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A Lesson in Humility, After Passing the Test

October 25, 2007 By:
Rabbi David Gutterman, JE Feature
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VAYERA, Genesis 18:1-22:24

Vayera contains one of the most famous stories in the Torah: the binding of Isaac. We read that story -- contained in this week's portion -- every Rosh Hashanah, and each year, we struggle with its content.

We ask questions like, "If God asked me, what would I do?" We wonder, "How could any parent think of sacrificing a child?" Some dare to ask, "How could God demand such a thing? What kind of God is He?"

We wonder, "To what extent do I have faith in God? How far does my trust extend?" We know that God never intended for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and that this was just a test of Abraham's faith in God. But what a test it was!

Take, for example, the most innocuous little part of the story. Afterward, Abraham came back down the mountain and rejoined his servant boys. Together, they traveled back home.

Why pay special attention to this passage?

Rabbi Mendl of Vorki taught that these verses give us special insight into the moral character of Abraham. If we think about it, successfully passing the most difficult of God's tests -- and having God directly acknowledge and reward our accomplishment -- might be an exhilarating experience, something "to write home about."

It would be so easy to brag about. Mendl of Vorki observes that Abraham avoided this trap by returning to the lads he left behind and then traveling together with them. Abraham did not say a word about his extraordinary experience. Mendl of Vorki taught that Abraham was righteous, not self-righteous.

Self-righteousness is similar to pride or arrogance, only more so. The self-righteous person not only feels superior on his or her own merits, but holds the illusion of having all the ultimate answers.

Self-righteousness is not so far removed from self-idolatry. Yet arrogance, and perhaps even self-righteousness, are demons with which many of us, especially those of us born into a generation of good fortune, continually wrestle.

Our tradition teaches that there's no room in a person for both arrogance and humility, for both self-righteousness and true righteousness. Yet for many of us, the prospect of giving up our arrogance and replacing it with humility is terrifying, because it would make us vulnerable. Our fears, then, keep us from the richer spirituality that we intuitively perceive is "out there" -- a more meaningful relationship with God and with those created in the divine image.

On His Mind
But what if Abraham didn't tell his servants about his experience because they weren't his equals?

The Torah provides a strong, if subtle, rebuttal to that theory.

On the way up the mountain, the text emphasizes how Abraham and Isaac went together. After the binding, there's no mention of Isaac.

Isaac no longer walks together with his father, who is alone until he rejoins the lads. Abraham may have passed God's test, but only at a great cost. As he descended the mountain, Abraham may very well have wondered if, in spite of the fact that Isaac still lived, he had lost his son forever. What if, as he staggered down the mountain alone with his thoughts, Abraham asked himself the same questions that we would ask?

I'd like to think that he did. I'd like to think that he was not so sure of himself as to become self-righteous -- something a lesser man might have become in the same situation. I'd like to think that he knew that he had his faults and that, through a personal sense of humility, he was able to be truly righteous. For if he could succeed, then we can take comfort in knowing that there is hope for those of us who have our own spiritual mountains yet to climb.

Rabbi Gary Pokras is the religious leader of Temple Judea of Bucks County in Doylestown.

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