The Torah has loads of contradictions…. Now, before everyone gathers together into a furious band, comes round to our house with pitchforks and scythes to skewer and shred me to pieces, please read a little further. The Torah has loads of contradictions through which it reveals the profundity and fineness of its moral vision. Take the creation. Man and woman are the last to appear, as the pinnacle of God’s work, yet, no sooner are they securely installed in the most beautiful place imaginable, than they disobey God’s command. The first two children are born and one of them dies before his parents. Abraham is promised numerous times that he and Sarah will parent a blessed people more numerous than the stars in the sky and the sand on the earth, yet Abraham remains childless until his old age, and he is even older when his wife finally gives birth to a single and only child. Abraham is also promised a land, but he wanders for most of his life and only ever owns a burial plot. Such contradictions continue long after the death of the parents of the Jewish people. Jacob is heir to the Covenant, but he is the younger brother. Moses, the best of his people, never enters the Promised Land. David, our greatest ever king, starts life as a shepherd boy. Samson is humbled in his strength, but then is partially triumphant in his weakness. Jonah only understands the will of God when his prophesy is rendered obsolete. There is not time to go into these things in more detail at present, but all of them provide ways through which the protagonists are able to become greater than they could otherwise have been and to learn that to serve God, we have to be free to make choices and to own these choices.
Let us return to Abraham. One of the contradictions in his life is that he lives as a wanderer, but the impression he makes on us is of a deep and gently stillness of being. Picture him sitting at the door of his tent in the hottest part of the day, as the beginning of Va-yeira presents him. Three strangers appear and he immediately jumps up to offer them hospitality. He modestly understates this hospitality by mentioning a morsel of bread, but, in fact, with Sarah’s help, prepares rolls of the finest flour, cheese and the tenderest calf in his herd. Who could wish for a better grandfather? Abraham continues in his forthright, just and ever courteous manner when he argues with God over the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, when he makes a treaty with Abimelech and when he reluctantly sends away Hagar and Ishmael.
Then we come to the Akedah, that most disturbing yet central of episodes. Much has been written about it. It provides proof of Abraham’s faith, but could his faith have been in God not allowing the sacrifice to happen? After all, God had already demonstrated to Abraham that he would not kill the innocent.
Chayyei Sarah brings us back to one of the contradictions I began from. Abraham has great difficulty in obtaining a parcel of land to bury his wife in. It takes us to Isaac and Ishmael, who are the future: the one for the Jewish people, the other for the Arabs. To hear more and to join with others in communal prayer and conversation, come along this Saturday at 10.30. Adam Feldman will be leading us.