The Four Children of Parashat Vayera

When talking about this week’s Torah portion, one often finds oneself discussing the question which shouts from the pages of the Torah – “what could possess a parent to sacrifice their child”? Those who are familiar with the portion will assume that this would be in relation to the famous story of the binding of Itzhak, but on closer inspection, this week’s Torah portion actually talks of four children whose parents seemed willing to sacrifice them for some greater good.

While Itzhak has the unique “pleasure” of being chosen for the “Akedah” – the binding – as a test of Avraham’s faith in God, his half-brother Ishmael is actually given up – sacrificed by Avraham to the vagaries of the desert, in order to ensure the continuity of his heritage via Itzhak. Ishmael is eventually saved by an angel, no thanks to Avraham.

But perhaps more worrying for parents of the “me too” age is the episode of Lot’s two daughters whom Lot seems willing to sacrifice to a baying mob, banging on his door. This mob is in search of two visitors whom they seemingly wish to sexually assault. Lot steps out of his house to reason with the mob and in begging them not to assault his guests, he offers his daughters to the mob instead. Perhaps, from an ancient perspective, where one’s children were seen as one’s property and one’s obligations to a guest were seen as sacrosanct, then Lot’s actions could be interpreted as acceptable, noble even. To us, today, it is hard to access that perspective.

All four of these children: Ishmael, Itzhak and Lot’s two unnamed daughters are willingly endangered by their parents. What are we possibly meant to learn from such a parasha?

I don’t believe I can possibly attempt to understand the author’s intent in telling these stories, but I can certainly take meaning from them, nevertheless.

When I read this stories, my first reaction is to think that this is an unnatural set of stories – that each and every one of these non-parental acts seems to negate nature itself. When my eldest child was born, I remember feeling different – knowing that moral choices would never be as easy again – that my bond to my child could cause me to do great harm, that if, God forbid, I was forced to choose the safety of my child and the safety of 10 others, then I would almost certainly choose my child. How is it possible that these ancient characters are depicted as so willing to sacrifice their children?

I think these stories are meant to make us question ourselves. We are meant to recoil in horror at the actions of the parents, and in doing so, we are meant to check our own actions. Our instinctive recoil at the seeming lack of consideration of these parents should make us understand how terrible it is to sacrifice one’s children, and yet – we do it all the time. Whether directly or indirectly, how many times do our children not come first? From the small examples to much larger ones –are we only kidding ourselves when we say that sacrificing our children is a phenomenon of the distant past? How many of us have accepted that we can’t have time for our children because of work necessities? In Israel, how many of us accept some level of risk to our children when we send them to the army –with the understanding that this is a sacrifice that we all have to make? Is it? If we, their parents were willing to give up other things – Money? Sovereignty? Jerusalem? Maybe no more children would need to go to the army? How can we describe our continued destruction of the environment if not as a sacrifice of future generations for our own needs now?

Based solely on the story of Itzhak, many commentators see this parasha as a turning point for civilisation – turning away from human sacrifice as a means to ensure future fertility with the help of the gods to a sanctification of all life, in which each and every life is sacrosanct. This interpretation is endorsed by Yehuda Amihai in his famous poem:

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
And on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy.
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
Both in their temporary failure.
Our two voices met above
The Sultan’s Pool in the valley between us.
Neither of us wants the boy or the goat
To get caught in the wheels
Of the “Had Gadya” machine*.

Afterward we found them among the bushes,
And our voices came back inside us
Laughing and crying.

Searching for a goat or for a child has always been
The beginning of a new religion in these mountains.

Amihai paints the akedah scene as the beginning of a new religion, and saving a child from death as the essence of this new religion. But maybe this parasha actually tells us that all of us – however noble we may wish to be – make the mistake of sacrificing our children, or at least ignoring their interests, for our own benefit. Or maybe, after thinking of our own mistakes in this field, maybe this parashah comes to teach us the problematic nature of judging. Who are we to judge Avraham, Sarah or Lot?

These four children of this parasha will leave these pages scarred and scared. May we all merit that our own children never need to see such horrors and that our religion of life will truly bring life and joy to us all.

About the author:

Rabbi Haim Shalom is the Rabbi and Community Director of Kehillat Mevakshei Derech in Jerusalem. Click here to follow them on Facebook. 


Note: This Dvar Torah was inspired by the shared conversation of Rabbi Susan Silverman, Yisrael Campbell, Helen Gottstein, Rabbi Barry Leff and Rabbi Maayan Turner of Jerusalem.

* A reference to a morbid song from the Passover seder in which each animal is devoured by a larger one (an Aramaic equivalent of “There was an old woman who swallowed a fly”.