Parshat Vayera: Sacrificing the future

Even after the recent conflict in Lebanon again tested the cracks in Israeli society and brought the country to a new period of self-examination, one of the fundamental issues still plaguing the state is how to respond to the Palestinians.

"And it happened after these things, and the Lord tested [or proved, or held aloft as a banner or example] Abraham, and said unto him, 'Abraham,' and he said, 'Here I am.'" (Genesis 22:1). Even after the recent conflict in Lebanon again tested the cracks in Israeli society and brought the country to a new period of self-examination, one of the fundamental issues still plaguing the state is how to respond to the Palestinians. Is our position not to give up "even one inch" - that the borders of Israel are clearly delineated in the Bible and we are forbidden to relinquish any portion of it? Or are we duty-bound to seek peace even if that means giving up territory, and even if past events prove the folly of leaving settlements? Fascinatingly, both positions can be found within our biblical commentaries - specifically in the manner in which they interpret the difficult commandment given to Abraham: to sacrifice his son Isaac. This week's reading of Vayera concludes with one of the most agonizing incidents of the entire Bible, in which God orders Abraham to "Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and get yourself to the Land of Moriah, and lift him up there as a whole burnt offering on one of the mountains…' " (Genesis 22:1, 2). The narrative seems to link this most problematic Divine order to a prior incident by introducing the story with: "And it happened after these things…" What things, and how do these things - whatever they are - affect God's command? The Rashbam (Rabbenu Shmuel ben Meir, grandson of the famous Rashi), after confirming that it is indeed the biblical style to employ cause-and-effect, sin-and-punishment connections between incidents that follow each other, suggests that "…here too, after the cutting of a covenant between Abraham and Abimelech allowing the Philistine's children and grandchildren to continue living in Gerar [Gaza], the Holy one Blessed be He became angry; after all, this 'land of the Philistines' is within the boundaries of Israel. [Abraham is giving up part of the heritage that God had given to his descendants], so God reproved Abraham. It is as though He said, 'You are so proud of the son that I gave you that you agreed to a covenant between you and their [Abimelech's] descendants! Now go and bring him [your son] up as a whole burnt offering, and see what benefit this covenant [with Abimelech] will bring you!" (Rashbam ad loc). In effect, the Rashbam is castigating Abraham for signing away some of the patrimony that God gave his descendants. Abraham has no right to cede property that doesn't belong to him alone but rather to succeeding generations. This is what Yitzhak Tabenkin explained to David Ben-Gurion when he advised the prime minister to refuse an early partition plan that would have granted us a paltry state. "I took counsel with two individuals, and they convinced me that you must reject the offer. I asked my grandfather and I asked my grandson; my grandfather who has been dead for 10 years, and my grandson who has not yet been born." At the same time, however, there is another commentary reported in the name of the Midrash Enelow: "'And it happened after these things' - after Abraham sent away Hagar and Ishmael just one chapter before. Then, as now, 'Abraham rose up early in the morning.' Then after hearing Sarah's wish to banish Hagar the handmaiden and his first-born son Ishmael confirmed by God - whereupon he sends them with bread and a jug of water - but without gold or silver, and without even sufficient provisions for a desert journey. ('And he [Abraham] sent her [Hagar] away, and she went and wandered in the desert.')" And now, just as Ishmael was forced to wander through the desert, Abraham will be forced to go and wander among the mountains with his son Isaac. "And she went and sat opposite, the distance of the fling of an arrow, saying I do not wish to see the death of the child;" Abraham caused Hagar to see her son die, and he will be forced to see - and even bring about - Isaac's death. "And an angel of God called out to Hagar from the heavens, informing her that Ishmael shall live and become a great nation, just as an angel of God will stop Abraham's hand, and promise that a great and numerous nation will emerge from Isaac." Was the Akeda a punishment for Abraham's insensitivity toward Ishmael? Yes, because although he was obligated to banish the handmaiden and her son, that didn't necessarily include issuing a death warrant by virtue of sending them out to the desert as penniless paupers lacking provisions. Even the Ramban, the most passionate lover of Israel, takes Abraham to task. When Sarah afflicts Hagar for treating her mistress [Sarah] "lightly" and causes her to flee, Ramban comments: "Our matriarch sinned by this affliction, and so did Abraham by allowing her to act in such a manner. And so God heard her [Hagar's] pain and gave her a son who would become a wild ass of a man, and will afflict the seed of Abraham and Sarah with all types of affliction" (Ramban, on Genesis 16:6). It is quite possible that eventually we - the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael - shall eventually share this land, the apex of the world. Perhaps God only wished that the two boys not grow up together; perhaps the problem lay with Sarah, who would not allow a shared inheritance, who would not stand for "the son of this hand-maiden inheriting together with Isaac" (Gen. 21:10). After all, it is the angel of heaven who prophesies that "…he [Ishmael] shall dwell in the face of all of his brothers" (Gen. 16:12), and it is the Bible that informs us that Ishmael eventually repents (Gen. 25:9, Rashi ad loc). If the eternal words of the Bible are great enough and inclusive enough to allow for such diverse and conflicting explanations, can we not understand how contemporary Israel is likewise fractured with such diverse and conflicting viewpoints? And if we clearly uphold one side of the argument, ought we not at least respect - and not delegitimize - those who uphold the other? The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.