B’reishit, Chapter 22: The Binding of Yitzhak

God commanded Avraham to sacrifice Yitzhak.  Avraham built an alter and bound his son upon it.  As he was about to slaughter his son, a voice called to Avraham and told him not to sacrifice Yitzhak.  A ram appeared, and Avraham sacrificed it instead.  Because of Avraham’s loyalty to God, God promises him that his descendants will be many and that they will inherit all the land.

Avraham carries out God’s command with no wavering, no qualms.  How could he just go and sacrifice his son?  Moreover, how can God command such a thing?

So many philosophers, thinkers, and commentators have written on this very question.  On the Hebrew 929 Tanakh B’yachad website, www.929.org.il, Rabbi Benny Lau suggests that the key word is nisa.  The first verse in this chapter is

….וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וְהָאֱלֹהִים נִסָּה אֶת אַבְרָהָם

And after all of these things, God tested (nisa) Avraham

The root of the Hebrew word used for “tested,” however, can also mean “raised.”  God raised Avraham.  He lifted him.  Child sacrifice was common and rampant in the ancient Near East, at the time of Avraham.  In order to start His new nation, God had to raise or lift its founding father from the surrounding culture, and He had to make him stand out.  Commanding him to sacrifice his son would have been considered a normal religious act; replacing Yitzhak with a ram was what made this different.  That’s what made Avraham and his God stand out in his land, and it’s that new ethos that made the Israelite religion and then Judaism become such an important foundation for world monotheism.

Rabbi Roy Feldman

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B’reishit, Chapter 22: The Binding of Yitzhak

B’reishit, Chapter 21: Isaac is Born

God remembered His promise to Sarah that she will have children, and a son was born to Sarah and Avraham who they named Yitzhak.  After eight days, Avraham circumcised his son.  As per Sarah, request, Avraham sent away Hagar and Ishmael.  When they ran out of water, God provided Hagar and Ishmael with a well and promised that Ishmael would too turn into a great nation.  Avraham then made a treaty with Avimelekh.  

Why would Sarah want to send Hagar and Ishmael away?  While many commentaries criticize Sarah’s action, they still suggest what might have driven Sarah to do it.  The Ramban turns our attention to the events preceding the act.  The day Yitzhak was weaned from being nursed, they made a great celebration for him.  At that point, Sarah noticed Hagar’s son laughing at Yitzhak.  Ishmael was mocking and ridiculing his brother Yitzhak, and that’s why Sarah wanted to send them away.  Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman elaborates on this point: as Avraham’s older son, Ishmael felt that he could patronize his younger brother and mock him so that Yitzhak would know that Ishmael is his superior.  This was not the way to begin a brotherly relationship.

Rabbi Roy Feldman

B’reishit, Chapter 21: Isaac is Born

B’reishit, Chapter 17-20: Avraham and Sarah

Chapter 17: God made a covenant with Avram.  He then changed Avram’s name to Avraham.  God further commanded that as a sign of the covenant, every male shall be circumcised on the eighth day of his life.  God changed Sarai’s name to Sarah and promised that she, too, will bear a child.  On that day, both Avraham and Ishmael were circumcised.

Chapter 18: As Avraham was sitting at his tent on a hot day in the desert, he saw three men.  He immediately offered them to wash up and gives them food to eat.  One of the men told Avraham that in one year, Sarah will have a child; Sarah overheared this and laughed since she was very old.  Then, God revealed to Avraham his plan to destroy the evil city of S’dom.  Avraham pleaded with God not to destory S’dom if there were even a few righteous men there; “Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked?”

Chapter 19: Two angels went to S’dom and warned Lot of what is about to happen.  Lot took his family out, and S’dom was destroyed by fire.  When Lot’s wife looked back at the city, she turned into a pillar of salt.  Lot and his two daughters then lived in a cave.  Since there were no men there, Lot’s daughters gave their father wine to drink and conceived from him.  One bore the father of the people of Mo’av and the other bore the father of the people of Ammon.

