Commentary on Parashat Vayera, Genesis 18:1 - 22:24
Continuing the story of Abraham and Sarah, our Torah portion this week opens with Abraham sitting in his tent, recovering from his circumcision, and being visited by three mysterious men, apparently messengers from God, who visit and tell Abraham and Sarah that Sarah will indeed bear a son. She doesn’t believe it, and laughs.
God decides to warn Abraham that Sodom and Gommorah, two sinful cities, will be destroyed. Abraham 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 Sodom 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.
Abraham and Sarah travel to Gerar and Sarah enters the house of the king there. Sarah does have a son, Isaac, and she expels Hagar and Ishmael when she thinks they threaten Isaac, but God saves them and makes them a promise that Ishmael too will be a great nation. Finally, Abraham hears the call from God to take Isaac and offer him as a sacrifice; at the last minute, Abraham’s hand is stopped by an angel, and a ram is offered instead.
And Abraham raised his eyes and saw–behold, a ram!–afterwards, caught in the bushes by its thorns; so Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up instead of his son.
The story of the binding and (almost) sacrifice of Isaac is complex and troubling; one possible reading that the Torah seems to support is that God was testing Abraham’s faith, and when he passed by showing his willingness to sacrifice even his son for God, God gave him an alternative, the ram.
Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Ancestors), a section of the Mishnah (rabbinic compilation of legal material) 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. (Pirkei Avot 5:8). On this list of specially created things was “the ram for Abraham our father.”
Now, the rabbis who wrote the Mishnah 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 Mishnah 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 Abraham? Our verse says Abraham “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 focused on his dreadful and apparently inescapable task that he couldn’t see what was there, right nearby, in plain sight.
Abraham 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 Abraham 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 Pirkei 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 that says that Abraham “lifted up his eyes”–the ram was always there in the sense that God (I hope) never intended for Abraham to really kill Isaac, 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.
Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.
Pronounced: ah-VOTE, Origin: Hebrew, fathers or parents, usually refering to the biblical Patriarchs.
Pronounced: MISH-nuh, Origin: Hebrew, code of Jewish law compiled in the first centuries of the Common Era. Together with the Gemara, it makes up the Talmud.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.