Rabbi Ain Sermon Parashat Vayera 2019

These are an intense for weeks for our patriarch, Abraham. Last week he had to get up, take his wife and nephew, and leave his home in order to follow God’s voice to a place that God will show him. Last week he tried to pass of Sarai as his sister and he experienced the brit ben habitarim-the covenant between the pieces. This means that Abraham brought a three year old heifer, a three year old she goat, a three year old ram, a turtle dove, and a young bird. He cut them in two, he placed each half opposite the other but he did not cut up the bird. When he fell asleep we are told that God spoke to Abraham and renewed the covenant. There was a smoking oven and a flaming torch that passed between the pieces. 

This certainly doesn’t seem like an easy ceremony. Eliza-can you imagine if this is what you would have to do to acknowledge your place in the covenant? More than that, aren’t we all glad that circumcision takes place at 8 days and not 100 years old. (By the way-the fact that men who convert to Judaism have to remove a drop of blood from their area of circumcision shows a tremendous amount of faith and conviction for this covenant).  

The question is, if after Abraham did all of that, just last week, where he clearly showed his faith to god, why do we have all of the trials of this week.

Why, on the 3rd day after recovering from a painful surgery did Abraham greet guests at his tent?  Why, after circumcising himself and his family, and then welcoming guests into his tent, did Abraham accept God’s command to take his son Isaac and sacrifice him? Don’t you think that Abraham could have just taken a break?

The Rabbis explore this notion of all of the tests that Abraham endured.  They teach that there were ten tests in total and they are: 

His birth

Being put in prison for 10 years and being put in furnace of the fire

Leaving his father’s home

The famine that he encountered

The faith in Sarah that their relationship was still holy after she was with Pharoah

The Battle of the Kings

Brit Ben HaBitarim about which I just spoke

Covenant of Circumcision

Abraham sending away Ishmael and of course, 

The Akedah, the binding of Isaac. 

It is amazing to me that Abraham continued to show his faith in God and acted out on this faith, after the sealing of the covenant. 

Why was he tested at all: Many of the medieval biblical exegetes were divided more or less along the lines of these three approaches.  Ibn Ezra maintained that G-d put Abraham to the test to see to what extent he was G-d-fearing and to reward him for that. Nahmanides maintained that the trials were mostly for the benefit of the person tested. Rashi and Radak both were of the opinion that the narrative of Abraham’s trials was intended for the world’s edification, both in the time of Abraham and in all times and places that one might read and study the stories of Abraham.

So therefore, I would like to use Rashi and Radak’s understanding that these trials were there to teach us something and so, this morning, I would like to explore how this can impact on our lives. 

We see from Abraham that the real tests happen after the ceremony and we will be tested to see if we can live up to the commitments we make

For example, when I work with couples in preparation for their wedding, I of course talk about the logistics of the day, but I spend more time talking about the day and months and years after. What does it mean to be committed? What does it mean to have a Jewish home? What does it mean to now be a part of a couple? Marriage as we all know, is not easy. Marriage is not only about standing under the chuppah and exchanging rings. Honeymoons are amazing but we need to remember that marriage will not always be a honeymoon. There will be tests where we are asked to live up to the commitments that we made and we need to be ready to pass those tests. 

The real work comes the next day-after the commitment has been made-we will always be tested to live up to our commitments-how do we do that

The thing about tests though is that it is hard when our relationships are tested by external forces and when you might not even know you are being tested. 

If your coach is telling you that you must be at practice but you know that you have made a commitment to your religious education or when you should follow the rules of your parents but your friend’s parents might let you do something else. Or when you stand up for someone who is being picked on when you might in fact then get picked on. 

Dr Gaby Barzilai from Bar Ilan University teaches that: The need to choose between conflicting values is one of the characteristics of Abraham’s trials.  It is not so hard to do the right thing when it is perfectly clear what is right and what is wrong.  The true trial lies in deciding between two values both of which are important, when there is no way to uphold both simultaneously. You see, it is hard to say “no” to a coach but at the same time religious commitments are important. You don’t want to insult your friend’s parents, but you certainly don’t want to defy your own. 

You won’t always know you are being tested until it’s over. You won’t always succeed-you won’t always pass every test, but you will keep trying/

And unfortunately in today’s polarized society, we are often asked to look at things only through one lense without recognizing that tests aren’t easy but how we respond is important. That we might not know exactly what the right answer is but we do the best, with the information at hand. 

But we need to succeed in living up to our commitments is a strong foundation. We need to understand the commitments that we have made. We need to be proud of them. We need caring and supportive people to help us as we understand all of the different relationships in our lives. 

We all need to be ready to seize the opportunity to recognize and to pass tests-to be heroic in your own way

For Eliza, today is her Bat mitzvah but the tests come tomorrow and next week. She has entered the phase of becoming bat mitzvah but this is a moment of transition, not a moment of conclusion. Just as a graduation is called a commencement, a beginning, I hope you will embrace Nesiyah, our journey for our teens at SPS. I know that you come to this moment with a strong foundation from your family and this community but now you are part of the decision making process and I hope you choose Jewish. But as Abraham showed us, choosing Jewish isn’t only about standing up for the JEwish people or even God, it is about being a forceful advocate for justice in our world, and so Eliza, it will be up to you to seize opportunities in front of you to be heroic. To be a model. 

You have already shared your torah with us today, that is step one. You have inspired us to think of ourselves as advocates, that is step two. Now, all of us need to understand what is worth fighting for, and take that next step, like Abraham did, to make the right choices, even at difficult moments. 

Shabbat shalom.