Parsha Vayetze: Destiny Discovered

Parsha Vayetze: Destiny Discovered

God often appears to us where and when we least think He will.

We experience a long series of tiny events, which amount to a life, and occasionally catch glimpses of the bigger picture, and perhaps even what part our role may be in it. This thought was captured by the song “Scarlet Begonias”, by the Grateful Dead:

“Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest places if you look at it right.” 

This week’s parsha opens up with a description of Jacob’s journey away from his parents, and away from the brother who sought his life. The description is worded in a manner that the sages found curious. The phrasing led them to analyze what on the surface seemed to be small, insignificant details, yet hidden within were important keys to Jacob discovering his own destiny with the LORD.

“Then Jacob departed from Beersheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and spent the night there, because the sun had set; and he took one of the stones of the place and put it under his head, and lay down in that place….Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Gen.28:10-12, 16-17)

Rashi, the great 12th Century Jewish sage, says that the Torah makes special mention of the fact that Jacob “departed”, rather than simply saying that he “went to Haran.”  The Midrash Rabbah suggests why:

The departure of a righteous person from a place makes an impression upon those left behind.

For at the time that a righteous person is in a city, he is its magnificence, he is its splendor, he is its grandeur. Once he has departed from there, its magnificence has gone away., it’s splendor has gone away, it’s grandeur has gone away. (Genesis Rabbah, 68:6)

So the first thing the Torah is telling us, then, about Jabob’s journey to Haran, is the fact that his departure deeply affected those he left behind. They lost the benefit of the glory of God which he reflected upon them. This is an important thing to remember, as we seek our own purposes: we are not independent of our surroundings, but we impact them.

When the text says “he came to a certain place”, it is speaking of “the place”; the place of the future Temple, and the place of the binding of Isaac, his father.

The Talmud tells us that Jacob had gone past Mount Moriah, but “felt bad” about doing so, and so he decided to return. The Talmud goes on to say that as soon as Jacob decided to return to “that place”, the earth miraculously contracted and he found himself at Mount Moriah, the place. Continue reading

Cheyei Sarah: Triumphalism and the Promises of God

Cheyei Sarah: Triumphalism and the Promises of God

At the opening of this parsha, we see the following somber scene:

“Then Abraham rose from before his dead, and spoke to the sons of Heth, saying, ‘I am a stranger and a sojourner among you; give me a burial site among you that I may bury my dead out of my sight.’ The sons of Heth answered Abraham, saying to him, ‘Hear us, my lord, you are a prince of God among us; bury your dead in the choicest of our graves; none of us will refuse you his grave for burying his dead.’…And he spoke with them, saying, ‘If it is your wish for me to bury my dead out of my sight, hear me, and approach Ephron the son of Zohar for me, that he may give me the cave of Machpelah which he owns, which is at the end of his field; for the full price let him give it to me in your presence for a burial site.’ (Gen.23:3-9)

In itself, the scene is unremarkable. Abraham has lost his wife, and seeks to find a suitable location for her final rest. He has discovered a cave at the end of a field, and asks the residents to find the owner of the property so that he can negotiate the purchase of the cave for both the burial of his wife and, ultimately, himself and his descendants. Burial arrangements. These things are necessary, though in the grand scheme, routine. But, there is a catch.

The Torah has enshrouded this story into the folds of a greater narrative: One that has divinely promised both this cave, the field in which it is found, and in fact all of the surrounding territories to Abraham and his descendants, as an eternal possession.

This promise forms the very foundation of all future claims upon this controversial plot of ground, and all affirmations of divine promise to all the people of God, including the Christian Church, which claims (with Paul’s allegory in hand) an equal share in this same promise. This is deceptive, however, since traditionally the Church desires only the claim of identification in relation to spiritual destiny, and typically ignores the aspect of the covenant that pertains to the land. This, as we will see, is very unfortunate, since the management of shared resources is an important aspect of Torah.

Who is Ephron? And how does his opinion rate our consideration in this matter? Doesn’t he realize that he’s on sacred ground?

There are two promises God gives Abraham that would directly impact this story.

“The LORD appeared to Abraham and said, ‘To your descendants I will give this land.'” (Gen.12:7)

“The LORD said to Abraham, after Lot had separated from him, ‘Now lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see, I will give it to you and to your descendants forever.” (Gen.13:14-15)

God obviously has far more authority than Ephron or the sons of Heth. How, then, does Abraham conceive that he must negotiate with them, for a place to bury Sarah?

The key is found in the fourth verse of our cited passage:

“I am a stranger and a sojourner among you…”

This statement is problematic. According to Rashi, Abraham cannot be both “an alien and a resident” at the same time, since an alien “does not reside in his current location.” He explains that Abraham was formerly of a foreign land, but that his self-description as a ger toshav means that he has taken up residence in Canaan. Continue reading

Parsha Commentary, Vayera: The Sterilization of Duty

Parsha Commentary, Vayera: The Sterilization of Duty

This week’s parsha, Vayera, presents us with a visceral, engaging, and horrifying story. Abraham, the hero of these early Torah portions, is asked by God to do the unthinkable.

In this parsha, Abraham dramatically intercedes for Sodom and Gomorrah. He receives fulfillment of promise, and the birth of his son, Isaac. But now, near the end of the portion, we read this:

“God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.”  So Abraham rose early in the morning….” (Gen.22:1-3, emphasis added)

What’s remarkable about Abraham’s reaction to God’s inhumane request is that there is no reaction at all. He simply obeys, seemingly without question.

There are times as we read the Bible, that we are betrayed by our familiarity with the story. We know how this story ends, you see. We know not only that Isaac is ultimately spared, but we also know, as followers of Messiah, that this entire episode carries with it the theological freight of picturing for us the ultimate offering of God’s Son.

But for over 1,500 years, the Christ story lay dormant in the future and was not visible to the interpreters of the Bible. And the events in the story, at this point, demand a reaction.

A strong one. Continue reading