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Rabbi Arthur Segal’s love of people, humanity, and Judaism has him sharing with others “The Wisdom of the Ages” that has been passed on to him. His writings for modern Jews offer Spiritual, Ethical, and eco-Judaic lessons in plain English and with relevance to contemporary lifestyles. He is the author of countless articles, editorials, letters, and blog posts, and he has recently published two books:

The Handbook to Jewish Spiritual Renewal: A Path of Transformation for the Modern Jew


A Spiritual and Ethical Compendium to the Torah and Talmud

You can learn more about these books at:

Thursday, October 29, 2015


 Va'yeira: Akeidah:


"Tie Me Up; Tie Me Down"

Synoptic Abstract

Abraham is having a bad day. He has just circumcised himself at the age of ninety-nine. Ninety-nine! Can you even imagine doing that at any age? Then he plays host to visiting angels. His wife, Sarah, announces that she is pregnant. He gets the news from God that He is about to destroy Sodom, and attempts to bargain with Him to save the city. Meanwhile, Abraham's nephew, Lot, is busy holding off a mob of Sodomites who want to rape some guests in his home.


Abraham is unable to make his case to God, and He proceeds with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but Abraham does mange to save Lot, his wife, and their two daughters. Unfortunately, Lot's wife just had to look back as they were escaping and is turned into a pillar of salt. Later, Lot's two daughters get their father drunk and have sex with him. King Abimelech abducts Sarah. Sarah is rescued and Isaac is born. Abraham listens to Sarah and expels his first wife, Hagar, and their son, Ishmael. God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. And you think you have tsourres (Yiddish for aggravation)! Now, let's look at how Abraham copes with these events and what we can learn from them.


As we can see from this parasha's synopsis there is quite a lot going on. At the end of last week's parasha, Abraham has been commanded by God to circumcise himself and the males in his camp. Afterwards, Abraham is sitting at his tent's doorway "in the heat of the day" (Gen. 18:01). God appears to him. From this first verse, our sages teach us the mitzvah of visiting the sick. God Himself visits Abraham while he was recovering from his circumcision.


In the next verse Abraham sees three strangers and, despite the fact that he has just performed surgery upon himself and is recovering in the heat of the day, he runs to them and offers them hospitality. He offers them water, shade, and a footbath. He orders Sarah to make three cakes of the "finest flour." He orders Ishmael to prepare a "tender and good" calf and serve it with cream and milk. Abraham did not eat with the guests, but stood and attended to their needs.


Although Abraham did not know this at the time, these three visitors, according to the traditional view, are angels. The Talmud says that an angel does a "function that God wishes to have performed." An angel can only do one function at a time, according to the Midrash. The sages explain it was angel Michael who told Sarah she would give birth, angel Gabriel who would overturn Sodom, and angel Raphael who healed Abraham and saved Lot. Raphael means "Healer of God." It is from the root word "refu," and we use this word when we wish someone to get well (r'fua). Note that Abraham leaves his first guest, God Almighty, to take care of these three travelers. Our sages teach in Talmud Shabbat 127A, that "hospitality to wayfarers is greater than receiving the Divine Presence."


The Jewish notion of hospitality is so important that it is one of the 613 commandments. It is called "hachnotot orchim." Talmud Tractate Bava Metziah 86B says that whatever good deeds Abraham did that day, God reciprocated later. Abraham gave a calf; God gave us quail (Num. 11:31). Abraham gave milk and cream; God gave us manna (Ex. 16:04). Abraham stood and attended to his guests; God stood before us by the "rock of water" in Horeb (Ex. 7:06). Abraham escorted his guests; God lead the Israelites with a pillar of clouds (Ex. 13:21). Abraham gave his guests water; God gave us water from the rock (Ex. 17:6).


So we see that taking care of our fellow humans is more important than taking care of God or ritual. And God rewarded Abraham's children for making this proper judgment. Tractate Kiddushin 7A says that when we give to others, and when they accept the gift, we have received something important back from them.


The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat 88B goes a step further. The rabbis say that if not for of Abraham's hospitality, Moses would not have received the Torah. The sages say that the angels saw God about to give the Torah to Moses and they protested. The angels said that man was not worthy to have the Torah. God gave Moses Abraham's face and said to the angels, "Is this not the very person who you visited and ate with in his home? Now you are claiming that humans should not get the Torah?" A little bit of kindness can go a long way.


Visiting the sick (bikur cholim) is also a commandment. Tractate Nederim 39B says, "whoever visits a sick person, takes away one-sixtieth of his suffering." Whoever visits a sick person causes him to live, but whoever does not visit a sick person causes him to die." (Nederim 40A). The themes of comforting the sick and hospitality are repeated in this week's Haftarah (II Kings 4:1-37) in which a woman prepares meals for the prophet Elisha, the disciple of Elijah. She goes so far as to give him his own private room, with a bed, table, chair and lamp. The woman is barren so Elisha prays that God will bless her with a son, and she gives birth to a son. When the boy later becomes ill and dies, Elisha revives him with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.


