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Parashat Vayera 5778: We can’t follow every order

As I have told you in the past, Parashat Vayera is very special for me as is my Bar Mitzvah Parashah and, more importantly, is full of interesting and intriguing stories.

In Israel, when you serve in the IDF, they teach you that there are three kinds of orders you can receive from your commanding officer. The first one is a legal order, like training, complete a mission or even clean the toilets. When you receive such an order, you must comply and do your best. Failure to do so can be punished, in extreme cases with jail.

The second kind is an illegal order, like washing your commander officer’s car or buying him cigarettes. In that case you must comply, but afterwards you have the option of complaining about it and your commander could be punished for giving such an order.

The third kind is a manifestly illegal order, like shooting civilians. In this case you are forbidden to comply and if you do, then you will be punished, without being able to claim later that you were following orders. We were never given a list of manifestly illegal orders, but I am quite sure that most IDF soldiers know when he or she receives one.

In Parashat Vayera Abraham receives a manifestly illegal order from God to sacrifice his son, his beloved Yitzhak.  We tend to express admiration for Abraham’s faith and it looks like that’s the plain meaning of the Torah, when it says that Abraham proved his willingness to obey God, meaning that it was a good thing. Still, I am convinced that many of us would think that Abraham was a monster to his son. Maybe we can absolve God, as He never intended for Abraham to really perform the sacrifice, but Abraham was ready and willing to take this to a terrible end. I always remember when I was young, around 14 years old, and I was watching a Biblical movie about Yitzchak’s sacrifice and my father came into the room. Not familiar with the original biblical story, my father was horrified and only calmed down after He saw it was “only” a trial, saying that for a moment he was ready to abandon a God that demands human sacrifice.

Some people, like the Israeli author Dov Elbaum, think that this story was a trial for Abraham, but that he failed it. He was supposed to say no to God, he was supposed to stand firm (as he did for Sodom and Gomora) and say that this is a red line he won’t cross. He was supposed to point out that this is a manifestly illegal order and that he loves his son. He didn’t.

From that moment, we won’t have more dialogue between God and Abraham. Yitzchak is the only one to resume direct contact with God, becoming Abraham’s heir and being tested as well (but that’s another story). The merit of Abraham was still to being able to hear the “abort order” from God, to see the ram sent in place of his son and to change direction. Most of us are so into ourselves that we don’t see and hear the other until it is too late. Abraham did see and his offspring was saved because of that.

Our lesson is important. Something in us always knows when something is so wrong that it would fall into the category of a manifestly illegal order, maybe it is part of the Divine spark inside of each one of us, maybe some other kind of intuition. The story in our Parashah is saying that we can’t claim that somebody else made us do it, that we were following orders, even if we believe those orders come from God. We must always do the right thing, sometimes paying a huge price for it. We are not weak and powerless, even if we have people giving us orders, because we always have the possibility of choosing whether any request is a legitimate one or not, and we can always choose to do the right thing and not comply with an illegitimate one, even if we will pay a price for it. We must always hear that small quiet voice inside, the voice from Creation; the voice from Sinai that reminds us of the really important things in life, of what is right and what is wrong. If we would hear it more often, the world would be a much better place to live.

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