and God knew Abraham, a relationship of intimacy and even love. We, too, are given more support than we know going into our tests. The midrash teaches that no one is given a test he cannot pass (Ex. Rabba 34:1), and further that the word for being tested (nisa) is related to the word flag (nes), flown high over a ship, teaching us that tests are meant to elevate us. (Gen. Rabba 55:6)
By giving Abraham this paradox, we learn that God helps us with every choice, arranging the circumstances, guiding us and enlisting our participation through prediction and prophecy, so that not only will we choose correctly, but that we will keep moving upward and forward, growing in goodness. Our tests are given with love and respect for us and our ability to choose growth. It was Abraham’s strong faith, informed by the seven promises, that allowed him to act with courage, trusting God and the goodness of life. The paradox he received had the power to strengthen his relationship with the Divine, his intuitive trust in God and his deep knowing that he would always be cared for and blessed.
Jill Hausman is the rabbi and cantor of the historic Actors’ Temple in Manhattan.
Friday, October 22, 2021
Cheshvan 16, 5782
Light candles at 5:47 p.m.
Saturday, October 23, 2021
Cheshvan 17, 5782
Torah Reading: Vayera: Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
Haftarah: Kings II 4:1-37
Shabbat ends 6:45 p.m.