November 2018, Parshat Chayei Sarah

Dear friends,

A couple of weeks ago I promised to address a few really core topics in the Torah reading we are currently reading and so this week I am doing just that.

Put simply, Avraham is such a fantastic individual. He is a rationalist who demolishes, both physically and metaphorically, the superstitions of his day replacing them with an abstract idea of God who demands morality. He cares more about human need and suffering than correct etiquette when speaking to God. He fearlessly, and in the name of morality, challenges God in his decision to destroy the cities of Sodom and Amora. He feeds the hungry with extravagant feasts and he is fiercely loyal. He walks away from everything he knows to start life afresh with his newfound ideas about God and morality.

Yet this incredible individual also, with premeditation, nearly killed both his sons Yitzchak and Yishmael. How do we reconcile the humanitarian with the intended savagery?

I’ve written and spoken about some of this extensively so I’ll be brief. The common way it is learnt is that Avraham was so great in his devotion to God that he was even willing to sacrifice his son Yitzchak. The problem with that is manifold.

Firstly, we know that everyone in those days sacrificed their children to God, why is Avraham considered any more favourably than any contemporary savage?

Secondly, the Torah is replete with the prohibition in indulging the abomination of child and human sacrifice. How can Avraham be lauded for an act which the Torah explicitly mentions many times with the adjective of abomination?!

Thirdly, where was Avraham’s moral voice questioning God who demands such savagery in the way he did with the cities of Sodom and Amora?

Finally, what difference would there have been between Avraham and ISIS had he carried out the attack? They both seem to talk directly with God and seem to think He demands human blood!

And so, for me it is obvious that the moral of the story is more about the story of Avraham’s evolution than about his unquestioning blind obedience to God. The trial wasn’t would he do that for God, but rather, would he be evolved enough to hear the second voice of God telling him not to touch his son and rather kill the ram instead. Avraham is a hero because he listened to the second voice of God that saw such an act as the epitome of savagery, rather than the first.

So how then do we make sense of the story of Avraham banishing Hagar and Yishmael to the desert where they were facing certain death? This story is much harder to reconcile because he actually performs the act. True, there was a miracle and they were saved but it is a prudent Jewish value to not rely on miracles.

A clue lies in the fact that Avraham was clearly very hesitant. In fact, it required the voice of God to tell him to carry this very act when he resisted Sarah’s proposal.

Like the first voice with sacrificing Yitzchak the voice of God told him to listen to his wife because she’s always right. But this time he followed through rather than resisting in the final analysis because he hadn’t yet evolved to understand the intrinsic value and moral worth of the rights of children, wives, and other humans. He discovered that only in the following story where he nearly sacrificed his son Yitzchak.

If this is right then perhaps the story of banishing Hagar and Yishmael is one of the trials of Avraham that he in fact failed. Thankfully he stopped short of the more grotesque act of slitting his son’s throat which is why indeed we are writing about him 3,700 years later.

For some, this may be a hard pill to swallow and may raise questions: How could Avraham display such lack of care for his own son and wife? Isn’t he the heralded first Jew?! The truth is that he began a journey of the evolution of consciousness which today leads us to believe in human rights. But where and when he came from didn’t see things that way.

To think that in 2018 the prime minister of Australia had to make a national apology for the child sexual abuse, and its cover-ups that happened in our lifetime, highlights this very point. The fact is across so many religions and cultures, highlights that it is only a recent phenomenon that children have rights. Should Avraham behave in the way that he did in today’s age, he would most definitely be incarcerated. Putting your son and wife at such risk would be viewed as akin to murder.

The national apology then was not only a heart-warming expression of what we all feel but also a major step forward in the evolution of humankind.

Avraham then is still the most fascinating and praiseworthy individual. To make a contemporary analogy; Avraham is the son of Hamas who sees its evil and rejects it wholeheartedly rather than a savage of ISIS who listens to every voice of God.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shneur