The rabbis of the Talmud were perplexed by Abraham's serving milk with meat. They teach that Abraham learned Torah, not yet given to the Israelites at Sinai, in the "yeshiva of Shem." Shem was a son of Noah. They posit that Abraham served the dairy first, and then waited the appropriate interval before serving the meat. The rabbis also note that while mention is made of the calf, cream, and milk being served, there is no mention of Sarah's three cakes. They say that she had just begun her menses and was not ritually pure and, therefore, could not serve food. The rabbis then ask why, if she had her menstrual period (she was 90 years old), she would laugh when the angel told her she would give birth? They decide that it really was not the onset of menses, but just a spot of dark discharge that Sarah misinterpreted.


Hospitality also saved Lot's life. When two of these angels, Gabriel and Raphael (Michael had completed his mission and returned to God), came to visit Lot in Sodom, Lot saved their lives. Lot begged them to enter his home and not sleep in the town's square. He also offered them a footbath and a feast. Later, the men of Sodom came banging on Lot's door and demanded that Lot surrender these two visitors so that they could have sex with them. Lot refused to give up his guests and offered his two virgin daughters as substitutes. God strikes the Sodomites with blindness, but they continued their attack, albeit unsuccessfully. The angels told Lot to flee Sodom with his daughters, their fiancés, and his wife. Lot's future sons-in-law refused to listen to Lot because he "appeared like a jester in their eyes."(Gen. 19:14).


When we think of Sodomites, we have been told to think of the homosexual rape that the men of Sodom wished to conduct on Lot's guests, but this is not what our sages teach us. The sin of Sodom was that they believed, "What is mine is mine, and what is yours in yours." (Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, 5:10). Ezekiel 16:49 says the sin of Sodom was arrogance. They had "plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility, yet Sodom did not support the poor and the needy." The Midrash says that Sodom was so rich that "there was not a path that did not have the foliage of seven trees over it, each shading the one below it – vine, fig, pomegranate, walnut, almond, apple, peach – so that each lane was fully sheltered." The Sodomites knew they had fertile land and did not wish newcomers to settle there. This is why they went out of their way to mistreat travelers. Ramban (13th-century Spanish Nachmanides) says, "the Sodomites prevented the entry of all strangers…They refused to share their bounty with the less fortunate."


The Sodomites were not sexual perverts, as our Western misreading of the Bible makes them out to be. The Bible charges them with lack of justice (Is. 1:10; 3:9), disregard for ethics and moral values (Jer. 23:14), and ignoring the needs of the poor (Ez. 16:48-49). The rabbis of the Talmud call them "mean, uncharitable, unjust, and inhospitable."


After the destruction of Sodom and the death of Mrs. Lot, Lot's two daughters believe that they are the last three human survivors in the world. They get Lot drunk and seduce him, as they think he is the only man left to repopulate the earth. The eldest names her son Moab, meaning "from my father." The youngest daughter names her son Ammon, meaning "of my people." Please note that Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David, was a Moabitess. Naahmah was also from Moab. She was queen of King Solomon and mother of Solomon's son and successor King Rehoboam. The rabbis say that this shows that God knows the daughters' motives were pure, and hence it was permissible for them to break the Noahide commandment against incest. However, they say that while Lot may have been hoodwinked the first time his eldest daughter got him drunk and seduced him, he was lecherous in allowing it to happen again with his youngest daughter. The Midrash also says that when Lot chose to reside in Sodom in last week's parasha, he did so not because of the grazing land, but because he was attracted to the immorality of this city.


Time passes and Isaac is born to Sarah. She sees Ishmael "making sport of" or mocking him (Gen. 21:09), so she orders Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael. She does not want Ishmael sharing Isaac's inheritance. Abraham is "greatly distressed" (Gen. 21:11). God tells him not to be upset and to listen to Sarah. The next day, he sends Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness with bread and water. Rashi says that Sarah was not concerned about Isaac sharing Ishmael's first-born rights of inheritance, but was concerned that Isaac would learn bad behaviors from Ishmael.


When we study parasha Ki Seitzei, we will read the following verses from Deuteronomy 21:15-17: "If a man will have two wives, one beloved and one hated, and they bear him sons, the beloved one and the hated one, and the firstborn son is the hated one's, than it shall be that on the day that he causes his sons to inherit whatever will be his, he cannot give the right of the first born to the son of the beloved one ahead of the son of the hated one, his firstborn. Rather he must recognize the first born, the son of the hated one, to give him the double portion in all that is found with him; for he is his initial vigor, to him is the right of the firstborn." Since Abraham supposedly knew Torah law from Shem, he chose to disobey it in order to listen to his wife and keep shalom bayat (peace in the house).


