Thoughts on Parashat Vayera

A Clash With the Divine Reality of Eternal Transformation

Thoughts on Parashat Vayera

Menachem Mirski

Since human interests have an inherent tendency to come into conflict, no society can exist without laws and law-enforcement institutions. Thanks to laws which regulate interpersonal relations and their efficient enforcement an organized and peaceful societal life is possible, which in turn contributes to the development of that society – if the law is well-considered, wise and effective.

However, there are boundary situations in our lives when all the laws – or, to be more precise: almost all or their vast majority – are suspended. According to our tradition that suspension of laws occurs in life and death situations. To save human life (pikuach nefesh – literally watching over a soul) all existing moral laws can be suspended with the exception of three prohibitions: against murdering, immoral sexual relations (gilui arajot) and idolatry. And if someone’s close one dies, the mourner is not only exempted from a number of religious and secular duties, but some of them are explicitly forbidden (such as paid work – for at least 3 days, depending on the person’s financial status, or for example the study of Torah, which by definition is a joyful act).

So it seems that in Judaism the suspension of certain or almost all laws applies to situations which are – according to tradition – decided by God. God is the One who gives life and the One who takes it away; the One who interferes to save it and the One who seems to keep silent in the face of doomsday events on Earth. We have a similar situation, which leads to the suspension of certain moral laws, in the case of Akedah, i.e. the story of the Binding of Itzchak, which we read in our Torah portion for this week:

Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.” And He said, “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. (Gen 22:1-2)

As we know, there is an enormous amount of interpretations of this story, both within and outside the Jewish tradition. But we won’t be mentioning them here. I propose, quite reasonably, that we view Abraham’s and Itzchak’s situation as an example of those boundary situations, life and death situations, in which everything is decided by God. God is an endless potential for the world’s transformation. Since in one instance He can decide about the shape of the whole world, He can also decide to suspend its laws, which are secondary to the real world – they either describe it or they normalize it.

Considering that the most fundamental moral law – You shall not murder – is being suspended in the story of the Binding of Itzchak, we can rightly believe that all moral laws are being suspended here. In such a case the only law is the will of God Himself. God decides to put Abraham in this reality and this is what this test is about.

In our story God is disagreeing with Himself – at first he makes one decision (to sacrifice Itzchak), only to “change His mind” shortly after and save Itzchak from death. God puts Abraham in this situation on purpose to test his reaction. As we already know from the same parasha, Abraham is capable of arguing with God (the negotiations regarding the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Gen 18:20-33). In this new situation God is checking if Abraham is also capable of being completely obedient to Him. Abraham passes this test (although unfortunately at the cost of his son’s psychological trauma) and God views him as a righteous one, and therefore worthy of being “the father of nations”.

Abraham’s trial is a test if he can fully embody God’s will, even if it’s incomprehensible. So not only are all the laws and ethics suspended here, but human reason as well. Abraham was capable of doing all this for the sake of carrying out God’s will, but that’s not all. In a sense this was only the beginning. An experience of a close one’s death, the nearness of a close one’s death or the nearness of one’s own death permanently changes our character. These are events which orient us in our lives. They ultimately teach us what is truly important, what is truly essential in life, and what is only an illusion, devoid of any meaning. They polarize us morally. That’s the baggage that Abraham came out with from this experience. Laws, both natural and moral ones, are secondary to Divine reality and are dependent on it. God is an endless potential for the world’s transformation. Abraham clashed with that endless, Divine reality of transformation and survived that clash by fully devoting himself to it. Until the very end he didn’t know if he’d ultimately become the father of the nations or not. At the end Itzchak was given to him once again, so the Divine promise has been fulfilled twice and the world has followed the path planned by God.

Shabbat Shalom,

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka


To speak your mind or not


Thoughts on parashat Vayera.

Menachem Mirski

The Torah portion of this week contains only great and famous stories. We have in it the story of Abraham interceding for Sodom and Gomorrah, their destruction, the story of Lot and his daughters. Then we return to Abraham again, this time he is in Geraar where he tells King Abimelech that Sara, his wife, is actually his sister. Our portion of the Torah also includes the story of the birth of Isaac, the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael and concludes with the binding of Isaac.

