Vayera: Abraham’s Final Test

Getting Untangled.
What can we learn from this troubling episode?

Table for Five: Vayera

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and he saw, and lo! there was a ram, [and] after [that] it was caught in a thicket by its horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.

-Gen. 22:13

Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon, Inspirational Speaker

Parshas Vayera contains the last of Abraham’s ten tests. The binding of Isaac, the Akeda, has many pedagogical life lessons for all of us, the progeny of Abraham.

We can learn one such lesson from two phrases in Vayera related to the Akeda – “lifted up his eyes” and “caught in a thicket.”

After embracing the final test of the Akeda, Chazal explain that Abraham “lifted up his eyes” as if to question the way the Akeda concluded. Abraham sought to draw a drop of blood from Isaac to publicize his belief in G-d. To this, the angel responds, “do not stretch forth your hand … nor do anything to him” to dispel the notion that proving one’s faith in G-d requires some tangible action.

Chazal point out that there is an important lesson being imparted by the fact that the ram was “caught in a thicket.” We, the descendants of Abraham, are destined to become entangled in our sins and caught up in troubles, but we will be redeemed through the horns of a ram. The centerpiece of the Rosh Hashana service is the sound of the shofar.

Since the central theme of Rosh Hashana is the recognition of G-d as the King of His World, it is through such acknowledgement – which does not have to be manifest through outward trappings – that we will be successful in breaking free of the troubles with which we are entangled. Profound and clear counsel as we begin a new year.

Rabbi Nicole Guzik, Sinai Temple

According to Bereishit Rabbah, this is not the first time the ram is caught in the thicket. Several times throughout the fateful day, the ram entangles itself in one set of branches, gets loose and finds itself ensnarled again. The ram becomes a representation of the numerous times the people of Israel will find herself in trouble, with the ram’s horn to serve as a future reminder of how we might “wake up” and free ourselves from our constant stumbling.

It is a personal lesson as well. While the ram is usually seen as the replaced sacrifice for Isaac, we are also given a model for teshuvah. We too entangle and ensnarl ourselves in missed opportunities, scenarios in which we wish we could loosen ourselves from the grips of mistake and regret. And yet, the shofar is made from the same materials as the trapped ram, the ram who falls right back into imprisonment. Our wake-up call cannot be external; our alarm clock must come from within.

Too often, we search for “answers” outside of ourselves. But the Torah offers a beautiful alternative. When faced with angst, sometimes the path forward is listening to our seemingly hidden voice: the heart yearning to be heard.

Michael Borkow, TV Writer, Friends, Malcolm in the Middle, Mom

There are certain things you lead with when you want to show someone the beauty of Judaism. Shabbat is a big one. The emphasis on community. Charity. But you know what you don’t mention? That God asked our founder to slaughter his son as a sacrifice and Abraham got up early in the morning to do it. Yet we’ll read that story this week, we’ll reread it on Rosh Hashanah, and the shofar is a reminder of it. So it seems we’re quite proud of the story. What gives?

I’d like to propose an explanation. The Sages call it “The Binding of Isaac,” using Isaac’s name, not Abraham’s. The midrash teaches us that Isaac (who was 37) asked to be bound so that he wouldn’t flinch and injure Abraham or injure himself, which would invalidate him as a sacrifice. So we see that Isaac responded to God’s command as enthusiastically as Abraham did. But Isaac didn’t hear it from God, he learned of it second hand, which allows doubt to creep in. And that makes Isaac’s accomplishment the greater one.

That’s our situation, too. God gave the Torah to Moses who gave it to us, yet we’re challenged to keep it with the confidence of someone who received it directly from God. And if we do – if we conquer our doubts – we can encounter the divine. Sounds hard but, hey, Isaac did it. He was like us and he pulled it off. No wonder we like to tell his story.

Hindi Kalmenson, Relationship Coach

Every parent agrees that their child is their life. A child represents our legacy, and therefore the very purpose of our existence. Avraham waits 99 years for this precious child and then is instructed to kill him.

Is Akeidas Yitzchak just about G-d bringing Avraham to the brink and back only to let him know that he passed the test, or is there something deeper for us to interpret from these passages?

The Baal HaTanya teaches that every Jew has two inclinations. One, he terms Animal Soul and the other, G-dly Soul. The Animal Soul is only concerned with itself and how to survive. The G-dly soul is altruistic and goal oriented. Both contend for the body’s attention to fulfill their own intent. What determines if the body succumbs to the desires of the Animal Soul or fulfills the purpose of the G-dly soul? The mind. If we contemplate G-d and His world, we align ourselves with purpose. If we avoid awareness of G-d, we strive to serve ourselves.

This passage not only portrays a powerful moment in Jewish history, it illustrates a father bequeathing a legacy for all posterity. Avraham enlightened us on how to approach every moment when he “lifted his eyes”. He immersed himself in a G-dly reality so that when faced with a challenge, he was able to sacrifice His animal to serve G-d. When we are faced with our own proverbial ram, Avraham informs us, lift your eyes, acquaint yourself with G-d, and choose purpose.

Rabbi Chaim Tureff, Rav Beit Sefer Pressman Academy and director of STARS Addiction Recovery

I still remember when I started teaching 20 years ago, a student asked me why G-d would ask Avraham to sacrifice his son. Like a great student, she rebuffed every answer I gave, and we continued a year-long dialogue on this subject. This pasuk is one of the answers, which was that G-d did not have Avraham sacrifice his son.

Avraham was given 10 tests. There are differences about what they were but everyone agrees that this was the 10th test. It is difficult to imagine a more arduous test. And yet at the same time, it worked out. Avraham obeyed G-d’s directive, followed through and, in turn, didn’t need to sacrifice his son. The commentaries note that Avraham knew that the ram was supposed to be sacrificed instead of his son because he didn’t see it beforehand and it appeared after the angel told him to stop.

So too in life we are sometimes pushed up against the proverbial wall. We are stuck in a situation and the current answer just seems so wrong. That is where the power of prayer can come in and guide us through those most difficult moments. We are taught that if we’re able to call out to G-d from our utmost depths, there will be guidance – not simplicity, and maybe not even the answer that we want.

Unlike G-d’s answer to Avraham, G-d’s answer to us might be something quite different than what we hope for, but sure enough there will be clarity, maybe even in the thickets.

With thanks to Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon, Rabbi Nicole Guzik, Michael Borkow, Hindi Kalmenson and Rabbi Chaim Tureff.

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