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D'var Torah: Vayeira

Did God Take a Lunch Break?

This is a big parashah. In Vayeira we go from Abraham haggling with God about saving a city for the sake of five good men to nearly sacrificing his son on a mountain. The question we must ask here is: “why?” Why has Abraham lost his faith to the degree that he just blindly follows God’s orders? Now, I know that there can be a lot of different takes on this, and I don’t want to start a big argument right before kiddush, but I’ll tell you what I think anyway.

When reading through my parashah, one of the scenes that really stood out to me was the bit about Abimelech and the well. In fact, this one scene is why I wanted to read this parashah, simply because it shows the development of Abraham, going from someone who will speak out for his opinion, to just kind of trudging along.

The anecdote of Abimelech and the well starts with Abimelech saying to Abraham something along the lines of, “God is with you in everything that you do.” Now, if we look at everything that Abraham did, do we really think that that God’s wonderful presence is with him in all his actions? Looking back for a moment, we can see that Abraham’s record is not exactly squeaky clean…. A little while before meeting Abimelech, Abraham sent his oldest son Ishmael, along with Ishmael’s mother Hagar, out into the wilderness to die. Abraham submits to Sarah’s nagging on the issue of expelling Hagar and Ishmael because God tells him to respect his wife’s wishes. (“Happy wife, happy life.”) The importance here is not about what Sarah is saying; she could be asking for mashed potatoes for dinner, but the fact is that God is telling Abraham to listen to her and comply with her demands. In Hebrew, the word shema means to listen, but the word shema’bi means to obey. Just to clarify, shema’bi is the word used in my parashah, so there’s no hope of loop-holing for Abraham.

To obey this kind of command would be kind of like obeying my parents if they said, “Do whatever it takes to fit in with your friends.” This command from my parents parallels God’s telling Abraham to comply with Sarah’s demands. Now, let’s say that later in the day, my friends want to steal something, similar to Sarah asking Abraham to send Ishmael and Hagar out into the desert. Even though I know stealing is wrong, my parents have told me to do anything to fit in with my friends, so I go ahead and help my “buddies” steal whatever their hearts desire. And that’s just the first part… later in the day, let’s say someone of importance (like a teacher) comes up to me and says, “Gee, you know that your parents give you wonderful advice on pretty much everything?” That would be a pretty upsetting day for me. Now imagine that instead of having your parents give you the okay to steal something, it’s God giving you the go-ahead to send your firstborn son and his mother out to die. Yeah. Really bad day.

I think that this moment, when Abimelech tells Abraham what a good job he’s done, is where Abraham has his crisis of faith. Not after he’s sent his eldest son out to die, not when he’s up on the mountain about to kill Isaac, but when someone tells him that he’s done a rather good job of following God’s commands even if it means screwing up his life. Now, unfortunately for Abraham, the Flying Spaghetti Monster hadn’t been invented yet, so he has to keep up the outward appearance of believing in the righteousness of this God who told him to send out his son to die.

So after this big moment when Abimelech tells Abraham that God is with him in everything that he does, what happens? Abraham’s stress levels reach a maximum and he jabs back in a terrific example of biblical fed-upness. After Abimelech extends his hand in friendship, Abraham promptly tells him that he thinks that some of Abimelech’s shepherds have taken possession of one of his wells. Abraham then offers Abimelech seven ewes as proof that he has dug the well and that the well is rightfully his. This seems a little passive-aggressive to me, almost as if Abraham is saying, “Here, now I’ve paid you back even more then necessary, so that next time if you even think of sneezing at my well, you will have to remember that it is mine.” If the well was in fact Abraham’s, then why didn’t God step in and say so? Could the cause of Abraham’s sharp tongue be that he has lost all faith that God will be in his corner when he really needs it?

As you might imagine, this is a fairly large social blunder, blaming a king for something he knew nothing about, and then, to add insult to injury, being passive-aggressive about it. Why did God let his chief representative be so rude? Or, here’s an even better question: is God even present in this scene? My answer to the latter question is yes, but not in the way that you would think. I think that God is present here by not being present. He recognizes that he can’t guide Abraham through every aspect of his life and he also sees the damage that it caused Abraham the last time he intervened. So (and excuse me for this paradox), God is present by not being present and allowing Abraham to sort out his own troubles.

Unfortunately, this withdrawnness causes Abraham to doubt God even further. Perhaps this is the reason for his tired resignation when God requested the sacrifice of Isaac…. But God throws Abraham a lifeline, at the very end of my parashah, in my maftir, actually. This lifeline takes the shape of a single, rather small word having an intricate trope. This word is henay. This is God saying to Abraham, “Here is the child,” referring to children that have been born to Milcah, a relative of Abraham’s. God is giving Abraham a child, instead of taking one away.

Some people might look at Abraham in a demeaning light for his actions in my parashah, but I’d like to give him a word of defense. At the end of the day, we are all human, and Abraham is one of the human-est humans out there. He gets angry, sad, and demoralized. In some sense, there is a little bit of Abraham in all of us. How many times have you done a stupid assignment because your teacher or boss told you to? Have you ever snapped at someone after the end of a long day? (Sorry, mom.) In a way, Abraham is not only representing God, but the whole of the human race, so yes, he is very, very human.

—Hannah Ellefson-Frank
November 2012

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