Abraham has been called the most complex person in the Bible and it is with good reason.
This Shabbat, our parasha is Vayera ("and God appeared to Abraham")...Abraham had been recuperating (it was only three days since he circumcised himself!), sitting outside his tent which was, uncommon to local tradition, open on all sides, looking - waiting for someone to pass by so that he could confer hospitality.
Abraham ran to greet the approaching strangers to welcome them into the tent he shared with Sarah, establishing our mitzvah of hachnassat orchim (hospitality or welcoming guests) and the mitzvah of Bikkur Cholim (visiting the sick). In this case, the 'guests' were angels or messengers of God (other human beings, perhaps?) who were both checking on Abraham's health and announcing that ninety-year-old Sarah would have a baby, for whom she had long waited, within the year.
Other parts of this week's parasha include Isaac's birth and Abraham's arguing with God on behalf of Sodom and Gemorrah... "If there are even ten righteous individuals, will you spare the city?" (from this comes the notion of a minyan, a required ten-person quorum for certain communal prayers). The Sodom and Gemorrah stories continue with an explanation of how horrible the residents there really were, Lot's wife (Lot was Abraham's nephew) turned to a pillar of salt, and a story you did not learn in religious school about Lot's daughters and their father (after the destruction of the cities, thinking they were the only human beings remaining, the daughters contrived and executed a plan to repopulate the world).
There is another episode in Vayera you most likely did not learn in religious school - Abraham and Sarah travel to Gerar and are taken to the palace of the Philistine king, Abimelech. Abraham lies that his beautiful wife Sarah is his sister, thereby saving his life, but subjecting Sarah to becoming part of Abimelech's harem (Abimelech has a dream that makes all 'right').
At Sarah's urging, Abraham sends away Hagar and Ishmael. Their story, together with the Akedah (binding of Isaac), all in Parashat Vayera, are read as well on Rosh Hashanah morning.
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At Congregation Kehillah board meetings, members take turns presenting a D'var Torah. Two years ago, Gil Blumenthal shared a contemporary teaching from Rabbi David Segal about the very disturbing Akedah/binding of Isaac episode. Here are some excerpts:
"Each year when we read it publicly at the High Holy Days, I try to imagine how it comes across to those Jews who come to services only at that season. If your only Jewish religious experience consisted of hearing the story of a fanatical father who took his son up a mountain to slaughter him, would you come back for more?
"But taking Torah at face value is not the Jewish way. We are Yisrael, the people who wrestle with God and with our sacred text. The Bible's redactors could have excised this problematic story of the near sacrifice of a beloved son, but they left it in. The question for us readers is, why? What can we learn from it?...
"We often understand Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his own son as a sign of his blind faith in God...[the text though] presents a God who wants Abraham not to follow...blindly...
"[T]here is a tradition that Abraham knew all along that he wouldn't go through with the killing of Isaac (see Genesis 22:5 where Abraham tells the servants who accompanied them to wait, saying "We will worship and return").
"As Jews in 21st century America, we find ourselves living among fundamentalists, who force their faith on others, and atheists, who shun religion altogether. The way our tradition reclaimed the Akedah (binding of Isaac) might be instructive for us today, for we are called to be countercultural in the face of both trends. We affirm our faith, but not blindly; we revere the Torah, which demands reading between the lines. We call ourselves the Children of Abraham, heirs to a complicated character whose ambiguities invite us to examine and improve ourselves.