Parasha VaYera: Yes, life is unfair

The Torah portion this week is marked by the awe-inspiring story of the akeda, the near-sacrifice of Isaac.

parsha vayera 88 (photo credit: )
parsha vayera 88
(photo credit: )
"Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, even Isaac... and get you into the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt offering..." (Genesis 22:2) The Torah portion this week is marked by the awe-inspiring story of the akeda, the near-sacrifice of Isaac. It is fascinating, however, that the conclusion of the account - and the conclusion of the portion - seems almost mocking; "It came to pass after these things that Abraham was told saying: behold, Milcah too has borne children to Nahor, your brother: Uz, his firstborn; Buz, his brother; Kemuel, the father of Aram; and Chesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph, Bethuel. And Bethuel begot Rebekah. These eight [children] Milcah bore to Nahor, Abraham's brother. And his concubine, whose name was Reumah, also bore children: Tebah, Gaham, Tahash and Maacah." (Genesis 22: 20-24) Now we have just studied 10 biblical chapters which speak of the difficulties which Abraham and Sarah experience in their efforts to have a son. They adopt Lot, attempt to raise Ishmael, a concubine's son, and finally God grants them Isaac in their old age. And even Isaac puts Abraham through the torture of a near slaughter. And then, at the conclusion of the akeda story the Torah tells us that Abraham's brother has fathered eight children with his wife Milcah and another four with his concubine Reumah! I don't know whether or not Nahor was wicked, but he certainly couldn't have held a candle to Abraham, the righteous preacher of the Lord. What can be the point of contrasting Abraham's painful search for one son with Nahor's brood of 12, which seem to have come so effortlessly? I BELIEVE a hint emerges from the name of Nahor's firstborn, Uz. You may remember that the Book of Job, the story of a righteous individual who inexplicably suffers the loss of his family and wealth, opens as follows: "There was a man in the Land of Uz whose name was Job; that man was wholesome and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. Seven sons and three daughters were born to him. His possessions consisted of 7,000 sheep and goats, 3,000 camels, 500 pairs of cattle, 500 she-donkeys and very many enterprises. That man was the wealthiest man of all the people in the East." (Job 1:1-3) And that man loses all these things because Satan receives permission to tempt him to blaspheme God. Job loses his wife and children, his health and all his possessions despite his scrupulous commitment to God and morality. Job is the classic example of a "righteous individual who lives a life of suffering." Is this fair? Is life in general fair, with so many righteous people suffering tragic losses and so many wicked people who seem to prosper? In effect, the Torah is telling us that this world is an unfair place, with righteous people who suffer and wicked people who prosper. In the words of the Talmud: "Children, length of years and material sustenance are not dependent on merit but are rather dependent on [blind] fortune" (B.T. Moed Katan 28); "There is no reward for the performance of the commandments in this world" (B.T. Kidushin 39). This world is unfair Uz-Land; only the World to Come, the life after this life in a world of souls, will be fair. In this world God created light and darkness, good and evil (Isaiah 45:7). It is our task to live in it and do our best - no matter our personal situation - to be partners with God in attempting to bring light where there is darkness, order where there is chaos, and to perfect the world under the Kingship of the Divine. We are God's partners in our task to perfect an imperfect world. Perhaps this is precisely the divine response to Job's remonstration as to the injustice of the world as it is. "And the Lord responded to Job from out of a whirlwind and He said: 'Gird now your loins like a man. I wish to ask you and I want you to tell Me [instead of your challenging Me and insisting that I respond to you]. Will you then abrogate My laws [by which I established a world of evil as well as of good]? Will you make Me out to be evil in order for you to remain righteous?! Is it then not true that you have an arm just like God's and a voice which can thunder just like His? Adorn yourself now with confidence and pride; dress yourself in glory and respect. "'Scatter your anger; look upon all of those [wicked who are] in high places and cause them to be brought low. Look upon all of those [wicked who are] in high places and subdue them; crush the wicked underfoot. Bury their faces in the dust, conquer them in places of burial. Then even I [God] will praise you because your right hand has brought you deliverance.'" (Job 40:6-14) Yes, this world may be the land of Uz, a world of unfairness. But we humans, created in God's image, must assume responsibility for our legacy and - in partnership with the Almighty - bring about salvation, a world where God's goodness rules. It must begin with remaking society into a system of justice and compassion; since the Bible sees nature as a reflection of humanity, once society expresses God's love and concern, so will physical nature. The rains will come in their proper season, "there will be no evil or destruction in the mountain of My holiness" (Isaiah 2) and "the lion will lie down with the lamb, and the child will play on the nest of an asp." But it is up to us and our human relationships to make all this happen. Shabbat shalom. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.