I have to admit that I had a great dilemma which story to choose for this week’s reflection. As I managed to find a connection between the story of the Flood and the story of the Tower of Babel in parashat Noah that we read two weeks ago (in short – humanity decided to build this tower not to be defenseless against the next flood and thus be able to do what they please), I decided to look for some connection between stories here. What I found is that there is a certain motif appearing in the stories from our portion of Torah, namely, not telling the truth and in some cases outright lying.

First, God is asking Himself if He should hide from Abraham what He is planning to do with Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:17-18). Then Abraham, in Geraar, tells the king Abimelech that Sarah is not his wife, but his sister. In another story God prevents Abraham from telling Sarah what he really thinks about the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael even though the matter distressed him greatly (Gen 21:11-13). In a sense, God closes his mouth by saying:

Do not be distressed over the boy or your slave; whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you. (Gen 21:12)

And finally, even God Himself is telling untruth by asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, which from the beginning was not his intention. He did it only to put Abraham to the test. (Gen 22:1-2). It is possible that this test of faithfulness was due to Abraham’s previous behavior since the story begins with: After these events God put Abraham to the test (Gen 22:1, hebr. Vayehi achar hadvarim haele, sometimes incorrectly translated as Some time afterward. This translation completely eliminates the connection between this story and previous narratives. The accurate translation is: [it was so] after these events).

But of course, all those untruths or half truths were told for a reason, sometimes even a good reason. And it has been an age old ethical dilemma because there are situations in which not telling the (entire) truth or not speaking someone’s mind is better than doing so.

However, this is no longer an exclusively ethical problem but increasingly a legal one. In the last two decades, we have been observing a certain trend in Western democracies: governments of different countries are trying to regulate what can be publicly said and what can not be said, under threat of punishment. For example, in 2018 Polish government passed a law on “the Polish concentration camps” which tried to shut down the entire debate about Polish involvement in the Holocaust attrocities. The law was relaxed later after several months of heated debate. Some governments have gone even further, wanting to regulate what needs to be said in a given situation. (e.g. Canadian C-16 bill, issued in 2016)

I will not analyze political issues here. I will just say that I think creating a theory or doctrine that would answer the question of when to tell the truth and when to be silent is simply not possible and certainly not without jeopardizing a democratic fundamental like free speech. Why? Because such a theory would have to sum up all possible situations in which we wonder whether to tell the truth or not. Mathematically it is impossible because there is an infinite number of these situations. It’s similar to disprove God’s existence: in order to do that, we would have to investigate all the phenomena existing in the world from its very beginning to its end and prove that certainly God is not involved in any of them. It’s technically impossible.

Because the rationale for this kind of concepts is always ideological, it is an even greater utopia to convince all people of the validity of similar doctrines. Not only legal, but also customary regulations of speech issues have a very limited scope. One can not globally order compulsory compassion or even compulsory being “nice.” It simply will not work, people will rebel – and rightly so. One has to raise people to be compassionate or nice, it has to be internalized otherwise their compassion and their “being nice” will not be real and being real matters.

This seems to be reality. According to studies done in 2018 political correctness is deeply unpopular. Some 80 percent of people said they viewed excess political correctness as a problem. Only 8% of Americans say they are far-left and of those, ⅓ see political correctness as a problem. The vast majority of Americans want to feel free to speak their mind, regardless of gender, age or race. The study that includes this issue, among many others, is available here:

Attitudes towards political correctness also influence, sometimes critically, people’s political beliefs and their decisions for whom to vote.

Nevertheless, I believe we can all agree, at a minimum, the need of moral regulations of our speech. Our tradition has plenty to offer in this matter. The laws that stem from the concept of lashon hara prohibit derogatory speech that is true; the only exception is a situation where not telling unfavorable truth can bring harm to someone. We also have the prohibition of rechilut – a speech that causes hatred toward the subject, or between the listener and the subject. Let alone, slander (motzi shem ra) – the deliberate dissemination of damaging untruths – is banned by Jewish law.

