This Parsha contains one of the most morally confusing stories in the entire Torah – the story of Lot and the angels. In Chapter 19 of Bereishit, two angels (appearing to Lot as men) arrive in Sodom and are hosted by Lot. The evil-doers of Sodom hear of his hospitality and make the unanimous decision that this type of kindness will not be tolerated. So, all the men of Sodom, young and old, appear at his door, demanding that he hand over his guests so that they may sexually abuse them. Lot, in his twisted sense of morality and in a feeble attempt to protect his guests from imminent harm, offers the angry mob his two daughters instead of the two men. Not satisfied with the offer nor impressed by Lot’s efforts to defend his guests, the men of Sodom declare that they will deal worse with Lot than with the guests. Yet, before these brutish men can have their way with Lot and his visitors, a miracle occurs: a bright light emanates from the house, blinding all the men of Sodom, preventing them from attacking anyone. Thus, Lot, his guests, and his daughters, are saved.
This story closely parallels another story in Tanach; namely, the story of Pilegesh B’Giveah (the concubine of Gibeah) in chapter 19 of Sefer Shoftim. To highlight all the similarities between these two stories would be beyond the scope of this D’var Torah. But in a nutshell, the story of Pilegesh B’Giveah is about a Levite man and his concubine who are looking for a night lodging. Similar to the two men in Bereishit they end up spending the night at a local citizen’s house, rather than their initial plan of spending the night at the town square. Shortly after bathing their feet and feasting, the men of the Israelite town start pounding the front door, demanding that the owner of the house hand over his guests so they may sexually abuse them. The man of the house responds that he cannot do such a thing, though he would be prepared to hand over his virgin daughter, as well as the Levite’s concubine, if they so desire. These men, like the men of Sodom, do not listen to the man’s pleading. However, unlike the story of Lot’s guests, no miracle occurs, and the husband pushes out his concubine to the men, who take her and abuse her all night, ultimately killing her. These stories form one of the most obvious parallels in Tanach, coming to show how low Bnei Yisrael sunk in their level of morality nearing the end of the period of the Shoftim, when “there was no king in Israel,” so all the people did as they pleased (Shoftim 19:1). The language as well as the structure of the story in chapter 19 of Sefer Shoftim is paralleled to chapter 19 of Bereishit to indicate that the author of Sefer Shoftim finds Bnei Yisrael’s moral depravity in this specific era comparable to that of the men of Sodom.
Yet, as powerful as this comparison is, its primary purpose is to provide insight into the nature of the mobs themselves. It does not lend itself for as much discussion of what happened in the aftermath, when the stories become focused on the individuals rather than on the mobs, nor does it really explain the behaviour of the main actors of the stories. Even without reading the twinning story in Sefer Shoftim, we can recognize that Lot’s perception of hachnasat orchim is clearly distorted. But if the purpose of the parallel was to compare who is the ‘host with the most,’ then we definitely cannot compare Lot and the Levite, since the Levite is not a host, but is rather a guest in the story. Rather, the paralleling point between these two men is how they treat the women in their lives: both are prepared to cast out the women of their households in order to mollify the monstrous mobs, regardless of what the consequences mean for their wives and daughters. However, there is a key difference in their motivations: Lot, having lived amongst the people of Sodom, has partially adopted their code of immoral conduct. The men banging on his door have no initial interest in bother him; rather, they want to harm his guests. Lot voluntarily offers his daughters as substitute, believing it more proper to protect his guests, who are essentially two strangers that he picked off the street and has never met before, over his daughters, whom he raised and cared for since they were born. Lot could have cast out these guests. Yes, it would also be immoral, but he could have tried to protect his daughters. The Levite, on the other hand, doesn’t have this ‘luxury’ to choose. The angry mob is pounding on the door, demanding that the owner of the house cast out the two guests, namely, the Levite and his concubine. The owner of the house offers his own daughter and the concubine, but the crowd is not pleased. Without a moment to think rationally, the Levite grabs his concubine and hands her over to the crowd. Although his actions are far from noble and his actions resemble those of Lot, we cannot equate him to Lot on the same level, because he is in under attack, and therefore, in panic-mode. If he did not toss out his concubine, the bnei bli’al would have grabbed the both of them. He was acting in order to save his own life.
