For a parsha that starts with the joyful news of a forthcoming pregnancy, Vayera sure packs a punch when it comes to parents-children relationship. Within five chapters and less than 150 verses, we read about:
- A father (Lot) who offers his maiden daughters to a mob of rapists, only for the tables of passivity to turn on him when his daughters use him sexually without his knowledge or consent.
- A father (Abraham) who sends away his son (and concubine) into the desert with one serving of water and bread. (Ever heard of hiking safety rules??)
- A mother (Hagar) who walks away from her dying son (whose body ‘shockingly’ didn’t respond too well to being sent into the desert without ample water).
- A father (Abraham again) who almost kills his other son with his own hands.
I can’t think any one Greek tragedy that can compete. Can you?
None of the people mentioned above use, sacrifice or abandon their children/parents maliciously. They all believe that there is an end that justifies their means. Lot wants to save his guests from being raped, and his daughters want to preserve the human race, erroneously convinced that their father and themselves are the last people alive.
Hagar walks away from Ishmael because she can’t bear to watch him suffering.
Abraham follows God’s instructions regarding both of his sons, and at least in Ishmael’s case he also relies on God’s promise that his son will survive and create his own dynasty.
But all these good intentions don’t spare the parents from the consequences of their actions. When Lot treats his daughters’ dignity as expendable, as an object to sacrifice for a bigger cause, they take the lesson to heart. They apply it the very same evening, sacrificing his dignity for the good of the human race.
Abraham’s case is even more telling. While the Torah doesn’t pass judgement on Lot’s treatment of his daughters, it tells us explicitly that Abraham cause justified his means. God reassures Abraham that Sarah was right to view Ishmael as an obstacle to the formation of a nation that will carry forth the monotheistic faith, and to push for his banishment. God then ordered Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and commended him for his obedience.
But the fact that the cause justified the means doesn’t spare Abraham from any of the human ramifications of sacrificing a child for the greater good: When he banishes Ishmael, he loses his son, who remains distant thereafter. And when he almost kills Issac during the Akedah, news of his actions bring about Sarah’s death (according to the commentators).
Lot’s actions stem from his own understanding of reality, and Abraham’s stem from God’s commandments. But just like the goodness of their intentions, neither personal reason nor divine instruction can protect them from the consequences of their actions.
Abraham’s actions are described as the bedrock of the Jewish faith. We go back to them in our prayers and in the High holidays, and we pass them on to our children. And sometimes, we live through periods that make them particularly relevant. Extreme circumstances sometimes demand unusual actions. When we fight wars, we send our kids out into battle, knowing all too well that they may die. During the Holocaust people had to protect some children at the expense of others, or suffocate crying babies to protect whole groups from detection. During the horrific tsunami of 2004 one mother had to let go of her older son or drown with both children. Both children survived, but the story still haunts me – as I’m sure it does other mothers worldwide.
Abraham lived through the extreme circumstances of creating a new nation. Perhaps we need his sacrifices, encapsulated as they are in our history and DNA, to empower us when we face extreme circumstances of our own. But we should also heed the warning that his story represents:
Regardless of causes and intentions, regardless of things like necessity and circumstances, regardlesss of whether we are right or wrong – actions have consequences that won’t simply go away. Sacrificing other people, even under God’s direct orders, always comes with a cost.
This warning is particularly relevant today. The last few weeks were tumultuous. People on both sides of the American political map feel strongly that this past elections were about more than one particular leader – they were about the very values and ideas that the USA represents. Swept as we are in righteous indignation or joy, this week’s Torah portion should serve as a warning for us:
Regardless of the gravity of the circumstances, regardless of our justified rage or fear or elation or glee,regardless of whatever great cause we think we serve – the way we treat each other will not be justified out of impacting us. If we sacrifice other people or their dignity for a cause, our morality and reasons won’t protect us from the consequences.
In one way or another, we will pay.