Parshat Vayera: Genesis 18:1-22:24; II Kings 4:1-37.
Which of the two major protagonists of the akedah (binding of Isaac) suffered the greater test: the father who had to sacrifice of his son or the son who had to undergo the anguish of being laid out upon the altar?
Abraham received the command directly from God, but Isaac is even more praiseworthy because he only heard the command from his father yet was willing to submit to the sacrificial act. In doing so, Isaac becomes the ideal Jewish heir, continuing the traditions of his father though he himself has not heard the Divine command.
But let us consider Abraham himself. The Bible is uncharacteristically silent about why God suddenly commanded Abraham to leave Ur for Canaan. Maimonides concludes that Abraham must have discovered ethical monotheism through his own rational thinking and, therefore, merited God’s election.
Consider, however, that “Terah took his son Abram … and they departed from Ur Kasdim to go to the Land of Canaan; they arrived at Haran and they settled there … and Terah died in Haran” (Genesis 11:31, 32).
Why tell us that Terah had originally set out for Canaan if he never reached it? The Bible will soon record a meeting between Abraham and Melchizedek, king of Shalem (Jerusalem, capital city of Canaan). Is it not logical to assume that there was one place in the world where the idea of a single God was still remembered from the time of Adam, and that place was Jeru-Shalem, Canaan? If Terah had left Ur to reach there, might it not have been to identify with that land and with that God of ethical monotheism? May we not assume that Abraham identified with his father’s spiritual journey?
We may now understand why this story is followed by God’s command to Abraham: Conclude the journey you began with your father and reach the destination and perhaps the destiny which eluded him. God also guarantees the patriarch, “You will come to your fathers in peace and will be buried in a good old age.” (Genesis 15:15)
To which of Abraham’s fathers will he come in peace after he dies? According to the version we have just suggested, it refers to Terah.
Abraham, then, emerges as the true continuator of his father’s mission. The biblical message is that it behooves us to continue in our parents’ footsteps and to pass down the mission of ethical monotheism from generation to generation. Indeed, we must even attempt to improve upon their vision and accomplishments and to take advantage of the new possibilities the period in which we live may provide for us.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.