Interestingly enough, there is another episode in Tanach where we see a man put his wife on the line in order to save his own life. In fact, this same man puts his wife on the line in order to protect himself twice: once in last week’s parsha, and once in this week’s parsha. Yes, this man is in fact Avraham Avinu. Now, you might be wondering, how could we possibly compare one of the most tragic stories in Tanach, a story that depicts the epitome of immoral marital misconduct, to our first forefather and foremother, Avraham and Sarah, and their holy union? The answer, quite simply, is that it is in the pshat. The text tells us that on two occasions, Avraham pretends Sarah is his sister so that he will live. He pulls this ruse once in Bereishit chapter 12 when he goes down to Egypt, and once again in chapter 20 when he goes down to Gerar. He utters this lie when he arrives at the Egyptian boarder because he is afraid that the people of the land will see his beautiful wife, and kill him in order to be with her. Thus, he feels justified in declaring that she is his sister so that he will live, even though the implications are clear: the people of the land will take her and use her to satisfy their sexual desires. True, some mefarshim suggest that this was a last-resort, that he realized this was the only option he had in order to save his life. But others (such as Ramban) suggest that Avraham should not have even headed down to Egypt in the first place, because he should have had faith that Hashem would provide for him. Luckily for both him and Sarah, the text tells us that Hashem afflicts Pharaoh and his household because of Sarah, and therefore, Pharaoh lets her go free (Gen. 12:17-20). If not for God’s intervention, who knows how long Sarah would have been trapped in Pharaoh’s palace? Yet even if we were to suggest that Avraham was not aware that the Egyptians would seize her based on his lie, then surely we would expect him to know how the Philistines in Gerar would react to such a lie: they would also take Sarah! We would thus expect Avraham to have learned the error of his ways and not try to say Sarah is his sister again. Rather, we would expect him to either try to procure food in a different manner to tide him and his wife over during the famine (perhaps by going to a different country, or davening to Hashem) or, we would expect him to sacrifice himself, rather than sacrificing his wife! After all, Hashem saved Sarah once, but who is to say that Hashem will save Sarah again if Avraham tries this trick once more?
Luckily for Avraham, God does in fact save Sarah again, by appearing to Abimelech the king of Gerar in a dream, warning him to leave Sarah alone (Gen. 20:3). However, he loses the opportunity to fix the error of his ways. He finally has the chance to correct his behaviour from last week’s parsha, and he misses the boat. He sacrifices a loved one in order to save himself. Now, although some may be tempted to ignore his misconduct, I would like to suggest that Hashem doesn’t. Even though God does not verbally reprimand Avraham for how he treats his wife, the text seems to hint that God tries to show Avraham the error of his ways, rather than simply tell him. I would like to suggest that the test of the Akeida comes as a response to Avraham’s sacrificing of Sarah.
Till this point, Avraham has sacrificed a loved one in order to protect himself. Now, this is where God comes in to reprimand Avraham and say, “You want to know what it really means to lose a loved one? I can arrange that.” The very nature of the sacrifice here will be entirely different than the two preceding sacrifices that Avraham has made. In this sacrifice, Avraham will be called upon to take his son to the altar. This is the son that he has been praying for and longing for to have as his heir, and as his successor of monotheism in the world. This is not Avraham asking his wife to sacrifice her integrity, but rather, this is Avraham sacrificing his son. This is not a sacrifice that Avraham needs to make in order to save himself from danger or to acquire goods like he did in Egypt, but rather, this is a sacrifice that he needs to make because God is commanding him to do so. This is his sacrifice. Rather than gaining from this sacrifice, he is in fact losing everything he has lived for – his son Yitzchak.
Avraham is being asked to part with the most meaningful thing in his life –his progeny, his child of his old age, Yitzchak. But was exactly is the point of this test?
To answer this question, I would like to revisit the chapter of Pilegesh B’Giveah and note some more details as well as some surprising parallels to the Akeida that were overlooked in our initial recounting of the story:
· The Levite’s concubine leaves him, going to her father’s house. The Levite sets out on his journey to her father’s house to woo her back. The text tells us he sets out with his attendant (na’aro) and a pair of donkeys (chamorim) (Judges 19:3). Similarly, when Avraham sets out for the Akeida, he takes his donkey (chamoro) and his two attendants (na’arav) (Gen. 22:3).
· Once the Levite arrives at his father-in-law’s house, he initially stays with him for a duration of three days (Judges 19:4), just as the text informs us that Avraham saw the designated place from afar on the third day, indicating that his main journey takes three days (Gen. 22:3).
· On the fourth day, when the Levite intends to leave, he gets up early (Vayishkemu ba’boker), just as Avraham gets up early to set out on his journey (Vayishkem…ba’boker) (Judges 19:5; Gen. 22:3).
