Parshat Vayera – Overcoming Nature and Nurture!

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Rabbi Bibi writes: “So the two tests in driving away Ishmael and Hagar and being commanded to bring and bind Isaac as a sacrifice become even more difficult as they completely go against Abraham’s nature.”

The Rabbis teach us that Abraham, Avraham Avinu, was tested ten times and he passed each one. There is disagreement among the Rishonim (ten generations of Rabbis who lived between the 11th and 15th centuries of the common era), as to what exactly those ten tests were. If we combine the various lists, we see in reality whether we deem them one of the ten tests or not, Abraham faced many more than ten tests which seemed to continue even after they were supposedly completed (as we will see next week when Abraham who was promised the entire land cannot find a place to bury his wife Sarah). Undoubtedly two of the most difficult tests as we read this week came in the command to listen to Sarah and to drive away Ishmael and Hagar and finally the ultimate test in being commanded to bring and bind Isaac as a sacrifice. These tests as some of the others are all the more difficult as they go completely contrary to Abraham’s nature.

In our society it has become very common whether judging one for a crime, drug abuse, academic failure, or poor social mobility, to blame the parents ( And we must admit that many if not most social problems are linked to bad parent-child relationships). But taking this further, it is becoming more and more accepted for lawyers to present neuropsychiatric genetic evidence in criminal courts in defense of their clients. The argument basically says that it wasn’t my client’s fault; it was his genes that made him do it.  Studies into blaming one’s genes or one’s nature for one’s behavior continue around the world. And as a society we have grown to give much leeway to a person because of their nature. One hears again and again, “what can we do, he (or she) was born that way”! 

The Rabbis teach us that although we may not understand it, there is some truth to astrology. And whether we accept this or not is unimportant as the lesson can be taught as relating to nature or nurture, genes or upbringing in exactly the same vein and perhaps some rabbis had this in mind. 

We are told that Abraham was the world’s most pre-eminent astrologer, the son of Terach who was the astrologer to Nimrod. Scientists of the day came from the entire world to study with him. The Rabbis go on further and explain that when Abraham turned to Hashem complaining that he would have no children, he did so based on his understanding of the stars and destiny. 

The Talmud in Shabbat writes: Abraham said G-d: “Master of the Universe, my steward inherits me . . .” Hashem replied to him: “No, only he that shall come forth from within you . . .” He (Avraham) said before Him: Master of the Universe, I have already consulted my horoscope, and I see that I am not fit to bear a son! Hashem said to him: “Disregard your horoscope; for the constellations hold no power over Israel! What do you think, that Jupiter is situated in the west (and therefore you are infertile)? I will simply move it around and situate it in the east.” 

Rashi explains that when Abraham was born, his zodiac sign, Jupiter, was located in the west—a cold place, not suitable for fathering children (or perhaps he saw that the future ends or sets as does the sun in the west with him). Therefore, Hashem moved it to a warmer location in the east (showing Abraham that he would not be the end, but he as the sun rising in the east would be the beginning). Setting aside this reconfiguring of the constellations, I was intrigued as to what the Rabbis wrote about Jupiter. 

The fact that Avraham’s zodiac sign was Jupiter is explained by the Maharsha as quoted by Rabbi Pinches Friedman, “a person who is born during the hour of Jupiter will be a moral and righteous person”. As Rashi explains, this refers particularly to one who focuses on giving Sedakah to the poor; the generic term “mitzvah” refers to Sedakah. It was for this reason that Avraham was the epitome of chesed; he welcomed guests into his home and was charitable toward everyone. This is the message conveyed by the Midrash. The constellation of Jupiter influenced him; Rabbi Reuven said: Jupiter would cry out declaring that if not for Avraham, there would be no one to represent him.

So although Abraham would now be able to have children, he remained under the influence of Jupiter which had always established his nature. Rabbi Abittan’s teacher Rav Eliyahu Dessler explained that Abraham is known as the man of kindness. His nature was to do good and this came from a burning desire to give. His kindness was proactive. We see this through the stories of his hospitality in the opening verses of this week’s portion. We see it in his pleas for Sedom later in this week’s portion. We saw it in his action of going to war to save his nephew Lot. 

So the two tests in driving away Ishmael and Hagar and being commanded to bring and bind Isaac as a sacrifice become even more difficult as they completely go against Abraham’s nature. A man who spent his life taking in the poor, feeding them, housing them and educating them is commanded to cut off Yishmael and Hagar. The son he should educate and raise is sent afar as a teen. The woman who bore that son, who left her father’s palace and Egypt to become a follower of Abraham and Sarah is abandoned in a desert. Can we imagine the anguish of Abraham? 

The rabbis suggest that if Abraham had a single pet project it was eradicating the worship of Molech. Molech worship included child sacrifice, or “passing children through the fire.” It is believed that idols of Molech were giant metal statues of a man with a bull’s head. Each image had a hole in the abdomen.  A fire was lit in or around the statue. Babies were placed in the hole. In order to drown out the cries of the suffering infant, loud drums would be played at the time the child was placed in the fire. When a couple sacrificed their firstborn, they believed that Molech would ensure financial prosperity for the family and future children. Abraham fought against this wherever he went. 

Now Hashem was asking Abraham to go against his nature to nurture, to go against his lifework of preventing human sacrifice and to bring his own child. It made no sense which is exactly the argument that Satan used hoping that either Abraham or Isaac would be unwilling to complete the test. Satan argued that it couldn’t possibly be God’s Will for Isaac to be sacrificed. He told Abraham that he must have heard wrong and told Isaac that Abraham must be out of his mind. Yet both continue together as one. 

The lesson in the test is that as Abraham is tested, so will we be tested. We are not tested to follow our nature. We are tested in going against our nature. I guess it’s good that the Talmud tells us that for many of us it’s natural to desire that which is not ours, for many of us its natural to take that which does not belong to us and for most of us its natural to withhold the truth or to lie. Then our tests are in overcoming this nature. But for others the test is more difficult. The test may be to overcome or to control what seems right and feels good to me. 

Rabbi Abittan always taught us that when we want to know our tikkun in life, we don’t need to run to the Kabbalist. Our greatest test, our greatest repair, he would explain, is in fixing that which is most difficult for us to do. The test is in overcoming our nature.

The Rabbis teach that G-d gives us no test which we cannot pass. (And each test will be to our benefit as through being sent away Yishmael repents and returns and through the binding, Isaac is elevated). May we all find the strength and fortitude sometimes buried deep within our Abrahamic gene to set aside the excuses and overcome that which is most difficult for us.

By: Rabbi David Bibi