Parashat VaYeira: Seeing the Other

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September 23, 2011
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© Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Senior Sermon 5761/2001

I’ve been told that I look like my father. In fact, at this very moment, I probably resemble my father more than any moment before today. Because, 26 years ago, my father delivered his senior sermon. Today probably looks a lot like that day. A young bearded man sharing some Torah. Same institution (though in a different room), same love of Judaism, and, thank God, some of the same family members.

And if we’re going to be discussing fathers and sons, what better Torah portion could we ask for? We just read the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac. It’s an interesting thing- people resembling each other. I wonder whether Isaac looked like this father. He probably did.

I’d assume that Abraham and Isaac looked something alike. I’d also assume that when Abraham looked at Isaac, he saw himself and remembered his youth. Isaac resembled Abraham.

And I can only wonder what it must have felt like for Abraham to look down at Isaac, bound on the altar.

Take your son, your only son, the one you love- take Isaac.

Liz and I keep on imagining what it, God-willing, will feel like to look into the face of

someone who resembles us. But what must it have felt like for Abraham to see Isaac’s face, resemble it, love it, look into Isaac’s eyes, and raise up the knife? What must it have felt like to harm someone who looked just like him?

Even more than that- As a human being, created, in the image of God, Abraham resembled God! What could have been going through God’s Mind when God commanded a human being, created in God’s image, to kill?

Think of it as a three-leveled mirror: God looking at Abraham looking at Isaac. Our story is about three beings that resemble each other. And so many questions come to mind when we read this section of the Torah.

Why does God command this?

Why does Abraham say yes?

Where is Sarah during the entire story?

What psychological ramifications does the Akeidah have on Isaac?

What must it feel like to know that you resemble someone?

And what must it have felt like to be brought to a mountain to be sacrificed to God by

someone who looks just like you?

Listen to the words that God speaks to Abraham: Take your son, your only son, the one you love.

God refers to Isaac by four names, and only the last one is Isaac’s name. Every other

name is in relation to Abraham- –your son, your only son, the one you love- And finally, Isaac.

Isaac reminds Abraham of his youth, of Abraham’s family line. For Abraham, who has

been promised countless descendants, this command from God amounts to suicide. He is killing his future. And that is what he sees in Isaac- his future.

Abraham simply does not see Isaac as a separate person- he sees Isaac as an extension of

himself. Abraham does not see is Isaac as a separate individual- as the Other. Abraham is willing to commit suicide, but not murder.

My rabbi, Neil Gillman, once took part in a biblio-drama where different participants

took on different roles within the story of the Akeidah. Ironically enough, Dr. Gillman played God. An audience member posed a question to Dr. Gillman, and said, “God- how could you command such a thing?! You finally gave Abraham and Sarah a child, and you’re commanding its death? Why are you doing this?”

Dr. Gillman’s response was moving, and is a strong part of my thought today. He answered, “Don’t you see that every person I’ve created has gone the wrong way? I just want to know that I got it right. I feel like Abraham is my chance to prove that people can love me and listen to me, even when it’s hard! Abraham is my chance!

Even God only sees Abraham as an extension of God’s self.

Abraham is God’s chance. Just like Isaac is Abraham’s future.

In our Parsha, Abraham and God are very alike. They resemble each other. Both interact with others, but they both see others in the same way: as an extension of themselves. This is a great message to take from the story- We must see the people around us as separate individuals, as the Other.

For Ex: The same holds true for education- Teachers, so many times, see students as extensions of themselves. But students are not extensions of teachers. I am a teacher. I can’t bring a student to their full potential – only the student can. The teacher’s role is to discover, with the student, what lies within. We’ve learned to respect the learner, because students are equal owners of the process.

We are learning to see the student as an independent person – as the Other.

I’ve learned a lot about seeing the Other during my time here at JTS. After 9 years in this Holy place, I’ve learned that the study of Torah is complex, deep, and rewarding. I have caught glimpses of holiness walking around, sensing the buzz of the learning, feeling Kedushah, holiness in the air… But so many times I find us concerned with the origins of Torah, searching manuscripts and different traditions for the most authentic version of the text. And I ask myself: Why do we spend so much energy in the pursuit of the pure text?

Perhaps it is because we believe that we can uncover the Truth of the text. Maybe we believe that by dissecting the texts into their component parts we can understand them completely. We pursue questions like:

How do different manuscripts compare?

What does the Mishna really mean?

Where did the Torah come from?

So much energy.

Is the pursuit intellectually stimulating? Yes.

Is that what speaks to my soul? –No.

Does the pursuit of truth motivate me to daven and celebrate? No.

I am not in pursuit of truth.

I am in pursuit of faith.

I am in pursuit of the Holy.

I deeply believe that we will never understand the texts completely, and that that is what

Emmanuel Levinas, the great French Jewish Philosopher meant when he taught that the Torah is holy because it has infinite meaning. We can never exhaust the meaning of the text, and so the text of Torah is holy.

And that is what it means to be the Other.

To be the Other is to have unlimited potential. We will never realize the entire potential of the Torah. So when we can view the Torah as the Other, and not as an extension of ourselves, and therefore not completely knowable– that’s when we are really learning Torah. That is when we sense the holiness of learning.

And I believe that the same is true for God- we can never exhaust the meaning of God, and so God is also the Other. When we can view God as the Other, not as an extension of ourselves, and therefore not completely knowable – that’s when we are really in a relationship with God.

The same is true for people. To look at someone in the eyes and recognize infinite potential is to see that person as an independent Other – that’s when we are really in a relationship with another person.

Even at the end of the Akeidah, Abraham hasn’t recognized Isaac as the Other. -When

God reveals that this whole mission has been a test, what does Abraham do? He sees a ram and rushes to sacrifice that. But what doesn’t he do? He never unties Isaac. Isaac must have untied himself! Isaac was aware of his own needs, but Abraham saw only his own.

My father and I do resemble each other! But our close relationship is based on recognizing that we are different people.

In other words, I will never completely know you. Only you can do that. And since every one of you here is the Other to me, every one of you here is also holy.

And so,

If the student is the Other to the Teacher, then I will always be the Other to Torah.

If children are the Other to their Parents, then I will always be the Other to my child.

If the Other contains infinite possibilities, then God will always be the Other.

And if those are true, then Teachers, Children, Parents, and God are all Holy.

So I want to bless us all that we should find deep faith in our lives, remembering once in a while that each one of us, each Other one of us, contains infinite meaning within us.

I also want to bless us all that we should begin to realize that infinite meaning is within the person next you, the person you pass on the street, and the people we have yet to meet.

May we never, ever, slow down in our journeys to see the Other.

-Shabbat Shalom.

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