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Oct 18 2013

Torah MOMentary: What Was Abraham Thinking?

By at 10:00 am

abraham sacrificing isaac

This post is part of our new Torah commentary series. This week we read Parashat Vayera. To read a summary of the portion and learn more, click here.

This week’s Torah portion is called Vayera, and it tells the story of an extremely questionable parenting decision.

God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. And Abraham agrees. In one of the most emotional, cinematic scenes in all of Torah, father and son walk slowly up the mountain.  At the last minute, God provides a ram, and Isaac is spared.

But Abraham’s willingness to offer up his son has sparked many centuries of commentary. How could a father agree to such a thing?  What was Abraham thinking? 

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Before I became a mother, I would make major life decisions without a second thought. I once flew to Israel to study Torah full-time on scholarship, though I barely knew the Hebrew alphabet. Then I moved to Western Massachusetts to be with an American guy I’d fallen for in Jerusalem. Both of these decisions I made in approximately one split second. The transitions weren’t always easy, but I never regretted my choices.  It was cool. I was a free agent. I chalked the difficulties up to adventure.

But as a parent, it’s not just about me. I‘m responsible to other people now: my child, my partner, my family. And sometimes our needs don’t exactly line up.

This gives me some compassion for Abraham, forced to choose between his God and his son.  Is there one right answer? Even the great rabbis disagree.

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Career decisions, childcare decisions, financial decisions. I’ve been struggling with a lot of decisions since becoming a mother. But the hardest one has been where to live.

When my daughter was 4 months old, we moved across the country from where I’ve lived my whole life. My husband had spent 20 years in Portland, and though he had no family there, he had an amazing community of friends and a house with a yard. As for me, after a couple months trying to navigate Brooklyn with a baby and no money, I was ready for a big change. Portland seemed better for Sylvie, too: parks everywhere, tomatoes in the backyard.

portland, oregon sign

I assumed this move would be similar to past leaps of faith: rocky for a few months, but basically a great adventure. Instead, I keep wondering if I made the wrong decision. I feel every mile between me and my family, every month and milestone Sylvie’s grandparents, aunts, and uncles miss. And though I used to travel for work all the time without a second thought, flying across the country with a toddler is no joke.

My decision is infinitely smaller than Abraham’s. But still, it’s a big deal to me. Either we stay out west, far from my family, or we move back east, far from the place and community my husband loves. And which would be a better place for Sylvie to grow up? It’s hard to say. Even with a relatively low-stakes decision, it’s so difficult to balance everyone’s needs. I can’t begin to imagine how it felt for Abraham.

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But…how did it feel for Abraham? The Torah doesn’t say whether he agonized over his decision, or made it instantly. And I wonder: did he weigh this terrible choice? Or was he still operating from that free-agent mindset, back when he could just say yes to God, without thinking about it from someone else’s point of view?

After all, in last week’s portion, when Abraham was just a single guy living in Ur-Chaldea, God appeared and told him to leave his family, his homeland, everything he knew. And Abraham did. He rejected his culture, left his parents, and never looked back.  Reading this, we think, wow: what a brave guy. What an inspiration.

This week, God again asks Abraham to give up what he most loves, and Abraham again says yes. But this time, choosing God doesn’t just mean giving up his old self. It means giving up his son. And perhaps the worst thing about this story is that we don’t see Abraham agonize over his decision. He doesn’t cry out, he doesn’t fall to the ground, he just takes Isaac’s hand and heads up the mountain.

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I don’t know where my family will end up, and I can’t say what Abraham should have done. But I do know that this is only the beginning of making hard decisions as a parent. Balancing everyone’s needs will be difficult, maybe impossible. All I can do is take my time, do my best, and keep my eyes out for miraculous rams.

Follow along with our weekly Torah series by clicking here.

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