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Parashat Vayera 5777: Nobody should be left behind

Parashat Vayera is quite special for me, as it is my Bar Mitzvah Parashah and of course because its content is just amazing… amazingly challenging. There is a famous Israeli writer called Dov Elboim, a former Haredi that left observance, but is still very involved in studying Judaism, only in a different way. In a speech he gave about Abraham he brought a most unconventional reading of the story that I want to share with you. Elboim went through the whole story of Abraham as told by the Torah, that by the way is quite different from his story in the writings of the Talmudic Sages, especially in the Midrash. Jewish tradition says that Abraham was put to 10 trials and he succeeded in all of them. Dov Elboim begs to disagree and he claims that actually failed in all those trials and that the tenth one, the hardest, the one in our Parashah, was the Akedah, the Sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham also failed in that one, because he was supposed to answer No to the request of God. He was supposed to say “that’s it, that I won’t do”!” For Dov Elboim the key here is responsibility and as you know, I like to think of responsibility as one of the core Jewish values. Even if one of the lessons from Abraham is the call to go, to move, to advance from our comfort zones to a better place, the thing is that we have responsibility to our past and especially towards the people in our lives, both things that make this journey much more difficult as any parent knows. To leave home when you don’t have kids take less than a minute, with kids takes up to 15 or 20 minutes. The question that Dov Elboim puts in front of us is what to do with our past when we leave for our life journey? Do you erase it and forget? Do you deny your family? Elboim claims that many people that go in a revolutionary journey like Abraham tend to give their backs to everything that was before and to shake off everything that shackles them, as it were. Abraham was not different: Two times Abraham tries to get rid of his wife by putting her in the hands of a different man, once to Pharaoh and in our Parashah Abimelech King of Gerar. When there is a conflict with Lot he immediately sends him away in the name of peace. Twice he gets rid of Hagar, Sarah’s slave, the first time he sends her away without any remorse and the second time he hesitates only for the sake of his son Ishmael, but at the end he does it, even under the prospect of both dying of thirst in the wilderness. And then, al last and tragically, it is Isaac’s turn, the loved son. For Dov Elboim, the will of Abraham to get rid of all his attachments is the reason for his failure in the tests. You could get to the conclusion, if you follow Elboim’s idea, that the hero of Abraham’s saga is not actually Abraham, he is pretty much a complete failure. The hero is God, because He is trying to teach us that being requested to move forward in our journey doesn’t mean we can leave our past and dear ones behind. And my proof? Every time that Abraham sends somebody away, God makes that person go back to him, even if it is by the back door. Sarah is given back to Abraham each time, even if only by Divine intervention. Lot needs to be rescued by Abraham in the most action packed scene in the book of Bereshit, again by Divine intervention as Abraham was not exactly a general? Hagar on her first expulsion is commanded by God to go back to Abraham’s camp; on her second expulsion, God saved her and Ishmael, actually, Hagar is told that Ishmael will always be considered Abraham’s son, even after being sent away. Isaac is also saved by God when the angel demands from Abraham to not hurt the boy and he is replaced by a ram. Dov Elboim’s confirmation for his theory of Abraham’s failure is that after the Akedah, not only Isaac never speaks to Abraham again, as I have told you in the past; but neither does God. I never realized that, buy after the Akedah, it seems that God breaks contact with Abraham, never speaks to him again, as if He finally gave up on him. Then how comes Abraham is the father of our nation? Elboim would say that more than Abraham is a worthy father, is the Torah the worthiest teacher and God the worthiest educator. We need to learn the lesson: In your journeys, in your growing, you must never forget your responsibility for the others in your life, you have to bring them with you. A colleague of mine, Rabbi Elisha Wolfin from Zichron Yaakov, takes Elboim’s interpretation but defends Abraham. He claims that Abraham’s merit was that he didn’t insist in sending these people away when God brought them back, but he received them back with open arms, trying to learn the Divine lesson. On the last test, the Akedah, he was able to listen to the angel and see the replacing ram. Most of us don’t listen or see until is too late, Abraham listened, saw and released his son. In Hebrew the word for freedom, herut, and the word for responsibility, achraiut, have the same letters and, as usual, we believe this is not coincidence. Freedom must never be to give our back to people, much less those that love us, those that count on us. Them, the people in your life, are never an obstacle for your freedom. False beliefs, wrong assumptions, shackling and chaining world views, those are our only jail, our real prison. And those we are commanded to leave behind, to go forth for ourselves, as Abraham, towards our Promised Land.

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