Parshat Vayera

Torah Reading for Week of October 13-19, 2013

“The Means to Reconnect”
By Rabbi Andrew Feig, ’07


When I was a student at AJRCA, my teacher, Rabbi Eli Shochet, asked our Mishnah class the following question: “Why do you think men are obligated to fulfill the mitzvot more than women?”  The answers spanned the usual range of answers:  “Women are more spiritual and, therefore, do not need the mitzvot as much as men to connect to G-d,” to “Ancient Israel was a patriarchal society and focused more on men.”  Rabbi Shochet continued to ask more questions.  “Does anyone of you have sons?  Men, do you remember your behavior as boys?” A few of us acknowledged affirmatively. Puzzled, we thought about these prompts. Rabbi Shochet then offered the following explanation:  “Men may be bound to the mitzvot more than women because as boys, they needed more discipline.  For example, think about boys; they need constant reminders to wash their hands, sit down, eat their meal, and then stay at the table until everyone is finished. The mitzvot, expressed through the blessings before and after a meal, force our boys to wash, sit down and appreciate what they just ate.”

As a parent and educator, I am always struck by this very simple, yet powerful understanding of Jewish practice as a spiritual discipline.  It helps frame much of the way I think about observance as it relates to spirituality and to real life, day-to-day challenges.  It is also a powerful reminder of a rationale for fulfilling mitzvot, namely to appreciate the blessings we have in our lives on a regular basis.

In this week’s parashah, we read the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac.  It is one of the most jarring passages in the Torah, and yet I think it dramatically teaches us a lesson about life’s grand blessings.  In Vayera, we read G-d’s famous command to Avraham: “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” (Genesis 22:2)

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, until recently the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, writes in his book, Covenant and Conversation: Genesis, “We cherish what we wait for and what we most risk losing.  Life is full of wonders.  The birth of a child is a miracle. Yet, precisely because these things are natural, we take them for granted, forgetting that nature has an architect, and history an author.”  He goes on to discuss that Judaism is a “sustained discipline in not taking life for granted.”  We are a people that recognize human fallibility, and we need reminders, rituals, and celebrations as a remedy for this fallibility.  In that sense, Jewish practice provides the structure for a rich, spiritual life.  

And that may be a lesson we can derive from one of Torah’s most challenging stories.  Judaism, on one level, is a vehicle for helping us to relive sacred and deeply meaningful moments, a modality that reinforces community ethics and standards, and a method that forces us to confront its core values and remind us of our own.  Boys and girls, men and women, need the means  to reconnect in these ways, just as Avraham might have needed to dramatically recognize the blessing he had in his son that lay prone before him. 

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