There are at least three themes in parshat vayera, the appearance of God, the sacrifice of your children and incest. God appears to Abraham (18:1, et al) Sarah (18:2), Lot (19:22) and, with some qualifications, Abimelech (20:6) and Hagar (21:19). The qualifications necessary for the latter figures is that Abimelech meets God in a dream and Hagar only has her eyes opened by God. She interacts with an angel. It is notable that none of the children get to meet God and that Lot’s two daughters are not even named.
Isaac is rather famously sacrificed (22) and Lot attempts something similar with his two daughters (19:8). He politely requests that the people of Sodom rape his two young daughters rather than his guests. We know that his daughters are young because they are both virgins. Hagar, although not sacrificing her son, turns away from him when death seems inevitable (21:15) but not, it would appear, when Ishmael is about to die. In some sense she gives up on her son. However, Abraham has already sacrificed him. Sarah tells Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael, God advises Abraham to listen to Sarah’s voice in all that she says and Abraham throws out Hagar into the wilderness with a small amount of bread and a bottle of water (21:12-14). We know Abraham is a rich man, to wit the episode with Abimelech (21:20). It is well within his power to adequately equip Hagar and Ishmael with food, livestock and a household.
When it comes to incest Abraham and Sarah are wife and husband as well as being siblings. Lot and both his daughters have sex and start two families. The incest motif will be repeated in the marriage of Rebecca and Isaac and the marriages of Jacob to Leah and Rachel.
What to make of it all? I have very little to say about the incident with Abimelech. This is doubly shameful because structurally it seems to be the central moment of the parsha. But I suggest that the parsha sees nations as a result of incest, incest as selfishness and in some sense the ultimate in immorality. But don’t worry, this is not going to be a rant against Zionism (Ben Bag Bag is a Zionist).
Well what is wrong with incest? It is a form of self-love. Joyce, paraphrasing Thomas Aquinas, describes incest as “an avarice of the emotions… the love so given to one near in blood is covetously withheld from some stranger who, it may be, hungers for it”. (Ulysses, episode nine). In other words, incest is a jealous love. It is the selfish love of a mother that places the needs of her own family before the needs of others.
And the link to nationhood? I suggest that a nation must recognise itself as other, as separate. There is the distinction between my nation and your nation; between self and other. And moreover, one draws that distinction and then places oneself above the other. This is why incest is wrong; in excess it stops us seeing the world around us.
Something interesting happens when we see other people and place their needs before our own — we see God. It happens to Abraham twice (18:2-3; 22-23) and to Lot (19:2). It happens ambiguously To Hagar (21:16-18). Another interesting thing happens when we defy God — we get to converse with God. Have a look at the second of Abraham’s meetings with God in chapter 18, and Lot at 19:18. But also Abimelech’s argument (20:3-7). Here Abimelech manages to overturn the degree of death by arguing his innocence. But my personal favourite is Sarah who tells a barefaced lie by denying that she laughed but is rewarded with a direct communication from the Almighty (20: 15).
So, is the moral of the story that what we need to do is place others before ourselves and stand up for righteousness? That would be a little too convenient. As we have seen, by that policy the Jewish people would never have come into existence. It would be odd to read Beresheit as a story of the world continually falling away from God. It would also miss another interesting feature of the text. To wit, each time someone acts altruistically someone innocent suffers. A calf is slaughtered so Abraham can feed his guests (18:7). Perhaps you think this is some Jewdas vegan reading. Of course it is, but if you’re going to say that the moral of the story is that we need to put others first, how can we possibly ask a cow to stand in our place. Sacrificing yourself in the place of others seems impossible, but sacrificing animals in the place of others must be doubly impossible. Lot, as we have seen, is for the stranger at the expense of two young girls. A miracle is required to save them from rape.
Perhaps you might reply, the problem here is ownership. We have not yet transcended self and other. Perhaps Abraham has erred in thinking that the calf is his to give up. Lot has made the same mistake. If only they realised that there was no self/other distinction. They would realise how futile it was to try and sacrifice “their property”. After all, property is something you can’t have without the self/other distinction.
Too quick says Ben Bag Bag. You have forgotten Abraham’s final test. Here Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son. The simple reading says that Abraham should refuse. He has to recognize the needs of other human beings and that he can have no claim over them. But instead, Abraham fails. He places his own selfish desire to serve God unquestionably (and thus reap his reward?) before the needs of his son. It has been the raison d’etre of Abraham’s whole life to respond to the call of lech lecha. He can’t give up now. But note, if Abraham does follow the call, that is the end for Abraham. He won’t have more children now. He has already killed one son (ok, Ishmael is still alive but we have to read 21: 21 as informing us that Abraham doesn’t know this). Abraham has seen something that other people have not seen. Roughly, he has recognized that the good applies universally. If he accepts the law now, that insight is lost forever. Abraham’s life becomes pointless if he kills Isaac. It is the ultimate in altruism for Abraham to make the sacrifice. But by the same reasoning to kill Isaac, is to deprive the world of Abraham’s insight, what a selfish thing to do. But not to kill Isaac is to place himself above the law, one can hardly envisage a more selfish act. Merely giving up on the self/other distinction does not rid the world of these problems.
We seem to have reached an impasse (an epoche if you like). We cannot accept that incest is right and yet sometimes it would be wrong to give the love to another. It is important that recognizing one’s own nationhood embodies the apparent contradiction of recognizing oneself as other. It seems that this is inevitable because without it morality is impossible (I appreciate that line of reasoning is far too quick, but it’s not my job to think for you). Yet it seems to carry with it contradiction. It is as if we need to find a way of being nationalist without being selfish. This, I rather lamely suggest, was and is the challenge to all those of us who would rather not sacrifice our children. L’shana Tova.