· The father-in-law convinces the Levite to remain in his house for a few more days, thereupon the text tells us that on the fourth day and the fifth day, the two of them ate together (vayochlu shneyhem yachdav), which is a clever phonetic play on the famous description of Avraham and Yitzchak’s journey, that “the two of them walked together” (Vayelchu shneyhem yachdav) (Judges 19:6; Gen. 22:6). Moreover, it is interesting to note that in both stories, similar/shortened versions of these phrases are repeated again in each of the stories (Judges 19:8; Gen. 22:8).
· Both stories reference places in Yerushalayim: the Levite and his concubine travel to the vicinity of Yevus, which the text explains is Yerushalayim (Judges 19:10), and the Akeida takes place on Har HaMoriah, which is known today as the Temple Mount/Har HaBayit in Yerushalayim.
· Both journeys are interrupted by a younger person asking a question/saying a comment to an older person, related to the journey: the attendant (na’ar) says to the Levite, “Let us turn to the this town…to spend the night” (Judges 19:11); Yitzhak asks his father Avraham, “Here are the wood and the firestone, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” (Gen. 22:7). In both cases, the older person responds in a way that indicates that he has a different image of the journey in mind; the Levite replies that they will not stop, but rather spend the night in Gibeah (Judges 19:12); Avraham responds that even though they would usually bring the items that Yitzhak is inquiring about, this time, “God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering” (Gen. 22:8).
· Both stories contain the phrase, “Vayisa…Einav Vayireh” (“and he lifted his eyes and saw”); the Levite, in regard to seeing the old man who would eventually host them for the night (Judges 19:17), and Avraham, in regard to seeing his destination from afar (Gen. 19:4).
· When the Levite finds his concubine dead in the morning, he cuts up her body into twelve parts, and sends out her limbs throughout Israel. It is interesting to note that the phrase used to describe the Levite preparing for this gory slaughter is the same phrase used to describe Avraham preparing to sacrifice his son: “Vayikach et Hamalechet” (he picked up the knife) (Judges 19:29; Gen. 22:10). Both are also raising knives to their family members.
· At the end of each story, the text mentions others seeing with regards to the event that just took place, using twice the verb for seeing in one verse (reish-aleph-hey): “vehaya kol ha-roeh ve-omer….velo nirata kazot” (and everyone who saw it said…such a thing has not been seen), (Judges 19:30); “Vayikra Avraham shem hamakom hahu Adonai Yireh…, asher yeamar hayom bahar Adonai Yireah” (And Avraham named the place God Will See, as it is said to this day, on the mountain, God will see).
We should also note the conclusions of each of these stories: in the Akeida, an angel swoops down just before Avraham can slaughter his son in order to stop him. Instead, Avraham sacrifices a ram, and God blesses Avraham for not withholding his son from him. However, in the aftermath of the story of Pilegesh B’Giveah, the people of Israel see the concubine’s body limbs and are mortified; the Levite cries for the people to take action, and thus, a civil war breaks out.
After reviewing the parallels between these two chapters, the logical conclusion we could draw at this point would be to say that the text is trying to teach us that human sacrifices for any purpose other than proving our devotion to Hashem is wrong. The Levite was wrong to push out his concubine so that she would be killed and he would be saved, just as Avraham’s twofold betrayal of Sarah in both Egypt and Gerar was wrong. Both these men are given chances to redeem themselves: the Levite, now seeing his wife lying dead before him, can at least save her body and give her the proper burial that she deserves. However, he “sacrifices” her once more – he sacrifices her body, cutting up her limbs in order to shock the Israelites and rally the troops. This, of course, is viewed as the incorrect choice of action, as the result is the outbreak of a civil war, rather than the bestowal of blessings from God, as we see in the Akeida. Thus, the Levite does not redeem himself. However, when Avraham is given the opportunity to sacrifice a family member once more, he does redeem himself. This time, the sacrifice is not to save himself – rather, it is to fulfill God’s command. Thus, we could argue, that he redeems himself, by recognizing that his initial sacrifices were inappropriate, while sacrificing his son to please God is appropriate. Since Avraham’s actions were so that God would see (Adonai Yireah), his actions were deemed acceptable; but since the Levite sacrificed his wife so that the Israelites would see, his actions were deemed unacceptable.
So, to return to our question of what was the purpose of the Akeida test, the answer, according to this particular flow of logic, would seem to be that it was a test of Avraham’s devotion. Would Avraham be able to recognize that sacrificing people is generally considered cruel, but for God, a sincerely devout believer should even sacrifice his beloved son? If this is the purpose of the test, then Avraham has passed with flying colours. There is no question that Avraham is a firm believer in Hashem.