Chapter 20: Avraham and Sarah move to Gerar, and Avraham tells Sarah once again to pose as his sister.  Avimelekh took Sarah, and God came to him in a dream to tell him not to touch Sarah as she is a married woman.  When Avimelekh questioned Avraham’s actions, Avraham responded that he feared for his life.  Avimelekh gave Sarah back to Avraham along with animals, servants, silver, and land.

These chapters represent some of the more famous stories about Avraham.  What we can learn from them is so clear: the covenant with God, circumcision as an active sign of God’s covenant and belonging to His people, the important Jewish value of hospitality (hakhnasat or’chim) which Avraham expresses so greatly to his three guests, and arguing with God on behalf of the righteous people of S’dom.

The last of our chapters offers a difficult and strange story.  For the second time, Avraham tries to pass off his wife as his sister in order to save his own life (Sarah was so beautiful that surely the king would kill Avraham in order to take her).  What are we supposed to take from these stories?  The Ramban makes a fascinating comment in chapter 12, the first time Avraham passes his wife off as his sister:

Know that Abraham our father unintentionally committed a great sin by bringing his righteous wife to a stumbling-block of sin on account of his fear for his life.  He should have trusted that God would save him and his wife and all his belongings for God surely has the power to help and to save.  

For all of Avraham’s amazing qualities and good deeds, he can sometimes seem superhuman rather than an ideal that we ought to aspire to emulate.  It’s stories like these that show us that Avraham was indeed human; when he feared for his life, he also did drastic things as is human nature even though they might not be right.  It reminds us that Avraham was a great human being, but a human being, and someone from whom we can truly and realistically learn middot tovot, positive character traits.

Rabbi Roy Feldman

B’reishit, Chapter 17-20: Avraham and Sarah

B’reishit, Chapter 16: Hagar gives birth to Ishmael

Since she was not able to have children, Sarai suggested that Avram have a child with her maid, Hagar.  Hagar then showed a lack of respect to Sarai, who became angry.  Hagar fled.  An angel spoke to Hagar, telling her to return to Avram and Sarai, and that her “seed will multiply greatly” and that she will name her son Ishmael.  Hagar gave birth to her son and named him Ishmael.

The Torah records three statements made by the Angel to Hagar in three consecutive verses (9, 10, and 11).  Strangely, each of the three verses begins with the phrase

ויאמר לה מלאך ה’

And the angel of the Lord said unto her…

Why the verbosity?  Why not simply use the pronoun “he” in two of the verses (as in, “he said…”)?  Rashi suggests that there were three different angels and so that is why it says “and the angel of the Lord said…” three times.

An alternative answer, however, is that Hagar was in total shock and disbelief that an angel of God was speaking with her.  God spoke to Avram; who was she?  She was merely Sarai’s maid!  Why would God speak with her?  And so each time, with each utterance, she had to be reminded that “this is the angel of God speaking!” until she finally internalized it.  Do we recognize the voice of God when it calls upon us?

Rabbi Roy Feldman

B’reishit, Chapter 16: Hagar gives birth to Ishmael

B’reishit, Chapter 15: God’s Covenant with Avram

When God promised Avram that he will be rewarded, Avram responded that he has no children and therefore no one to inherit his reward.  God promised that his progeny will be as many as the stars in the sky.  Avram then asked for a sign from God that will prove that he will inherit the land.  God responds with the B’rit Bein HaB’tarim, the “Covenant of the Pieces,” as a sign that Avram’s descendants will first be enslaved in a foreign country for 400 years; after that, they will leave in peace and surely inherit the land.

Yesterday, we read a passage from the Talmud which asked a question from today’s chapter.  Why were Avraham’s descendants punished with those years of slavery?  One answer was that of Shmuel: Because Avraham asked for proof that his descendants will inherit the land.  Why such a harsh punishment for a slight lapse of faith?

I think the underlying idea behind Shmuel’s claim is that Avram wanted to know.  He wanted certainty.  Perhaps the punishment for this was God’s telling Avram about the future enslavement of his descendants.  God knows, God is certain, and He certainly knew about the future enslavement of Avram’s progeny.  He didn’t have to tell Avram.  But when Avram revealed that he wanted such God-like certainty about the future, God had to tell Avram something that must have troubled him; it was something he most certainly did not want to hear.  This was Avram’s punishment: some things are just not for us to know, and our future is just something about which we cannot be absolutely certain.

