Parshat Vayera is filled with many significant and exciting stories that contain deep conceptual messages. I would like to focus on two central events that seemingly have no connection to each other. These events are: the story of the rescue of Lot from the destruction of Sodom and Amorah, and the story of the Akeidah (the sacrifice of Isaac). In order to develop the connection between them, let us examine three midrashim.
The midrash in Bereishit Rabbah 51 deals with the following question: Why did Lot merit to be saved from the destruction of Sodom? The Torah (Genesis 19:29) presents Lot’s merit as follows: “ And so it was when God destroyed the cities of the plain that God remembered Abraham; so he sent Lot from amidst the upheaval when he overturned the cities in which Lot had lived”. Superficially, the first thought that comes to mind is that Lot’s merit in being saved, gained strength from the fact that he was a close relative of Abraham, and because of this, it was Abraham’s merit that saved him. However, the Midrash suggests a different reading of the verse and claims: “What did God remember concerning Abraham? He remembered that Lot remained quiet when Abraham said concerning Sarah, ‘she is my sister’, and Lot knew (differently) but remained silent.” The merit that stood up for Lot was not his familial relationship with Abraham’s family, but rather his independant personal merit. When Abraham traveled down to Egypt, he feared that Sarah would be taken from him. He feared for his own life as well. Abraham asked Sarah not to tell the truth about the nature of their relationship so that he would survive. Lot, who knew the true nature of Abraham and Sarah’s relationship, could have gained great honor and wealth if he had let the Egyptians know that Sarah and Abraham were not being truthful. Nevertheless, Lot controlled himself and did not reveal Abraham’s secret. It was Lot, through the power of his silence and self control, who saved Abraham and Sarah’s lives. By virtue of this, he merited to be saved from the destruction of Sodom and Amorah.
This personal strength of self-control is also the basis of the midrash in Bereishit Rabbah 73 which comments on the verse “God remembered Rachel.” (Genesis 30:22) The Midrash explains that God remembered Rachel’s silence at the time that Laban replaced her, at the moment of her marriage to Jacob, with her sister Laya. In her heart’s fury, Rachel could have screamed not only about the horrible injustice being done to her, but also about her very uncertain future. Instead, she stopped herself and did not embarrass her sister. Rachel stayed silent, giving up on her life’s dream to marry the love of her life, to marry the man who had worked for seven years in order to marry her. Rachel could not know whether, now, Jacob would still want to marry her. Nevertheless, she succeeded in overcoming her desires. By her silence, she merited to have God remember her to grant her the ability to give birth.
At the end of the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac, the Torah describes that Abraham named the place where the binding of Isaac took place: “And Abraham called the name of that site ‘God Will See.’” (Genesis 22:14) The Midrash Rabbah (Chapter 56) quotes the opinion of Rabbi Yochanan who asserts that Abraham could have said to God:”When I was commanded to sacrifice Isaac, I could have questioned Your command, since this command is in direct conflict with Your promise to me ‘since through Isaac will offspring be considered yours.’” (Genesis 21:12) Additionally, the command to sacrifice Isaac conflicts with the essence of God as Abraham understood Him, and as Abraham tried to teach mankind. Nevertheless, Abraham conquered his questions and his astonishment, and did not question God’s command. As the Midrash says, “God forbid, but I did not do so; rather I conquered my inclination to mercy in order to do Your will.” The Midrash continues by describing the powerful suffering that Abraham experienced and his compassion for his only son while they were traveling on the way, which was in direct tension with his love for God and his desire to fulfill God’s words. Abraham had to wage war with his thoughts and to “conquer” his desires, in order to fulfill God’s will. By the merit of his conquering of his will, Abraham requested, according to the Midrash, that God conquer his anger if Isaac’s descendants will come to commit sins and evil deeds. Abraham understood the effort required to conquer our intense inner desires in order to fulfill God’s will, and, therefore, he could ask God to act similarly with his children.
This midrash is consistent with what is related in the Gemara in Brachot (7a) that Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha made the very same request from God: “that Your mercy conquer Your anger and that Your mercy prevail over your (other) attributes.” If so, the power to conquer your will, the power to conquer the immediate reaction, that at times summons a requirement of great spiritual strength, requires us to try and understand from where can we draw upon powers like these?
Perhaps the source of such spiritual strength can be found in the words of the midrash in Bereishit Rabbah (Chap. 56) pertaining to the verse: “ On the third day, Abraham raised his eyes and perceived the place from afar.” (Genesis 22:4) The midrash asks,”What did Abraham see? He saw a cloud attached to the mountain. It appears that that is the place that the Holy One Blessed Be He told me to sacrifice my son there. He said to Isaac, “Do you see what I see?’ Isaac said, ‘Yes’. He said to his young men, ‘Do you see what I see?’ They said, ‘No.’” The midrash describes Abraham seeing a cloud attached to the mountain, a phenomenon that can be interpreted as a unique natural phenomenon. But Abraham sensed that what he saw contained an additional deeper meaning. He saw the Divine Presence, the Shechina. In order to verify his vision, he asked Isaac who also saw beyond the natural phenomenon and understood that the cloud symbolized God’s presence upon the mountain. The individuals who could not see this were Abraham’s young men who only saw a natural cloud hovering over the mountain. Abraham tells these young men, “Stay here by yourselves with the donkey, while I and the lad will go yonder; we will worship and we will return to you.”(Genesis 22:5) Abraham ascends the mountain with Isaac his son, who understands the need to have vision from afar andthe need to understand the deeper meaning of words.
This Midrash gives us the source of the power for our internal conquest. “Seeing from afar” which stands as the basis of the words of the midrash is the secret to the understanding that not every surface reality is the end all and be all; rather that there are different layers in every circumstance and in every situation:
Lot — He was silent, conquering his impulsive desires, seeing a different and much better future than the one afforded by informing on Abraham.
Rachel — She was silent, understanding that the situation that she was thrown into provided her with the opportunity to do a deed of loving-kindness for her sister. Rachel receives good tidings: “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears; for there is reward for your accomplishment …. And your children will return to their border.” (Jeremiah 31:15-16) and she stopped crying. Rachel understood that the promise would not be fulfilled immediately — but she knows that it will come, yet now she controls her feelings and believes in God’s promise.
Abraham was silent because he understood that the plan of Isaac’s sacrifice was part of the larger and deeper plan of the One on High.
The Midrash (Esther Rabbah 10) claims that “the wicked are controlled by their hearts”, and proves this through a number of examples. For example, “And Esav thought (literally: Esav said in his heart)” (Genesis 27:41). Similarly, “Now Haman said in his heart” (Esther 6:6). The wicked cannot control themselves. They cannot “see in the distance” beyond the here and now. Therefore, they react impulsively and immediately. However, the Nation of Israel has been blessed with the ability to “see in the distance”. We know how to lift up our eyes, so as not to see “the entire plain of Jordan that was well watered everywhere” (Genesis 13:10) but to see the “place in the distance”. By virtue of this strength, Abraham can request that God reveal mercy to his people and see in the distance. Abraham expects that God will grant us additional chances after sinning, and not allow sin to define our essence. As individuals and as a nation, “seeing in the distance” has maintained us through the years of our history. A nation that understands eternity, a nation bound to history and a broad understanding of what happens in the world is not afraid of the long path ahead. The power hidden within us to conquer momentary impulsiveness and to see in the distance will help us to continue to walk in the ways of God.