Vayera 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayera

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Continuing the story of Avraham and Sarah, our Torah portion this week opens with Avraham sitting in his tent, recovering from his circumcision, and being visited by 3 mysterious men, apparently messengers from God, who visit and tell Avraham and Sarah that Sarah will indeed bear a son. She doesn’t believe it, and laughs. God decides to warn Avraham that Sdom and Amorah, two sinful cities, will be destroyed. Avraham argues with God for the sake of the righteous ones in those cities, but there aren’t enough good people to save them. A crowd in Sdom tries to force Lot to turn over his guests; he escapes the destruction with his two daughters, who sleep with their father when they think the whole world is destroyed. Avraham and Sarah travel to Gerar and Sarah enters the house of the king there. Sarah does have a son, Yitzhak, and she expels Hagar and Yishmael when she thinks they threaten Yitzhak, but God saves them and makes them a promise that Yishmael too will be a great nation. Finally, Avraham hears the call from God to take Yitzhak and offer him as a sacrifice; at the last minute, Avraham’s hand is stopped by an angel, and a ram is offered instead.

And Avraham raised his eyes and saw- behold, a ram!- afterwards, caught in the bushes by its thorns; so Avraham went and took the ram and offered it up instead of his son.
(Genesis 22:13)


The story of the binding and (almost) sacrifice of Yitzhak is complex and troubling; one possible reading that the Torah seems to support is that God was testing Avraham’s faith, and when he passed by showing his willingness to sacrifice even his son for God, God gave him an alternative, the ram.

Pirke Avot [“Sayings of the Ancestors], a section of the Mishnah devoted to advice for ethical and reverent living, quotes a list of special, miraculous things that were created on the last day of Creation- i.e., things that can’t be explained in any normal or rational or scientific manner except that somehow God created these things as exceptions to the rules of nature and history. (Pirke Avot, 5:8). On this list of specially created things was “the ram for Avraham our father.”

Now, the rabbis who wrote the Mishna were intelligent people, and somehow I don’t think they were teaching only that this ram sat in the bushes caught by its horns for thousands of years just waiting for its moment to be sacrificed- though that in itself is a powerful metaphor for the patience and humility one might require if one is find one’s true purpose in life. (No, I’m not suggesting that one should sit around waiting to be sacrificed- this is only a metaphor!)

So let’s assume that the rabbis of the Mishna included this ram in their list of specially created objects because they didn’t know how else to explain it, and while they probably didn’t believe that an ordinary ram could survive under those circumstances, they were stuck with a difficult text to resolve and elucidate.

But what if the miracle weren’t in the ram, the miracle was in Avraham? Our verse says Avraham “lifted up his eyes,” and saw something that he hadn’t noticed before- a ram caught in the briars and thickets. Perhaps he was so focussed on his dreadful and apparently inescapable task that he couldn’t see what was there, right nearby, in plain sight. Avraham had to redirect not only his hand- away from his son- but also his perception- away from the idea that God really demanded such an awful sacrifice. In this reading of our verse, and of our midrash on it, the miracle is that Avraham is able to undergo a change of spiritual understanding just in time, and see alternatives just at the moment he is most “caught by the horns” in a horrible situation.

In this reading, the midrash from Pirke Avot isn’t so much about long-lived mountain sheep as it is about our own potential to grow in understanding and insight, finding miracles to be grateful for even under the direst circumstances. When the Mishna suggests that the ram was always there, the thought is completed by that part of the verse which says that Avraham “lifted up his eyes”- the ram was always there in the sense that God (I hope) never intended for Avraham to really kill Yitzhak, but the ability to see the ram- i.e., to perceive the better choice- can be understood as the deeper and yet more everyday kind of miracle.

Think of the dying person who finds peace in the faith that their loved ones will carry on his values; think of the addict who, after years of struggle, finds the strength to choose life; think of the workaholic who realizes that time with family is a truer treasure than overtime pay; think of the friendships and marriages that have been reconciled when both parties choose forgiveness over pride and nursing the grudge; think of the person with juicy but destructive gossip just on the tip of their tongue, who yet refrains from the momentary pleasure of tearing somebody else down a little bit.

The ram is always there, if we will but lift up our eyes.

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