20 Heshvan 5763
This week’s Torah portion is called Vayera. In the beginning of the portion, three angels come to Abraham right after he has circumcised himself. They tell Abraham that he and Sarah will have a child in a year. After the angels leave, God tells Abraham that he is about to destroy the city of Sodom because the people there are evil. Abraham argues on behalf of the people in the city, and God agrees that if he can find ten good people in the city, he will not destroy it. But the only good person found in Sodom is Lot, Abraham’s nephew. Lot is tipped off in advance and leaves Sodom in the morning, before the city is destroyed.
Next in the portion, Sarah gives birth to Isaac. In the portion before Vayera Sarah gave up hope that she would have a baby, so she told Abraham to have a child, Ishmael, with her hand maiden, Hagar. When Isaac is born, Ismael is in his teens. Sarah is afraid that Ismael will hurt Isaac out of jealousy. After all, if it weren’t for Isaac, Ishmael would be Abraham’s heir. So Sarah convinces Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael from their camp.
In the final part of Vayera, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Unlike in the case of Sodom, Abraham does not argue with God, and agrees right away. This sacrifice is called the Binding of Isaac, or the Aqeida.
When God commands Abraham to go sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22:2, God uses the words: “kakh na et binekha, et yehidekha, asher ahavta, et Yitshaq, ve-lekh lekha el erets ha-moriya – Please take your son, your only son, the one you love, Isaac, and go forth to the land of Moriya.” When I read this line, I realized that the words “lekh lekha — go forth,” are used in the Torah portion before Vayera as well. In that portion, in Genesis 12:1, God tells Abraham, “lekh lekha me-artsekha, u-mi-moladetekha, u-me-bet avikha, go forth from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house.”
As I found out from a sermon given by Rabbi Michael Whitman, these are the only two times that the phrase “lekh lekha” is used in the entire Torah.
I saw a connection between the two instances of lekh lekha: in both, there are lists of what exactly Abraham has to leave and give up. Both lists start with a broad thing to give up and then narrow it down: list number one — go from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house. List number two — take your son, your only son, the one you love, Isaac. This similarity led me to still others.
One of the first, and most obvious, comparisons between the two instances of lekh lekha was that in both, God is sending Abraham on a journey. In the first lekh lekha, God is starting Abraham off on his career as God’s prophet and messenger to people on earth. The first lekh lekha is the first time God speaks to Abraham directly.
In the second lekh lekha, Abraham has fulfilled most of what God said to him earlier. He has an heir and a wife, and he has left his land, birthplace and father’s house. The last time God speaks to Abraham directly is when he tells him to sacrifice his son.
Rabbi Whitman draws a conclusion about why these two commands are singled out and grouped together with the words lekh lekha. As said he in one of his sermons,
By the time of the Aqeida, Abraham had accomplished much. He was a great leader and warrior. He was spiritual, personable, and principled. And yet, after everything, it is as if he has not yet arrived. Lekh lekha — go, travel — is repeated. He must journey again. Because a religious person never arrives. A religious person is always on a pilgrimage. A religious person is, spiritually, never at rest.
Nehama Leibowitz notices that in each lekh lekha, God asks Abraham to forsake something. But in each instance, that something is different. In the first lekh lekha, God asks Abraham to forsake his past by asking him to leave everything he knows and has grown up with. In the second lekh lekha, God asks him to forsake his future by asking him to sacrifice his son and kill off the line of descendants God promised him.
Rabbi Yossi Lew drew from this that in both instances of lekh lekha, God is telling Abraham to do something that will not benefit Abraham, but he does it without question. This kind of sacrifice is called misirat nefesh, or true sacrifice. Whether it is good or bad that he followed blindly is a different question.
That question is what I drew my conclusion from. I drew this conclusion by looking at some differences between the two instances of lekh lekha.
In both cases of lekh lekha, Abraham is given blessings from God, but they are given at different times in each circumstance. In the first lekh lekha, Abraham’s blessings are given directly after the command “lekh lekha” is issued. In the second lekh lekha, the blessings are not given until Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac. At that point, an angel comes to Abraham and tells him not to sacrifice his son. The angel gives Abraham the blessings right after that.
I think that in the first lekh lekha, the blessings are encouragement. God really wants Abraham to follow that commandment. God really wants Abraham to leave, so he gives Abraham more reason to forsake his past and become God’s servant.
But in the second lekh lekha, I don’t think that God really wanted Abraham to follow that commandment and sacrifice his son. I think so because Abraham does not receive his blessings until he is about to actually stick his knife into Isaac. To me, this seems to say that God wanted Abraham to argue. But God had to give him some kind of reward, since Abraham did what he said.
The Torah says that in the second lekh lekha, God was testing Abraham. Most of the time, people interpret this to mean that God was testing Abraham to see if he would be faithful to God even when asked to do something crazy. If this is the case, Abraham passed the test with flying colors.
I also think that God was testing Abraham’s faith, but not in that way. I think that the commandment to sacrifice his son was an invitation from God for Abraham to argue. Abraham argued with God on behalf of an entire city earlier in this portion, so God wanted to see if he would argue on behalf of his own son.
It seems backwards that Abraham would argue on behalf of someone he was not close to, but not for someone very near and dear. I think that Abraham did not argue on behalf of Isaac because Abraham had so much at stake. After seeing what God did to Sodom when he was mad at it, Abraham did not want to mess with that anger. In the case of Sodom, nothing could really happen to Abraham if God got mad at him for arguing. But if God got angry about arguments over Abraham’s son, God might punish him by taking away someone else close to him. Losing Isaac would be bad enough, but losing his wife or other son, Ishmael, in addition would be even worse.
When Abraham did not argue, God would lose credibility if he did not reward his servant for following him. According to my interpretation, Abraham still passed God’s test, but his grade was more like a C instead of the A he got according to the other interpretation.
Not only are the blessings in each lekh lekha given at different times, but they also differ slightly in content. In the first lekh lekha, God promises Abraham good things for himself:
…I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you. I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you, and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.
In the second lekh lekha, God promises Abraham good things for his descendants:
…I will bestow my blessings upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the heavens and the sands on the seashore. And your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants….
But in both sets of blessings, similar things are promised, just for different people.
I think that if Abraham had passed God’s test in the second lekh lekha with an A or a B instead of a C, maybe the blessings would have been for him like in the first lekh lekha as well as for his descendants.
I would like to thank everyone for coming to celebrate with me today. I would especially like to thank everyone who helped me prepare for today.