Hindsight is always 20/20 vision. If Abraham took the time to reason with Sarah, and gave Ishmael two thirds of his land (a double portion), and Isaac one third, would we even be discussing the sharing of Jerusalem and other sections of the land promised to Abraham in today's peace talks? It would instead have been shared a long time ago. Perhaps this is the real reason that Hagar and Ishmael's expulsion are known as Abraham's eight and ninth trials (refer to last week's D'var Torah). Did Abraham fail or pass these two tests?


The Talmudic rabbis justify this expulsion by pointing out that Hagar is carrying the provisions in the dessert but the 17-year-old Ishmael is not. They further say that Abraham gave them enough water for their journey, but that Ishmael drank it all. They also say that Ishmael took up archery. For these reasons, Sarah did not want Isaac to be influenced by Ishmael. Tractate Rosh Hashanah 17B tells of how the angels argued with God for Him not to save Ishmael and Hagar in the dessert. They said, "Ishmael's descendents would one day be responsible for killing Jews, so why save him and have Jews suffer later on? Let him die now." God answered, "At this moment, is he righteous or evil? I only judge man as he is, here and now."


The parasha ends with Abraham's tenth trial. He is commanded by God to take his son Isaac to be sacrificed. This event is referred to euphemistically as the "binding" (Akeidah). The Talmud tells us that this event took place on Rosh Hashanah (new year of the World), which is why these verses were also read on Rosh Hashanah. When God calls Abraham, he answers, "Here I am" (Gen. 22:1). When he is told that God wants him to sacrifice Isaac, he gets up early the next day, saddles his donkey, and rushes to fulfill God's command. Isaac was 37 years old. Abraham could not force a 37-year-old to go to his own death. He had to have convinced Isaac to come along. Tractate Sanhedrin 89B records Abraham's conversation with God:

"God said, 'Take your son.'

'But I have two sons, which should I take?'

'Your only one!'

'But each of them is the only son of his mother!'

'Whom you love!' God answered.

'But I love them both.'

'I mean Isaac.' God replied."


The Midrash questions how Abraham could say to God that he has two sons if he sent Ishmael away. The sages say that for Rosh Hashanah Ishmael and Eliezar came to visit Abraham. The Midrash says that Satan tried to talk Abraham out of sacrificing Isaac. Satan also says to Isaac, "Remember the cute toys that your mother, Sarah, made for you to play with? If you die, Ishmael will inherit them." The Midrash does not explain how this argument would work on a 37-year-old man. Later, Satan forms a river to block their path. Abraham and Isaac wade into the water until it is up to their necks and plead to God to make the river go dry so that they can complete their mission.


When Isaac and Abraham go up the mountain to make this human sacrifice, Abraham tells Ishmael and Eliezar that "we both will return to you." (Gen. 22:05). God does call this a test (Gen.22:01). Does Abraham suspect that he will not have to follow through with this horrible commandment? Isaac allows himself to be bound on the altar. What is Isaac thinking? He had asked his father a few moments before, "where is the lamb for the offering?" (Gen. 22:08). For Isaac and Abraham, this Rosh Hashanah really was a "day of awe."


Luckily, Abraham is stopped by an angel, and a ram is slaughtered instead. The Torah records that when the event was over, "they stood up and went together." (Gen. 22:19). The Talmud does not record this conversation. Nor does it record the conversation Sarah had with Abraham when he left to kill her only and long-awaited son. The Talmud does record that Sarah dies from this trauma at the age of 127. The Targum Yonaton (Aramaic paraphrase of the Chumash by Yonaton ben Uziel, circa 100 C.E.) records that Satan lied to Sarah when Abraham and Isaac were away and told her that Abraham had actually killed Isaac. She died lonely and broken-hearted. Luckily, Sarah was not alive to witness what happens later. Abraham soon remarries, as we will read in the next parasha. His third wife, called Keturah (Gen. 25:01), whose name means "beautiful incense" in Hebrew and "restrained and chaste" in Aramaic, is supposed to be Hagar, according to the Midrash. Poor mixed up Isaac. His familial dysfunction will carry into the next generation.


What was the purpose of this tenth test? Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Christian Danish philosopher, in his 1843 book Fear and Trembling, calls this act a"leap of faith." He used this chapter from Genesis to posit that religion was absurd. He argued that God requires us to hold beliefs and perform actions that are ridiculous and immoral by rational standards. He called Abraham a "knight of faith." Kierkegaard said that true faith is measured by the sincerity and passion of the believer and that "religion's truth is subjectivity." He criticized all attempts to make religion rational, and said that God wants us to obey Him, not argue for Him.


