How are Jews meant to be in the world? The answer suggested by Jewish ethics is that with every step and with every word, we are to seek the presence of G-d. That does not mean that we are to treat the world as a game of hide-and-seek, but rather that we are to consider the impact of every word and act. Will this thing that I am about to say, that I am burning to say, bring the Presence more fully into being? Will this act that I plan to undertake bring more wholeness into my life and that of my family, my friends, my companions in community?
This week we are given a clear message about the intersection of ethical behavior and the Presence of G-d, as our ancestors struggled to understand it.
We have arrived, this week, at the parashat hashavua called VaYera, “[G-d] appeared”. In this first verse and throughout this long parashah, G-d appears several times to different people, in different guises.
First, to Abraham in the guise of three travelers (or maybe only one of them, the text is obscure).
18.1: “God appeared to him by the scrub oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day”
Second, to Sarah in the guise of an accuser, “outing” her private laughter:
18.15 “Sarah denied it, saying ‘I didn’t laugh’, because she was afraid. But G-d said, ‘you did too laugh’.”
Third, to Abraham in the guise of a king taking counsel with a trusted advisor:
18.17: “Shall I hide from Abraham that which I am doing?”
Fourth, to Avimelekh, king of Gerar, who adds Sarah to his harem after Abraham says that she is his sister (long story):
20.3: “You are going to die, because you have taken a woman who is another man’s wife.”
Fifth, to Abraham, as a friend counsels a man having trouble at home:
21.12: “In all that Sarah tells you, do as she says.”
Sixth, to Hagar as a savior:
21.19: “G-d opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water.”
Seventh, and finally, as – well, we don’t really know for sure:
22.1: “After all these things, G-d tested Abraham.”
These appearances all have in common an invitation to consider the meaning and ethical impact of one’s acts. The first is the classic story of Jewish hospitality. The second and fourth have to do with honesty, and the third with refraining from hypocrisy. The fifth touches on a Jewish category called shalom bayit, “keeping peace at home”. In the sixth, Hagar is challenged not to give up as long as life remains.
The seventh appearance of G-d in this parashah introduces the story of the Akedah, the “binding” and near sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s son and heir. For millennia, Jewish commentators, teachers and scholars have all tried to explain this incident and make it comprehensible. How could G-d command Abraham to “go to the land of Moriah, and take your son, your only one, whom you love, and offer him up as a burnt offering to Me on one of the mountains that I will show you there.” (Gen. 22.2) As has been said by many long before now, this makes no sense. It is also horrifying, of course.
One of the more compelling answers to this question is the one which notes that G-d “tested” Abraham. Pointing out that G-d did not allow the sacrifice to be completed, it has been suggested that the answer is quite simple: Abraham failed the test. The test was knowing when the voice that you are sure is G-d’s is not.
If the idea of “hearing G-d’s voice” is really just another way to say “I feel absolutely certain”, then the true test is knowing when that truth of which you are already certain is no longer true.
Each of the appearances in this parashah ask the protagonist to make a difficult ethical choice. Contrary to what we might assume, the appearance is not a reward for doing the right thing, the appearance is in the quandary itself.
G-d is present in our difficulties as the strength and vision that allows us to find our way through them. The Divine Presence is not, according to this particular Torah insight, the property of the one who makes the right choice. It is with all of us who realize that before us lies a struggle to discern the ethical path. It is in the seeing, not in someone’s temporary and partial definition of success. It is clearly NOT the property of one who says s/he speaks in the name of G-d, or the secular god of ethics, and then speaks a hurtful, cold, word, or does a cruel act. It is no accident that G-d never again appears to Abraham after this incident.
May the sense of a divine supportive Presence be with you as you do your best to discern the ethical and moral choices of your life, and choose your acts in response.