Friday, October 26, 2018 /17 Heshvan, 5779
Parashat Vayeira Genesis 18:1-22:24
Like many, perhaps yourself, I have long been troubled by the climactic episode in this week’s Torah portion – the Binding of Isaac. We read that God tested Abraham with a terrible trial: to offer his beloved son, Isaac, as a sacrifice, thus demonstrating his devotion to God.
Over the years, and even at Rosh Hashanah a few weeks ago, I have argued that, to me, Abraham failed the test… by following through on God’s instruction. Rather, I would contend, Abraham should have rejected God’s command, and contended with ADONAI.
But, he didn’t.
In our Reform Movement’s Torah Commentary, there is a citation from Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, in which the great existentialist expressed his torment over this episode. Kierkegaard wrote:
“Why did Abraham do it? It is a trial, a temptation. A temptation – but what does that mean? What ordinarily tempts a man is that which would keep him from doing his duty, but in this case, the temptation is itself ethical… that would keep him from doing God’s will. Therefore, though Abraham arouses my admiration, he at the same time appalls me… He who has explained this riddle has explained my life.” [Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (Princeton Univ. Press, 1945, 89-90), cited in The Torah Commentary, p. 148]
The conflict here is that by doing what is right – succumbing to God’s demand – one must do what is wrong. Moreover, one must suspend one’s moral grounding to accede to the Divine command. In other words, one must reject the ethical, to do the Divine. And, that conflict should never happen.
But it did.
And, today, sometimes we are in the same cauldron, with two or more contending demands where one seemingly right option opposes another seemingly right option. Our rabbinic sages called this a machloket – the conflict of two “rights.” Yet, we only can select one, and we must reject the other. It is awful when these conflicts arise; yet, this is when our character is built.
Every one of us must face our own trials and temptations. Perhaps, we might explain Kierkegaard’s riddle…
Rabbi Doug Kohn