Parshat Vayera 2017
Today we read two examples of what we can call bad parenting, both of them committed by Avraham. The first one, which we often tend to overlook because it pertains to us only indirectly, is his treatment of Ishmael. Sarah was upset by the older boy’s influence on her own child, Yitzhak, and demanded that Hagar and Ishmael, mother and child, be banished from the household. This upset Avraham but God told him to listen to Sarah because his future as the father of a nation was invested in Yitzhak. So he sent them out into the wilderness.
We can say that he had no choice – under any circumstances not listening to your wife may be harmful to your health. And when God himself seconded her motion, well, the only thing Avraham could do was to pack them a picnic lunch and send them on their way!
The second case is, of course, the near-sacrifice of Yitzhak, one of the most seminal events in the early history of our religion.
Rabbi Ari Kahn, citing Rashi and other commentators, notes that the text does not say to sacrifice Yitzhak, it says to raise or elevate him as an olah, which is a type of sacrifice. But there is no mention of binding, or slaughtering the young man. After he has been elevated, he is then returned to the ground, safe and sound, albeit traumatized for the rest of his life.
But there’s another angle from which to view the story of Yitzhak. We have two incidents in the Bible in which famous figures are told that their child is going to die. A comparison how these two figures react raises some questions and also offers an avenue for explaining the obvious differences.
The first story is of Avraham. Adhering to the accepted interpretation, he is told to take his beloved son Yitzhak and sacrifice him. Without further ado, early the next morning he sets out to get the job done. Not a word of protest, not a single prayer asking to reverse this decree.
The second story is that of King David. He has had an affair with Bathsheba, she is pregnant, he arranges to have her husband Uriel sent to the front to be killed, and finally he realizes that he has sinned. The first of his many punishments is that the child Bathsheba is bearing will die.
David’s reaction is extreme. He lies on the ground, fasts, prays, begs, weeps and wails, trying through prayer to avert the evil decree. This is what you would expect a parent to do, especially one with such close ties to his God, as both David and Avraham had. And moreover, Avraham has shown his sensitivity to the suffering of others time and again. He fought for the souls of the wicked Sodom and Gomorra. He fought to save Lot who had been taken captive. He cares for people. He should have been trying to save Yitzhak’s life!
So how do we explain the different responses of Avraham and David? Elishai Ben-Yitzhak of Hebrew University explains that we have two different situations, one public, the other private. Avraham, we are told, was being tested. He had to behave as befits a representative of this new God. He could not publically refuse to do what God commanded him or try to influence God so that he would change the order. He had to accept.
David, on the other hand, was responding in the personal capacity of a father, not in his public position as king. In another case David’s response clashed with what was expected of a king because the personal and the public became enmeshed. When he learned of the death of his son Absalom, the man who had tried to usurp his position, he wailed, “Absalom, Absalom, would that I had died in your place.” This was a slap in the face to all the warriors who had endangered their lives for David’s success. They were worth less to him than the enemy, Absalom.
Let’s turn our attention back to Avraham. Can we see any indication that despite his seeming alacrity to fulfill his mission, Avraham nevertheless held some private hope for his son’s life? The answer is, of course, yes.
As Ben-Yitzhak points out, after three days of walking in silence, just before leaving his servants Avraham tells them: “The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you.” How could Avraham promise to return with Yitzhak, knowing that he was supposed to sacrifice him on the altar! From this we can infer that Avraham, as a private individual, believed and perhaps even prayed that when he returned to his servants he would come back with Yitzhak.
In other words, the two stories are told from different points of view. The Avraham narrative is part of the foundations on which our history is built. The David story, which occurs after the nation has become a viable entity, is narrated from the point of view of a private person (who happens to be king) who is faced with tragedy.
We saw what happens when public and private faces become intertwined, in David’s case. It happens in many political situation. Who’s to say where the private interest of President Trump end and the national interests begin? And it happens here too. Let’s take the case of a leader, the prime minister, who defends his wife, who nominally is not an official public figure. Which role is he playing? How are we supposed to perceive his actions? As a public figure, with its circumscribed restrictions and conventions, or as a private figure in which his personal grief, anguish and anger may be justifiably expressed?
We’re still trying to figure that out. One thing is sure. This is strong human interest material that will provide us with headlines and entertainment and anguish for some time to come.