Pluralistic Perspectives Parashat VaYeira: Confounding Revelations of G-d
Vayeira begins with a word of clarity: G-d shows G-d’s self to Avraham at Mamre and appears (vayeira) in three men who come to give Avraham the good news of Sarah’s future fertility, the projected birth of Yitzhak. His birth will let Avraham “hayu yihyeh l’goy gadol v’atzum,” will become a great and numerous nation. This par’sha, however, deals mainly in mixed signals, keeping us guessing whether or not G-d’s promise of survival and increase will actually be fulfilled. G-d poses as a question “ham’chaseh ani me’avraham asher ani oseh,” “shall I hide, or cover, from Avraham, what I’m doing?” and we don’t hear that rhetorically. The events of the par’sha are enough to strike doubt and fear into the most stalwart of hearts.
This par’sha writes its message in the bodies of children. G-d’s actions betray a certain amount of ambivalence towards Avraham and Sarah’s hopes to see their line continue. First they’re promised a child despite their old age, fulfilling the terms of the b’rit which G-d and Avraham have made together, faith for fatherhood. Immediately afterwards, G-d proposes to wipe out an entire city, including Avraham’s nephew Lot – Avraham has to haggle with everything he’s got in order to wrest a bare chance of survival for S’dom from the deity, and his hopes are ultimately frustrated. It falls to Lot’s daughters to secure descendants for S’dom in the wake of G-d’s wrath, but their price is enduring perversion.
The par’sha averts its gaze back to Avraham and Sarah, as Yitzhak is born. Avraham and Sarah’s joy and relief as G-d seems, finally, to honour the covenant, are palpable; the new mother’s delighted laughter sings out in her child’s name. But G-d, in Sarah’s voice, will not let Avraham have his legitimate son and his ben amah, son of a slave, too. Avraham is forced to cast Ishmael out. Yet another nation is promised to Ishmael; but Avraham has lost his eldest child. And then comes the cruelest blow. G-d tells Avraham to take Yitzhak, now his only son, whom he loves, to bind him for sacrifice. Avraham may be spared his son’s death, but when he comes down from Har Moriah, he comes down alone.
How can a parent be asked to give up their child not once, but twice? How can we keep faith with a G-d that asks such a thing?
We can look to our own bodies, I think, for trust and a physical b’rit within that speaks louder than words. Bearing children is an act of faith. So is counting on continuity. The Jewish community knows this. Our community here knows this. But our bodies are not made to dwell in bekhi, crying. Every morning, we can find rinah, song. Not always, not infallibly, but with an amazing regularity, our cells regenerate; involuntarily, we heal. The leaves that litter the ground in fall return as buds in the spring. With Sarah, we are sometimes forced to laugh at the sheer precariousness of our lives and the tenuous nature of our hopes. But like Sarah, and Avraham with her, we take on the work of keeping ourselves open to that laughter’s disbelief turning to joy. An infertile body can become fertile. An estranged child may, in the next chapter of their life, or in our Tanakh, allow the parent to dance at their wedding. Vayeira teaches us that even within a covenant, we cannot expect only blessings – but that within us grace can, always, stop by and make an appearance.