On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: And You Shall Love... - Parashat Vayiera

What can the akeidah (binding of Isaac) teach us about loving God and loving one another? In this week's Torah portion, Vayeira, Rabbi Jacobs explores the deeper meaning behind this challenging text and how it can test us, much like Abraham himself was tested, to love all of God's creations authentically and deeply.

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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand, 10 Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us a little bit about the torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. This week, rabbi Jacobs teaches about parashat va-eira. He talks about how love manifests, specifically in one of the hardest parts of our torah story, the binding of Isaac.

[Rabii Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Vayeira from the book of Genesis. And in the 22nd chapter of Genesis, which is part of this week's parashat, we have the story known as the aqedat, the binding of Isaac. Now if you experienced Rosh HaShanah in almost any synagogue, you probably heard the binding of Isaac. It is the traditional reading for the second day of Rosh HaShanah, read on the first day in many of our reform congregations. And it is one of those narratives that I don't care how many times you hear it, it never ceases to both, I think, kind of cause fear and trembling, which of course is Soren Kierkegaard the Danish philosopher's title of his essay on the aqedat. But also, even though we know how it ends, we're drawn in because of the brilliance of the narrative.

I wanted to focus-- and again, for many of us who every year have to find new meaning, I wanted to find some new meaning with you today from this. And I want to start by thinking about love. And when we think about love and we think about the bible, we kind of imagine that love is in the bible from the very first torah portion, beginning of Genesis all the way through. But actually it's not. The first time love is mentioned in the hebrew bible, it's not between a man and a woman or between god and humankind. Now the first mention of the word love is in relation to the love of a father and a son. The great Israeli writer Meir Shalev wrote a book called "Beginnings." And he unpacks the bible in all kinds of really interesting and startling ways. And he points out that love shows up in the bible for the first time in the same verse that God orders the sacrifice of Isaac. And it's kind of a curious thing, if you think about it. This thing that makes the world go round, that is love, sneaks into our text at the beginning of this heart stopping narrative known as the aqedat, the binding of Isaac. But listen to this. It's not Abraham who tells Isaac that he loves him. Nor does the author tell the reader that Abraham loves his son. But rather, God is the one who says it to Abraham. It's as if God is informing Abraham, not only us, but also to Abraham, as if Abraham were not aware that love was at the heart of the narrative. So maybe the text is teaching us that Abraham hasn't yet, at this point, understood that the core of his relationship with his son is not faith but love. I hope that's not true of all of our families. Are we a little bit like Abraham? Because I think a lot of us offer our children up on the altars of achievement. Or we forget that love is what really should undergird the most precious of relationships. Because all of us are either children or some of us are parents ourselves. But all of us are in one of those relationships. And I don't mean the kind of love that's dependent on accomplishments, but rather thinking about love is that thing that blankets everything, everything that we have between us and our parents or between us and our children. So the question I'm going to ask is did Abraham ever directly tell his son Isaac that he loved him? Well, it turns out the text is silent. And let's not forget that immediately following our chilling narrative, Abraham and Isaac go their separate ways. In fact, the ensuing chapters of Genesis, it becomes clear that from the day of the aqedat until Abraham's death, a period that's many years, the two are not found together even once. You've got to agree that that's a funny kind of love. Don't you think? But at least Abraham has God to love, or so we think, or maybe we comfort ourselves with that thought. But the truth is from the aqedat onward, there's no further mention of meetings or conversations between Abraham and God. Abraham might have passed some kind of test of faith in the aqedat, but in that encounter he loses his son, his wife, and his God. It seems like a pretty high price to pay. Now before we're too quick to judge our ancestor, maybe the narrative is trying to tell all of us something. Something maybe that's hard for us to hear. I think the question in the binding of Isaac is where is love in our lives. Do those who are closest to us know that we love them? If they do know it, is it because we tell them. When it comes to love, are we all talk and not so much act?

V'ahavtav, You shall love God. We chant that every day. V'ahavtav L'rey'akha Love your neighbor as yourself. We hear it in the book of Leviticus and in the reformed tradition, we read it on Yom Kippur. Even though the angel stops Abraham's hand from slaying Isaac in the 22nd chapter of Genesis, he loses his son anyway. Because we are told in the text that they separate from that time. So maybe the aqedat is really a long lesson about love not faith. And we kind of think that Abraham in this regard, he didn't do so well. But all of us, we've got a chance to learn the lesson. So in thinking about this narrative, there's so many dimensions. I think also about the notion that Abraham and Sarah are a migrant family. They are not actually from the area that they are told to settle. And they are outsiders. And they feel as if they are outsiders. And we're thinking a lot about migrants and asylum seekers and refugees today. And I just think that maybe there's also another lesson in the book about how we treat those who are different and how they treat us.

So there's a beautiful teaching I'd like to conclude with from Elie Wiesel who endlessly reinterpreted the aqedat, the binding of Isaac. And he begins with a classic reading. It says god put Abraham to the test. God says, [HEBREW] take your son. In midrashic terms, Abraham says, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. I have two sons. God specifies, [HEBREW], your only son. Abraham answers, whoa, whoa, whoa. Both are only sons. Ishmael is the only son I have with Hagar. Isaac is the only son I have with Sarah. God gets even more specific. Asher Ahavta, the son whom you love. And Abraham answers, wait. Are there two separate chambers of one's innermost self for love? I love both of them. And Elie Wiesel dramatically changes the reading by altering the punctuation. There is, of course, no punctuation in a torah scroll. That, of course, I hope I can make clear. But the cantillation, the way the text is chanted, is actually punctuation. And Elie Wiesel changes where we pause with a comma. God says [HEBREW], take your son. Moving the commas to the end changes the very command. [HEBREW] take the son, the only son you loved, Isaac. In this reading, god blames Abraham for loving only one of his sons, Isaac. And this is why Abraham is put to the test. Or maybe it's really a punishment. And Elie Wiesel's reading is critical for us, particularly this year as issues of migrants and asylum seekers and refugees are so prominent. Question is, are we being tested. Are we unable to love god's other children? The ones who are not just like the ones we tuck in at night.

The aqedat, which we are about to focus our attention on in this week's parashat is not only testing Abraham's loyalty to god but rather his loyalty to all of god's migrant children. Now that's not the reading that maybe we are used to. But I think as we think about where is love in this text [HEBREW], love the migrant as you love yourself is the teaching from Leviticus. And in this teaching of the aqedat, is our love only for those who are part of our inner circle of family? What of those who are different in some way, speak a different language, come from different ethnicities but somehow are part of god's family? Maybe the aqedat is telling us to love not just our own but all of god's with that openness of heart.

Now maybe these interpretations are stirring. Maybe they're tricky. Maybe they're agitational. But I'd like us not to go through the motions when we read our texts. Abraham was put to the test in the binding of Isaac. I think the real test is on us, not only for the love we can express to those in our circle of family but the love we can express to all of god's children.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand, 10 Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts or Google Play or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend.

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And until next week, l'hitroat!