Parashat Va-yeira 5784

2 November 2023 – 18 Heshvan 5784

By Rabbi Elisheva Salamo


One of the strange things about living in two different civilizations simultaneously is how impressions move between worlds. These last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about spiders. Not the kind that thankfully inhabit the corners of my rooms, waiting to ingest the unwary and the unwise visitors who occasionally land in the vicinity of their tents, but the much larger than life ones which have begun, almost as if they were as pulled by the tides of weather as migratory birds, to populate shop windows, restaurant tables, and the occasional outdoor display. These spiders are designed to scare people, or not actually in themselves to scare people, but to remind people that there is a scary reality to which we have connected spiders in our cultural understanding. Arachnophobes may not find the fact that there are no venomous spiders in the UK reassuring, though to me this adds to the oddness of seeing encountering black leggy creatures at every turn.

Why do I want to be confronted with fear at this time of year? I do know about Samhain, all Hallows Eve and the spiritual nature of this time, a time when in the comfort of our harvest, we can perhaps see through the veil that separates us from the dead, inhabit for maybe a split second the world of our beloved who have passed into the unknown. And my question remains: why do we seek the frisson of fear, especially in this time of gratitude for life and enough plenty to make it to the next? The dead do indeed remind us of our own mortality, the fragility of life, the sadness we bear through our own eternities of life without them. But need they be scary? Surely, they can be reassuring, as well. We can, as we did on Sukkot, invite them to our meals, teach their stories to our children, call those same children by their names, bringing their best qualities to life again: Abraham, the one who knew how to question at just the right moment, Sarah, whose internal laughter rang in the Divine ear, Isaac who brought hope to the family, Rebekah who will one day soon choose her own path. No, fear is not what I am after in the waning fall light.

Our Torah portion this week is riddled with fear: Sarah’s fear of being discovered in laughter, Abraham’s fear of being overthrown by Avimelekh, the fear of violence in Sodom, the fear that there was no one left but three people to repopulate the entire world, Hagar’s fear that she might need watch her child die, the unstated fears of Abraham and Isaac in the lead up to the akedah. In much of the play out of these fears, the ending is safe, even good, for our family of spiritual origin. Take a moment to look at the denouement, the relief in the aftermath of almost-killing: “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.” Then with the sacrifice of the ram: “‘And Abraham named that site Adonai-yireh, whence the present saying, “On the mount of Adonai there is vision.” The root of the word for fear can also designate sight, and thus in our story, we go from fear to seeing. In this we follow Abraham, whose sudden discovery of the ram also allows outlet for the sacrificial urge, or at least slakes the Divine mode of connection through giving of life for blessing. When he releases his fear, his awe, he too can state like his grandson will do in a few weeks, that the presence of the Divine was in that fear, but he had not known it, then.

In approaching the ultimate unknown, Abraham gives us a conflicted model. Would we go as far as he did, risking the terror of our child and the death of our wife from sorrow, for one last moment of Eternal regard? Was he in on the secret, and aware that the ram would be present, trusting the all seeing One who pushed a father to release both his children, like arrows, into the future? Does fear win over love? Is Abraham’s act one of unimaginable love for the Creator or one of steadfastness in the face of the worst possible fear? All of our ancestors move forward into this drama without question, with love, with fear, with awe. And from them we can begin to see the pattern of loss and love that will send them to Egypt to be saved and enslaved and saved again, this last time, saved to be G!d’s heralds of love and justice. Are not fear and love intertwined in some deep and mysterious way, since this story stands at the heart of our liturgy of creation? In spite of the breathtaking moment when it looks as if all the goodness in the world is gone, this is the moment that leads to hope. The stories of our ‘first family’ are retold and retold to remind us of the ultimate in trust, the need for human action in the face of complete uncertainty, the painful play of love and vision, and of holding tight while letting go.

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