Yom Shabbat, 15 AdarI 5781
Shushan Purim Saturday, 27 February 2021
Parashat Vayera 2013

Parashat Vayera
Rabbi Richard Jacobi

18 October 2013

The story of the binding of Isaac is one of the most troubling narratives in Torah and, not surprisingly, it has been the subject of commentary and interpretation over the centuries. Within the verses of Genesis 22 - the black ink text on the scroll - and within the gaps in the story (What happened in the three days? Where did Isaac go afterwards?) - the white parchment surrounding each letter, there is plenty of scope for Midrash. For Midrash is the expansion or interpretation of the story.

One of the most exhilarating components of my rabbinic career to date has been to run the Ba’alei Tefillah programme for Liberal Judaism. With the third cohort approaching the end of their programme, I have had the joy of helping over forty committed Liberal Jews become lay leaders of their community’s worship. On Sunday, in a shiur led by my colleague Rabbi Sandra Kviat, I witnessed ten different midrashic perspectives on this story being developed by past and present participants and tutors. Let me give you just a couple of glimpses of the different viewpoints:

Ishmael, having been sent away from his younger step-brother, he got to hear about this episode that affected the boy who laughed (Isaac’s name - Yitzchak - means ‘he will laugh’) in such a dramatic way. Ishmael didn’t recognise the sad adult he met years later when their father had died.

The servants, one of whom followed Abraham and Isaac onto the mountain, possibly at the specific request of Sarah, who was worried by her husband’s strange behaviour and lack of communication. There he saw what unfolded, and agonised whether he should step in and stop Abraham, and was so relieved when some strange being appeared from nowhere and saved his mistress’s son.

Other midrashim from our group viewed the story from the perspective of God (as a great grand-mother!), Abraham (and how he spent the night before they set off), the donkey, Isaac, Sarah, Rebekah (who married the ‘victim’ of the story, Isaac), the angel (a Lieutenant whose General has issued an immoral order that he chooses to countermand), a different culture that practised child sacrifice (!), the ram (or even the ram’s kid on a parallel journey with his dad).

When we are used to seeing a story from one perspective, it can be very hard to look at it from another. If that is true for a story we read, then how much more so is that true in our lives. It is hard to remember that we see everything from our own perspective. It is hard to even envisage the number of alternative perspectives that there could be for any event that we experience. Knowing that there are at least twelve different viewpoints from which the story of the binding of Isaac might be seen could help us each be a little less dogmatic and a little more aware.

A key moment for Abraham in this story comes when he looks up (verse 13), just as Hagar’s eyes were opened in the previous chapter (21:19), and both sons - Ishmael and Isaac - were saved as a consequence. Indeed, this week’s portion has the name Vayera - ‘God appeared’ - as long as we’re looking up and notice. Maybe a key moment this week for each of us will be when we allow our eyes to be opened, literally or metaphorically, to another perspective.