This is certainly a valid opinion. It is what we have been taught since we were children. Pirkei Avot 5:3 teaches that the purpose of the Akeida was to prove how much Avraham loves God. The Beis HaLevi highlights Avraham’s greatness even more by commenting that Avraham had a harder trial than Yitzchak did in this event because it is harder to live without your loved ones than to give up your own life. Thus, Avraham’s actions represent the epitome of self-sacrifice and commitment to following Hashem’s word. The story of the Akieda has thus traditionally been used to inspire more commitment in our religious observance.
…But was this really the purpose of the test? We have acknowledged the fact that Avraham aced the loyalty-to-God test, but what if he was taking the wrong test? What if he misread the questions? Does God really want us to go to the extreme of demonstrating our devotion to Him by offering our children as offerings upon an altar? Certainly not! In fact, the Torah itself condemns child sacrifices, forbidding the practice altogether (Lev. 18:21, 20:2-4, Deut. 18:10). Additionally, if God really wanted Avraham to offer Him his child, why would He not allow Avraham to go through with the act and actually kill his son? Moreover, what lesson would Avraham have learned? After inappropriately sacrificing Sarah, God wants Avraham to redeem himself for his mistakes. If God wanted him to kill his son, it is true, perhaps Avraham would have finally understood what it means to sacrifice and lose a loved one, and Avraham would have learned his lesson. However, the Akeida is called a test (“God tested Avraham” – Gen. 22:1). Meaning, God’s intentions were not simply to show Avraham the error of his ways, but to give him a chance to redeem himself. How then would killing a different family member prove that Avraham had finally grasped the importance of not sacrificing his family members, and the value of protecting them?
So, now we are face with the question of how can Avraham redeem himself for sacrificing Sarah? The answer is by questioning God, by petitioning like he did for the people of Sodom (Gen. 19). He could challenge God, to attempt to save the life of his son Yitzhak, to make up for the two times that he did not petition on Sarah’s behalf. If he has the courage to question God in order to try and save a city of evil-doers, should he not make an effort to raise his voice to save his own family members? In other words, the real test of the Akeida is not whether Avraham will have the devotion to God to sacrifice his son, but rather, whether he will recognize the error of his ways and the value of protecting his family members, and not sacrifice Yitzhak.
If this is the purpose of test at hand, does Avraham pass? Unfortunately, he does not. He does not petition on Yitzchak’s behalf. Instead, he treats Yitzchak like a korban, putting him on the altar in preparation to slaughter him like an animal. He is not thinking about Yitzchak here. He is thinking of himself and of his own personal loss. He is not thinking of the larger ramifications of his actions. Sure, we have been taught to look to Avraham as the hero who was brave and selfless enough to almost sacrifice his own son to God, but did we stop to ask ourselves how Yitzchak’s life was affected by this near-death experience? This event not only impairs their father-son relationship, (as would seem to be indicated by the fact that there are no further interactions or meetings noted in the Torah between Avraham and Yitzchak until the day Avraham dies), but it also takes a serious toll on Yitzchak’s mental well-being. In Shmuel Klitsner’s book, Wrestling Jacob, the author demonstrates how Yitzchak suffers psychologically after the Akeida. He notes that the text mentions Avraham returning to his attendants (after he is blessed and offers a ram), and then making his way to Be’er Sheva; however, there is no mention of Yitzhak, indicating that Yitzhak is still on the mountain, both literally and psychologically speaking. To summarize and analyze his entire argument as to why this is true is a project too large for this essay. I am merely making mention of his work because it raises a curious question for our purposes: did Avraham not consider any of the possible consequences for his son before bringing him to this near-death experience? I would like to suggest that maybe he did not think of this. Maybe, in his anguish and shock, did not stop to realize that if he loses Yitzchak, he is not losing something valuable to him, but rather, he is losing, someone valuable to him.
