Vayera: Beyond Grief’s Horizon

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayera

Good Morning! It’s cold outside in Providence, Rhode Island, but let
me begin this week’s Torah commentary by thanking all of you who
wrote, called, visited, and showed your support last week after my
father passed away- it’s cold outside, but your thoughts and prayers
truly warmed my heart at a difficult time. I will do my best to thank
people individually over the coming weeks, but for now, please know
that your words and actions were greatly appreciated.

This week’s parsha is Vaera, and it’s full of famous and not so
famous details about the adventures of our ancestors Avraham and
Sarah. The parsha begins with three mysterious visitors who announce
that Sarah will bear a child. She doesn’t believe them, but there are
more immediate matters to attend to: God announces the destruction of
Sdom, so Avraham argues to spare the innocent, and has to rescue his
nephew Lot from a wicked mob. Lot escapes, but the trauma of
witnessing the destruction leads to a disturbing story of incestuous

After some further difficulties with a neighboring king, trouble
brews at home; after Sarah does give birth to Yitzhak, she orders the
expulsion of Avraham’s other son, Yishmael, along with his mother,
the servant Hagar. Hagar and Yishmael are saved in the wilderness and
God promises that Yishmael too will become a great nation. The end of
the parsha is the “Akedah,” or “binding,” referring to the binding of
Yitzhak on the mountain where Avraham believes he his commanded to
offer his beloved son as a sacrifice. The angel intervenes, and
Avraham and his son come down the mountain in silence- in fact, it’s
not even clear that they come down the mountain together, or ever
speak again after those terrible events.

Countless sermons, articles, commentaries and explanations have been
offered on the subject of Avraham’s apparent willingness to sacrifice
his son; the story raises difficult issues of conscience and
theology. The story is so central to Jewish tradition that it serves
as a Torah reading on Rosh Hashana, making it more familiar to most
Jews than most other Torah narratives. Yet there are a few lines at
the end of the Akedah which receive much less attention than the more
dramatic images obedience and sacrifice. I refer to the short
genealogy at the end of Bereshit/ Genesis 22:

“And it came to pass after these matters, that it was told to
Abraham saying: ‘Behold Milcah, she also bore sons to Nahor your
brother. Uz, his first born, and Buz his brother, and Kemuel, the
father of Aram. And Kesed and Hazo and Pildash and Jidlaph, and
Bethuel. And Bethuel begot Rebecca.’ These eight did Milcah bear to
Nahor, Abraham’s brother.” (Bereshit 22:20-23)

These verses are usually understood as a transition between the era
of Avraham and the generation of Yitzhak, who will marry his cousin
Rivka (Rebecca.) Mentioning her is a way of bringing her into the
story as a new chapter begins.

This year, just two week’s after my father’s passing, I understood
these verses in a new way, and why they appear after such spiritually
intense narrative. Let’s put aside, for today, any of the hard
theological or moral questions around Avraham’s actions; instead,
let’s just take it at face value that something very painful happened
between a father and a son, so painful that it appears that their
relationship was forever disrupted. Of course, painful things happen
in families every day: death, disease, conflict, separations, and
disappointments. The potential for loss is the price we humans pay
for the possibility of love: it’s the spiritual equivalent of the
financial maxim that reward is proportional to risk.

What happened on that mountaintop brought both Avraham and Yitzhak
face to face with the fragility and imperfection of human existence;
these facts are not easy to confront. One response to pain is
despair; the other is to seek a greater perspective, to see that life
will bring loss, but loss is not all that life brings. This, to me,
is why the genealogy verses belong at the end of the Akedah: Avraham
is reminded that there is a wider view, that children are being born
and matches are being made and life continues to flourish beyond the
horizon of his grief.

A mourner who comes to synagogue every day to say kaddish meets other
mourners, and can draw strength from their fellowship along grief’s
journey. Yet the mourner will also see young people called as bnai
mitvzvah, baby namings and aufrufs, celebrations of new homes and
renewed lives. Over time, these happy occasions may seem less like a
mocking of life’s losses and more like an affirmation of life’s
irrepressible potential for abundance and celebration, which can
bring a true comfort if the heart is open and ready.

Avraham’s brother and his family aren’t major players in the Torah,
but their appearance at the end of the Akedah remind us of a crucial
spiritual principle: there is suffering, but suffering is not all
there is. There is loss, and there is renewed life; the wheel turns,
and hope is found again.

shabbat shalom,


PS: For those who may be interested, here is a link to my father’s
obituary, which first ran in the Washington Post but was picked up by
the Boston Globe and the Charlotte Observer. I was very pleased that
these papers gave a reasonably full, and readable, account of his
scientific achievements and work during the war. For some reason, you
can find it on the Boston Globe website by going to the “obituaries”
section but the link doesn’t work. The Washington Post link requires
registration but it’s free.

Scroll about halfway down the next page and you’ll find it- I
couldn’t get a direct link to work consistently but you can try
cutting and pasting the URL:

PPS- as usual, the Torah portion and haftarah can be read in
translation here:

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