Words can hurt and do real damage. We have to use them responsibly and thoughtfully – this is also something with which it is difficult to disagree. Whether we have to be nice and kind in every situation – I think that’s debatable. Being nice/unpleasant or kind/unfriendly are not binary situations. They create an entire spectrum of human emotions and behaviors which sometimes have to be tempered, but sometimes left alone. There are situations in which it is worth the wait to express your opinion, but alternatively it can be worth expressing exactly what you are thinking at the moment. Unquestionably, no rule should prevent us from raising important and difficult topics, limit our freedom of thought or our freedom of opinion. It is definitely better if dangerous, disgusting or even inhuman ideas are analyzed and talked through by good, smart, intelligent and educated people than to leave them to frustrated and hateful bigots. In the first context we are able to deconstruct these inaccurate ideas, in the second we are leaving them to spread like an infectious disease.

There is always a tradeoff between freedom of speech and the ideas of how communal life should look because there is always a tradeoff between freedom and ideology. Personally, I am in favor of placing this pendulum on the side of freedom of speech, rather than on the side of political correctness, but everyone needs to find this balance for themselves.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski



Parashat Vayera

Parashat Vayera

In this week’s Torah portion Vayera the Eternal commands Moses to inform the Israelites that their bondage is about to end. Moses is supposed to convey the following message to them:

I am the [Eternal]. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the [Eternal], am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. (Exodus 6:6-7.)

Shemot Rabbah, the collection of Midrashim containing explanations regarding the Book of Exodus, draws our attention to four verbs: free, deliver, redeem and “take you to be My people” – which are used in this passage to describe the liberation of the Israelites by the Eternal. According to the explanation presented in this collection of Midrashim, the four cups of vine which we drink during the Passover Seder are supposed to remind us of the promise regarding the four-stage liberation made to the Israelites by the Eternal. Every year, as we drink the four cups of wine, they remind us of the promise which was fulfilled by the Eternal.

In our Parashat the Israelites initially did not pay attention to the words of the Eternal:

But when Moses told this [the Eternal’s pledge] to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.(Exodus 6:9.)

The Eternal, not discouraged by the Israelites’ lack of enthusiasm, commanded Moses to go to the Pharaoh and request that he frees his people. The Pharaoh was supposed to be convinced by the plagues inflicted upon Egypt. Midrash Tanchuma ascribed a different significance to the plagues: They were supposed to free the Israelites from the hard labor and the oppression inflicted on them by the Egyptians. The first plague, the transformation of the Nile’s waters into blood, was supposed to convince the Pharaoh to revoke his prohibition and allow Israelite women to use the mikveh. The second plague, the frogs, was supposed to force the Pharaoh to take back the order forcing the Israelites to bring crawling creatures to the Egyptians, since such creatures were an abomination to the Israelites. The third plague, lice, was supposed to convince the Pharaoh to revoke the order forcing the Israelites to clean the streets. The fourth plague, wild animals, was supposed to prompt the Pharaoh to prohibit forcing the Israelites to partake in hunting for wild animals. The fifth plague, boils, was supposed to convince the Pharaoh to stop forcing the Israelites to carry hot objects.

According to Midrash Tanchuma, the aim of all the other plagues was also to force the Pharaoh to revoke various decrees which were making the Israelites’ lives miserable. This Midrash seems to suggest that the Egyptian plagues were supposed to convince the Pharaoh to set the Israelites free, as well as to convince the Israelites to put trust in the Eternal’s promise. The Israelites were supposed to learn to trust the Eternal by noticing how the quality of their lives was gradually improving.

What can we learn from such an interpretation of the Egyptian plagues?
That sometimes, when we are overwhelmed by numerous everyday problems, we might overlook small changes foretelling that better times are coming. During this winter Shabbat I encourage you to take a look at the problems which have been at the center of your attention for a long time now. Who knows, perhaps it will turn out that the worst is already behind you?

Shabbat Shalom!

Mati Kirschenbaum

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka