This week’s Torah portion is called Va’yerah, ‘And there appeared...’. It contains the stories in Genesis that follow Abraham’s change of name from ‘Avram’ – ‘High Father’, ‘Big Daddy’ – to ‘Avraham‘, ‘Father of multitudes’. They‘re the narratives (Genesis 18-22) that establish his status as foundational for the three monotheistic faiths. So who, or what, is Abraham? What is it that ‘appears’ to him, or with him, or in him, that makes him into a cornerstone of monotheistic tradition?
In these chapters – which are about ‘sight’ and ‘insight’, seeing and making something of what we see - there is, firstly, the hospitality, the openness to strangers: people appear, three strangers (chapter 18), and they are fed and sheltered. We see that generosity of spirit that seems a part of the archetypal mythology of the Middle East, a capacity to share and care that is ancient in origin and yet often seems so alien to the tribes of Britain today. Our pious politicians and their frenzied media masters are bound up in a sado-masochistic pact, the ongoing thrill of bondage to feeling pained and causing pain. They want to keep out the stranger from our shores - other Europeans, those from further afield, it doesn’t matter - the latest manifestation of this being the decision to cut off the funding to help rescue those desperate enough to cross the seas in crowded rickety unseaworthy boats, braving the journey away from imperilled living towards the shores of Europe, these promised lands of salvation and hope, our streets supposedly paved with golden opportunities and easy lives. Like the people of Sodom and Gemorrah, some of our political so-called ‘leaders’ and their media hound dogs enact the antithesis of Abrahamic hospitality: ‘Let the strangers drown, pour décourager les autres...’
Old man Abraham, an immigrant himself, knew what it was to be a stranger in a strange land. And he knew what it meant to raise his voice when destruction was imminent; he was pulled in two directions, for he knew that the evil of Sodom and Gemorrah was real - but he knew too that God’s monomaniacal thinking had to be resisted, like any totalitarianism; that the evil was not only in the cities, but also in thinking that you should condemn a whole group because of the wrongdoing of part of that group. So he starts to bargain God down: what if there are fifty innocent ones, 45, 40...?
For he recognises, and this is part of his greatness, he recognises that God is acting as a ruthless moral force that doesn’t see individuals but just sees the cause, the cause of ‘righteousness’ – and to hell, literally, metaphorically, with individuals, with the innocent who are to perish with the wicked. This ideology of moral righteousness has a deadly undercurrent and Abraham recognises it: from God’s certainty here in this text, to the Spanish Inquisition, to ISIS in Iraq and Syria is a straight line.
But Abraham is on the side of the individual who does not deserve to die alongside the guilty - though the innocent always die alongside the guilty. Abraham is the human voice of conscience that holds God to account: ‘you can’t do this, you can’t condemn the group, the whole city, if there are individuals in it who are innocent’. And God, from the midst of his ruthlessness, seems to concede that Abraham has a point, as if he’s prepared to learn from his creation, so he half agrees with Abraham’s compassion and sets up a test for Abraham: ‘how far will you go, how far will you bargain me down, how brave are you in your moral convictions?’ Almost as if God needs Abraham to teach him about compassion and justice.
So Abraham presses on: what if there are 30 innocent, 20, 10? And God is thinking : ‘How far dare you go? Are you going to get me to save the world for the sake of just one innocent human being? I will, of course, because you’re right - but do you have the courage to demand that I should care so much about life that I will spare this wicked world for the sake of one innocent man or woman or child? Dare you stake everything on the value of a single life?’ But Abraham fails – he fails to hold his nerve and defy God for the sake of the single human being.
So he saves his own family, and moves on, leaving destruction in his wake. And he journeys on, for this is what he does, move on , restlessly, never pausing too long to reflect on what he leaves behind. But as he moves on, with Sarah his wife, he is carrying the laughable knowledge that something extraordinary is still to happen, that a child will be born, when between them their time for bearing children is long over.
And as we read these chapters what appears to us is not history, but saga - a way of telling stories about how we got from there to here, from then to now; a way of telling stories which emphasises that continuity generation after generation is a marvel, a wonder: it makes no sense, there is no rational logic to it. We hear the storytellers spinning a tale in which the dramas of one family are the vehicle for the story of a whole people. Survival is a miracle. Sarah gives birth when she is too old to give birth. This is laughable. She calls the child Yitzchak, ‘The one who generates laughter’. And we laugh at the absurdity of this tale, we become accomplices in the saga, we laugh at the absurdity of the tale of how Isaac, ‘Laughing Boy’, enters our national story.
And then our laughter turns to tears as we see Abraham caught up in the all-too-recognisable, all-too-human drama of Sarah’s jealousy of the other woman who has already given birth: Hagar, the Egyptian, the outsider, who has to be pushed out of the family into the desert to die with her son, Ishmael , Abraham’s firstborn son and heir. Abraham is shown as having the compassion to care about what is happening (Genesis 21:11): he’s very upset, he doesn’t want to do it; but – another test he fails – he doesn’t have the courage to stand up against Sarah’s fears, and protectiveness, and jealousy, and vindictiveness. He doesn’t stand up against the injustice in the family. ‘Just do what she says’, he thinks, he hears – he thinks he hears – ‘it’ll all turn out for the best’. But how are we ever to know that it’ll turn out all right if we turn our backs on injustice? What kind of a model is this for a religious tradition to have in its veins?
Yet the story – in that rich, dense, poetic prose that the Bible uses for its most dramatic narratives - reveals that the God who had been waiting for Abraham to bargain him into a corner and plead for the city to be spared even if there was only one innocent creature there, that God who destroys the innocent along with the guilty, unsettling us as he does so, disturbing our wishes for a God who is consistently on the side of life and of justice - that God is also the one who does, after all, care about the individual. Hagar weeps over her abandoned child, she weeps about her own desperate situation, she weeps from the midst of her own solitary state of having been abandoned , and in that typical Biblical twist while we hear the woman’s cries and see her tears, ‘God heard the voice of the lad’ (21:17). As if the child is an extension of her. As if the two are one, even though she has left him a distance away, to die. She cries out, but it is the unspoken suffering that God hears. Again we are unsettled, nothing can be assumed about this God. We can’t second-guess the divine.
So God opens her eyes – and our eyes – and Hagar sees the well of water that has been there all the time but that in her misery she has not been able to see; and life is preserved. And we see a miracle too, an everyday miracle that is in front of our eyes: that compassion is a quality that transcends ethnicity, that divinity is not exclusively the preserve of one people, one nation, one religion, that God’s care for the individual woman and child, for each human being, transcends tribe and race. This lowly Egyptian handmaid is held in mind by God, is seen by God, is cared for and responded to for she – representing all outsiders – is precious, is of infinite worth from God’s point of view, if not from ours. The story makes all this appear in front of our eyes in this sedrah that is all about sight and insight.
And then ‘after these things’ (22:1), the final test. How to convey that God is on the side of life, not death? Set up the ultimate test, dramatise the queasy boundary between sanity and madness by ordering the execution of a child by his father – in the name of God - and see if humanity, Abraham, will see it through, or see through it. That’s the test. See if ideology, the ideology of obedience to the cause, trumps human feeling, compassion. Or whether Abraham can reach inside himself and find the deeper moral voice which puts the individual before the ideology. And it’s a close run thing.
Because Abraham goes all the way and prepares everything: the wood, the binding, the sacrificial space, the fire, all prepared with the cool, calm, logic of dedication to the cause, and the knife is raised to destroy the future because of an inability to see that God is testing him to find out if Abraham can think for himself, if he can utilise his own moral vision, his own conscience, his own humanity. ‘And Abraham lifted up his eyes and he saw, va’yahr...’ (22: 13). A moment of insight on which everything turned: God is on the side of life. Sacrifices may be necessary, but not sacrifices of people in the name of God.
Some might say that because Abraham even contemplated it, he failed the test. Maybe. But child sacrifice was the norm, it was the conventional, ideologically sound practice of the times, so why wouldn’t people think – even Abraham - that their God would reflect the status quo? that God was on the side of tradition, as it were? But in the end this isn’t a story about the transition from child sacrifice to a different kind of morality. After all, child sacrifice still goes on: when children are victims of perverse religious ideology, murdered because ‘the devil is in them’; although it doesn’t need religion for a parent to kill a child, it happens the world over. For the story dramatises the reality that destructiveness is in every human heart, whether we acknowledge it or not, and it is always touch and go whether it is going to gain the upper hand. So child sacrifice happens, literally. And it happens symbolically: in trafficking and sexual exploitation, and economic exploitation. It’s universal, still.
The ‘binding of Isaac’ is a defining moment in the life of Abraham and his family. The news killed Sarah, the midrash says, and it’s true that we never see her again. And it traumatised Isaac, who carries the melancholia of a survivor all his life. And it ends God’s relationship with Avraham Avinu. God never talks to Abraham again. Or Abraham to God. And the texts don’t tell us who turned their back on who. Is God satisfied now that the new faith is secure in this family’s hands – now that he’s put the first two patriarchs through the most harrowing experience of their lives? Or is he disgusted that Abraham almost did it, without complaint, without a murmur: murder in the name of God? So does God withdraw from Abraham, in satisfaction, or in disgust?
Or does Abraham withdraw from God ‘after this things’? Does he find the whole enterprise of trying to understand and follow the erratic moral vision of the Divine One just too much for his poor old soul? Or does he withdraw into his memories and start constructing his memoirs, rehearsing the journey he’s taken, polishing his stories for the generations to come, editing and fabricating, weaving new fictions out of the dramas of his life. “Abraham – Man of Faith”: catchy title, could make a best seller. Which indeed, for better and worse, it’s become.
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, November 8th, 2014]