Vayera: Into The Thicket

Whether we are religious or not, each of us over our lifetime finds ourselves in life-shattering moments. I see it when families bring their newborn home and are unsure of how to make it through the first night. I see it in mothers who linger in their child’s freshman dorm room and can’t bring themselves to turn away. I see it in the stammer and in the pause when the time has come to say goodbye to a dying loved one. I see it in the darkness of the soul when we give ourselves over to depression and addiction. I see it in the love and care one gives when we volunteer to help others. I see it in the sunbathed delight when a young child catches a butterfly for the first time. We all find ourselves in the spiritual moment, when the world vibrates a little differently. These moments are glimpses of mystery and sublimity, when we feel like we are floating above an immense chasm of meaning, the depths of which we cannot understand. 

It’s in these moments when we realize we are caught up in the thick of life. 

Life is full of these powerful moments, often found in relationships, listening to something that rings true or in the experience of the ineffable through art. Many times, these sacred moments arise with anticipation but still feel unexpected. We might hear the footsteps of children running down the stairs but are still lovingly startled as they climb into our laps. We might anticipate the first pitch of the game, tensing with expectation, only to erupt in release when the ball is caught in the catcher’s mitt. We know the sun will set every single day and still we pause to take in its artful journey below the horizon. No matter the amount of planning and expectation, the depth of quaking sacred still grabs our attention and holds onto us from the deepest parts of our soul.

This is what I mean by being caught by life. We are grappled, we are bound, we are riveted to transcendence even if we do not associate the wonder with a religion or with a particular God.   

The Bible has proven to be the most powerful cipher of the transcendent experience. It is a work of art, not like Tolstoy or Shakespeare, for they did nothing to encourage you to change your life. The Bible, and most importantly the Torah itself, is “wonderful beyond words,” as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein put it.  It is meant not only to capture what is true about our lives, but to shape our lives. It does not settle for beauty, tragedy, or humor. It expects us to find ourselves inside of its story and in turn expects us to find its stories in our lives. It is convivial, meaning living with us and through us, for it gives us life as much as we give it life. 

There is no story more laconic and challenging to our expectations than the twenty-second chapter of Genesis, found in this week’s Torah portion, Vayera. Known as the akedah, or “The Binding,” it is only nineteen verses long, containing just over three hundred words. Yet this short story captures over and over again the sacred mystery, the mutual boundedness, and crushing expectations that simultaneously adjures us faithfully while calling faith itself into question.  

The story is as profound as it is short. God asks Abraham to take his son, the one that he has prayed for, to the mountain of Moriah to seemingly bind him to a stone altar and sacrifice him there to God. At the last moment, with a knife raised, Abraham hears God calling out, telling him to stop. A ram is found, caught in the thicket nearby and substituted for Isaac. God gives Abraham a blessing and he returns home, tried and tired. 

Throughout history, thinkers and writers have focused on the varying characters of the story. In the medieval period, philosophers like Maimonides focused mainly on God and free will with questions such as “What could God learn from Abraham’s test, if the all-knowing God knew that Isaac would not be killed?” During great eras of violent oppression, writers like Ephraim of Bonn shifted the focus to Isaac, who was widely viewed as a model for martyrdom. In the modern period, thinkers like Soren Kierkegaard shifted the focus again, this time to Abraham with questions such as “How does someone like Abraham live with a God who commands such terrible things?” Thankfully, later, great feminist writers like Tikvah Frymer-Kensky finally gave voice to the silenced Sarah by asking, “How would Sarah respond to God’s command?” 

But the most unsung hero of the akedah today, the one character that feels most natural to us in this moment is not Abraham, or God, or Sarah, or Isaac. 

It’s the ram.

For one, the ram is the only character mentioned in the story that doesn’t speak and is not addressed by any of the story’s protagonists. The ram finds itself drawn into events of the akedah simply because it was in that place and at that time. That means the ram, like you and me, never heard a voice from God and never felt set up for success by life. The ram wanders, and is caught up in a spiritual drama that it did not intend nor expect. 

More than any other character in the story, the ram is the truest reflection of the spiritual moment we find ourselves in today. Perhaps that’s what the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai had in mind when he wrote of the ram, “He had human eyes.”

Each of us is just like the ram. As we grow up, many of us become workaholics and believe that we can control every facet of life by dint of our own powers. We convince ourselves that we can solve any problem or overcome any obstacle if we just work harder and do more. We think we can control every aspect, every moment, as if everyday living is a filtered Instagram image. 

Then, as we are all experiencing now through the pandemic, there is a moment, not of our own choosing, where the enormity of life catches us unaware. We lose a job, or someone we love dies of COVID. We hear the cries of a new baby for the first time, or that child comes home to tell you she’s getting married. 

These are the moments when we have unwittingly climbed Moriah and life catches us in its thorns, and, like the ram, we have no control over them. We wake up to a world that cannot be designed or curated; it is life in its most unpolished truth, and, like the ram, many of us just don’t have the right language to respond. 

We are all caught up in life. 

Let us not forget the end of The Binding, in which the ram is sacrificed upon the altar. Abraham and Isaac walk away, Sarah is appalled, but it is the ram that makes the final journey. Rather than think of the sacrifice as a death, think of it as what the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas says is an act of taking ethical responsibility. The ram in this light took responsibility for the entire endeavor of the akedah. He found himself caught up in a sublime universe with the greatest of dramas playing out before his eyes and he drew closer to it. In a world beyond our control, we too can take responsibility for the world and make it more just and loving. We too,can be like the ram and draw close to God where joy becomes God’s joy. Our pain becomes God’s pain. In our closeness to God, we become God’s partner, sharing in the task of the global responsibility for justice. 

This is the secret of the akedah. Today we are all the ram, caught up with one another, tangled in a world that feels indescribable. We need each other, we need to be together, and we need to believe that our togetherness can craft a world worthy of our highest aspirations. The akedah is not simply a test of Abraham’s irrational faith, or Isaac’s martyrdom, or Sarah’s defiance, but the call to partnership with God in the messiness of life. 

In one last midrash, the Rabbis say that the ram’s two horns were of different sizes. The first is smaller and became a shofar that was blown at Mount Sinai when God revealed the Torah. The second is larger and more powerful, waiting to be blown as a shofar heralding redemption. (Pirke Rabbi Eliezar 30:13)T

Thousands of years ago, we heard the first blast of the ram’s shofar. It’s time to wake up to quaking sacred moments in our life and feel deeply the spiritual drama that surrounds us every day. And let us realize that we are indeed caught up, like the ram, in the thicket, bound together so that we hear the call for a better tomorrow.

Shabbat Shalom

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