Rabbi Roy Feldman

B’reishit, Chapter 15: God’s Covenant with Avram

B’reishit, Chapter 14: The Battle of Siddim

Four powerful kings in Mesopotamia subdued the five kings of the Jordan plain and their people, taking the citizens of S’dom, among them Lot, captive.  Avram immediately gathered together a small army and defeated the four kings, freeing the captives.  Malki-Tzedek blessed Avram; the king of S’dom offered Avram the spoils of war, but Avram refused them.

The Talmud in Tractate Nedarim asks why it is that Avraham’s descendants were punished with 210 years of servitude in Egypt.  It offers three answers:

אמר רבי אבהו אמר רבי אלעזר מפני מה נענש אברהם אבינו ונשתעבדו בניו למצרים מאתים ועשר שנים מפני שעשה אנגרייא בת”ח שנאמר (בראשית יד) וירק את חניכיו ילידי ביתו ושמואל אמר מפני שהפריז על מדותיו של הקב”ה שנא’ (בראשית טו) במה אדע כי אירשנה ורבי יוחנן אמר שהפריש בני אדם מלהכנס תחת כנפי השכינה שנאמר (בראשית יד) תן לי הנפש והרכוש קח לך וירק את חניכיו ילידי ביתו

Abbahu said in R. Eleazar’s name:
Why was our Father Abraham punished and his children doomed to Egyptian servitude for two hundred and ten years?
Because he pressed scholars into his service, as it is written: He armed his dedicated servants born in his own house.
Samuel said: Because he went too far in testing the attributes [i.e., the promises] of the Lord, as it is written: [And he said, Lord God,] whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?
Johanan said: Because he prevented men from entering beneath the wings of the Shechinah, as it is written: [And the king of Sodom said it to Abraham,] Give me the persons, and take the goods to thyself.

Two of the three answers have to do with Avram’s actions in the war from our chapter.  One because he pressured those who were otherwise studying Torah to serve in his army, and the other because he missed an opportunity to get more followers for God (rather than releasing the captives, he ought to have released them on condition).  According to the rabbis, these are the reasons why our ancestors ended up as slaves in Egypt.  Certainly food for thought.

Rabbi Roy Feldman

B’reishit, Chapter 14: The Battle of Siddim

B’reishit, Chapter 13: Avram and Lot part ways

Avram, Sarai, and Lot returned from Egypt to the place where they had been before.  Since there is not enough space for both Avram and Lot and their belongings, and also there was a quarrel between Avram’s herdsmen and Lot’s, Avram informed Lot that they would have to part ways.  Lot chose the city of S’dom, so Avram went the other way and settled in Canaan.  God promises all the land to Avram and his descendants.

Ovadia HaGeir, or Obadiah the Proselyte, was a Catholic nobleman from either Italy or Normandy who converted to Judaism in 1102.  We know about him mostly from fragments of his manuscript found at the Cairo Geniza; interestingly, he wrote out the musical notation a number of medieval piyyutim (Jewish liturgical poems).

After converting, he sent Maimonides a question about how he should pray.  Many Jewish prayers refer to “our father Avraham,” or the “God of our forefathers.”  Should Obadiah use these phrases, or should he change them?  After all, Avraham was not one of his forefathers in a literal sense.

Maimonides replied that Obadiah could absolutely recite the blessings using the traditional formulations.  After all, he reasoned, Avraham brought under his wing so many new people and they certainly were not his children.  Therefore, anyone who chooses to convert becomes a full Jew, and it becomes as though Avraham was indeed one of their ancestors.  And so, they may even say, “You Who has given our ancestors the land;” Maimonides quotes a verse from our chapter in support of that:

 קוּם הִתְהַלֵּךְ בָּאָרֶץ, לְאָרְכָּהּ וּלְרָחְבָּהּ:  כִּי לְךָ, אֶתְּנֶנָּה.

Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for unto thee will I give it.’

Rabbi Roy Feldman

B’reishit, Chapter 13: Avram and Lot part ways