Perhaps, understood in this way, the parallels between the Akeida and the story of Pilegesh B’Giveah can be reinterpreted. I believe that the Navi who authored Sefer Shoftim is trying to hint that, like Avraham, the Levite is clearly not keeping the interests of his family member in mind. He is not thinking about her before he sacrifices her; he is merely focusing on himself and his personal loss and sacrifice. Furthermore, it should be noted that when we line up the stories, although Avraham and the Levite match in their roles in their respective stories, the concubine and Yitzhak do not: in the Akeida story, the main actors are Avraham and Yitzhak. Therefore, the main interactions are between them: when the text says, “the two of them walked together,” (22:8), it is referring to Avraham and Yitzhak, and when there is a stop in the journey for a short dialogue, the conversation that takes place is between Avraham and Yitzchak. Yet, in the paralleling verses in Sefer Shoftim, it is the Levite and the father-in-law who sit and eat together, and it is the Levite and the attendant who converse on the journey, rather than the Levite and his concubine. The exclusion of the concubine would seem to indicate that the Levite not only does not consider his wife’s needs, but even objectifies her, viewing her as useful for his hedonistic purposes, but not really a valuable member of his household otherwise. This idea also appears in the Gemara, in Gittin 6b, which states that the concubine ran away because he instilled a fear in her, or that alternatively, he kicked her out because she accidentally left a fly or a hair in his food. This Gemara shows that their relationship was not smooth-sailing, which would further explain why he makes such an effort to retrieve her, yet displays no concern for her general well-being; it is because he does not truly value her as a family member. Moreover, after her death, instead of regretting his decision to sacrifice her in order to save himself, and instead of providing her with a proper burial, he disgraces her further by spreading her lifeless limbs throughout the country. We must also question the authenticity of his alleged ‘cry for justice’ – how can we take his claims for retribution for her blood seriously, when he was the one who grabbed her and threw her out to the crowd that would rape and kill her (Judges 19:25)? Thus, even his desire to avenge her blood cannot be used as a proof of his genuine care for her. It is obvious that the Levite’s story is much more horrific than Avraham’s, and his level of consideration for others is much less, as we are well aware of the fact that Avraham loves his son Yitzhak (Gen. 22:2) and is just trying to display his love for Hashem, while the Levite is acting out of self-interest and a lack of love for his concubine. Nonetheless, the Navi compares him and his story to the major shortcomings here of Avraham, as well as to Lot, to demonstrate the kind of society the Israelites lived in at the end of the Shoftim time period: it is a period filled with total anarchy, filled with individuals just like the Levite, acting with only their own interests in mind, and not thinking of one another. The Navi’s dual comparison thus helps give insight into the famous phrase, “In those days, there was no king in Israel; everyone did as he pleased” (Judges 21:25).
In this three-way comparison between Avraham, Lot, and the Levite, there are of course some stark differences, which are evident in the plain words of the text. Thus, we cannot claim that Avraham acted as immorally as Lot or as the Levite did. After all, Hashem did bless him after the Akeida, while He does not bless the other two for their sacrifices. That being said, we can compare their stories on some level. Ultimately, they have all sacrificed family members, and, on varying levels, have neglected to consider the needs of those family members. Avraham is prepared to sacrifice his son, and it not only strains their relationship, but it also leaves Yitzhak in a traumatic state. Similarly, Lot is prepared to sacrifice his daughters, and it complicates their relationship as well – the daughters now view it as acceptable to make their father drunk in order to have him partake in an act of incest, since they understand the implications of what their father was prepared to do to them. As for the Levite – he actually sacrificed his wife, and his actions affected the entire county, as his ‘sacrifice’ led to the outbreak of a civil war. Thus, these stories not only come to teach us that ‘sacrificing’ others, especially our family, is immoral because it demonstrates a lack of sympathy and consideration, but it also comes to teach us that regardless of the purpose of the sacrifice, it is wrong. This three-way comparison is reminding us to recognize the value of our loved ones, especially our family, and not ‘sacrifice’ them. In a rush or in a panic, we may be tempted to focus on ourselves and lose sight of the fact that our actions affect others. But we need to stop and ask ourselves, can we sacrifice our own dignity, rather than embarrassing our loved ones? Can we offer our criticisms in a constructive way? Can we sacrifice our own comfort momentarily in order to make sure someone else is comfortable? This comparison between these three figures in Tanach and their various sacrifices comes to teach us that sacrificing your family members, regardless of whether it is for yourself (like Avraham sacrificing Sarah, or the Levite sacrificing his concubine), for others (like Lot sacrificing his daughters), or even for the sake of demonstrating your religious devotion (like Avraham sacrificing Yitzhak) is uncalled for and improper. We need to not only appreciate our family members verbally, but also in our actions, by learning to perhaps sacrifice ourselves at times for them and their needs, acting in a way that reflects and demonstrates our interest in their well-being.
Hi Sichati Dvar Torah archive for Parshat Vayera 5777. First Published on Wednesday November 16, 2016