But Jewish philosophers say that it is love that Abraham had for God, not just faith. The Kabbalistic Zohar states, "so it is written, 'thou did love righteousness and hate wickedness,' (Ps. 45:8) and it is further written, 'Abraham who loves Me.' (Is. 41:8). Abraham is said to have loved God because he loved righteousness; this was Abraham's love of God in which he excelled over all of his contemporaries." Is this "leap of love" for God better than love for one's son or another human? Philo of Alexandria (1st Century C.E.) thinks not. He said if

the sacrifice of Isaac (whose name means "will laugh") were carried out, then all of the laughter in the world would be eradicated. What would be left of Abraham's love of God if this sacrifice were fulfilled? It would be a spiritual death for Abraham and would show him that his God was fickle. Abraham's life philosophy was one of chesed (kindness). He tried to emulate God's kindness and love. Sacrificing Isaac was going against his entire philosophy. Was it God testing Abraham, or Abraham testing himself? Or was Abraham testing Isaac?


Dr. Victor Frankel of 20th Century Germany, who

 survived the concentration camps to become an existential psychiatrist, writes in his Man's Search for Meaning that the need for man to have meaning in his life is his most profound need. Abraham was not only asked to kill Isaac, he was asked to kill his entire life's meaning. His spiritual life was at risk as well as his son's corporeal life. In Kabbalistic terms, the opposite of kindness is justice. It is strict, exacting justice. When God calls on Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God is called "Elohim" (Gen. 22:1-2). Elohim are judges. When God, through his angel, tells Abraham to stop, He is called "Adonai," the name of God that is associated with kindness (Gen. 22; 11-12). Abraham learns, perhaps that pure kindness must be tempered with judgment if one is really to be a father of a great people.


And what of Isaac on this day? Abraham is not commanded to tie up Isaac. The Midrash says that Isaac asks to be bound. He says, "Father, the soul is willing, but the flesh is weak. Tie me down in order to restrain me, to prevent me from flinching upon seeing the blade." We do not hear about Isaac again until two chapters later when he is standing in a field praying to God. Later Isaac goes blind. The Midrash says that his eyes became blinded from the tears of the angels that fell in his eyes when it appeared that Abraham would go through with the sacrifice.


The sages are astounded with the entire story. They say in Tractate Shabbat 89B that when Jews sin, Abraham and Jacob tell God to "wipe them out." It is only Isaac who pleads for mercy by saying "remember that I sacrificed my soul in front of You for You." This is the lesson that Isaac learned and that all of us need to learn. Every day our souls and lives are potentially ready to be sacrificed and taken from us. We need to be kind and merciful to others as well as be kind and merciful to ourselves.


What can we learn from the juxtaposition of these four events discussed in this D'var Torah? Both Abraham and Sodom are blessed with bounty. Both make choices. Abraham uses his wealth for chesed. The Sodomites use theirs for stinginess. America is a great, rich country. We Jews have prospered here. Should America and we be miserly? Or like our father, Abraham, should we hear the outcry of others in need? Can we actively run and seek out those that need our aid, or wait passively until it is too late to help? Can we open up our doors on Shabbat or other days to feed a newcomer or someone less fortunate? Can we visit those in the hospital or those who are homebound? Can we do a better job of taking care of our communities' aged? And once we have mastered taking care of others, can we learn from Abraham's test with the "binding of Isaac" and the resulting death of Sarah, or from his expelling Hagar and Ishmael, to treat our families with the love and chesed with which we should treat strangers?


The crux of this whole convoluted parasha is found in verse 18:19 of Genesis. "For I have singled Abraham out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right." Quoting from the 8th Century B.C.E. prophet,

Micah (6:8), "What is good and what does the Lord require of you? ONLY (emphasis mine) to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk modestly." More than a millennium later, the rabbis of the Talmud would invoke it as a proof text that the Jewish people's main goal is to be "merciful, modest, and purveyors of good deeds" (Tractate Yevamot 79A).

Shabbat Shalom:
Rabbi Arthur  Segal,
Jewish Spiritual Renewal
Jewish Renewal
Jewish Spirituality
Hilton Head Island, SC; Bluffton, SC; Savannah, GA



If  visiting SC's Low Country, contact us for a Shabbat meal, in our home

by the  sea, our beth  yam.


Maker  of Shalom (Oseh Shalom) help make us deserving of Shalom beyond all

human  comprehension!


Jewish Spiritual Renewal
Jewish Renewal
Jewish Spirituality
Hilton Head Island, SC; Bluffton, SC; Savannah, GA