Isaac's Mental Capacity


Dear Rabbi:

Of all the parshahs, I bet we could go back and forth about what is contained within this week’s parshah, Vayeira, for weeks without either of us backing down from our already stated positions.

The righteousness of Abraham comes through loud and clear, with such acts as feeding and tending to the needs of the three disguised angels without any hesitation and pleading with G-d for the lives of those in Sodom and Gomorrah if there were but ten deserving people in all of those two cities. 
As my first question, which I think will evoke an answer that I have heard from you before; does not the appearance of angels mean that they come from Heaven? If not, where do these emissaries of the All Mighty come from, Cleveland? If they are from Heaven are they from the souls of those that are already departed? If not, how did they come to be?

My recurring question about why is someone “chosen” could not be made clearer than in today’s parshah. As already stated, Abraham shows how righteous he is when he tends to the angels. In the same parshah we see Lot doing the same thing when he sees them and goes even further when he attempts to hold back the mob who had come to destroy them. Yes, Lot is saved, but is he to be considered a part of our Jewish heritage? No, he unwittingly fathers two other nations, Moab and Ammon because of the twisted acts of his daughters.

If there is any doubt as to what G-d is thinking, we need not go any further than the Fourth Aliyah where in Genesis 20:7 we read the following:
“And now, return the man's wife, because he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and [you will] live; but if you do not return [her], know that you will surely die, you and all that is yours."

This is G-d telling the King of Gerer, Abimelech, to release Sarah back to Abraham or he and his family will perish. There is somewhat of an aside to this in that we are told that Abraham was not exactly telling a lie when he told Sarah to say she is his sister. As we learn from Abraham when he is speaking to Abimelech in Genesis 20:12:

“And also, indeed, she is my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife.”
As I have stated before, I always find something I earlier missed.

Now let’s get to the heart of today’s parshah. There is no doubt that Abraham was designated by G-d as the first Jew. As I have read, he is distinguished from Noah in that whereas Noah just did as he was told and built the Ark without any questions, his righteousness was not enough to be called the first Jew. Abraham, on the other hand, questioned G-d as to why certain things were to occur. (See the Second Aliyah, Genesis 18:23-32, Abraham asking G-d to find 10 righteous people within all of Sodom and Gomorrah so that all could be saved) Yet, to me, the two most important accounts in today’s parshah are the blind acts of following directions given by G-d to Abraham.

The first is Sarah telling Abraham that Hagar and Ishmael have to go, which potentially would have resulted in the death of his handmaiden and first son. Although at first Abraham has misgivings about doing this (Genesis: 21:11, “But the matter greatly displeased Abraham, concerning his son.”), G-d tells him to listen to Sarah and states the following in Genesis 21:12:
“And G-d said to Abraham, "Be not displeased concerning the lad and concerning your handmaid; whatever Sarah tells you, hearken to her voice, for in Isaac will be called your seed.”

The second is the most famous part of today’s parshah, the binding and potential slaying of Isaac. You could come back at me and say as to Ishmael, G-d promised Abraham that Ishmael would lead another nation, but in the case of Isaac, Isaac was bound on an alter and Abraham had the knife raised high and but for the interaction of the angel, which according to what is written, the voice of the angel came from “Heaven”, Abraham would have committed the most unthinkable act one can imagine, without one comment from Abraham about “take me not my
son” or even “why”. I know that you are going to come back to me with some Midrash about Abraham knowing all along that G-d would tell him to “stand down”, but those would be the words of a mere mortal that had to defend one of the “chosen”. I guess I would not have lived up to this test of devotion and obedience because my children are the most important things in my life and I would not give them up for anything. What would you do if asked to chose between your son and the All Mighty? 

Let me end this with Sarah. I have already expressed my thoughts about her and that she is the root of the most basic problem facing Jews today, the conflict between Jews and the Muslim world. I know that you have told me it is not really her fault, but even G-d showed his displeasure with her and her “faith”. Yes she was old and past her “menstrual years” when told that she would have a son at the age of ninety. Yet after all that she had seen as it related to the All Mighty protecting both her and Abraham, when she was told the news all she could do was laugh. In the first Aliyah, at Genesis 18:13 G-d did not seem pleased with Sarah’s lack of faith, but came through with his promise. Where do we see the thanks from Sarah when G-d
finally gave her what she always wanted? Are these supposed to be the actions of the person that is our first Matriarch? 


Dear Mordechai,

I would say I don’t believe in Heaven, but that wouldn’t capture my actual position. Belief in Heaven is a matter of dogmatic faith. Angels are associated with Heaven because they are Heavenly creatures. How they move about and how they take on different forms is never addressed in the Torah. This is all speculation.
I think you’re missing something about Abraham and Sarah. First of all, they are a pair. The reason Ishmael could not succeed Abraham is that Sarah was not his mother. Isaac had to be Abraham’s successor because of the importance of the partnership between Abraham and Sarah. Note that even though Lot displays the same generosity toward strangers, Lot’s wife is dramatically different from Sarah, as evidenced from her looking backward toward Sodom and Gomorrah and turning into a pillar of salt. You refer to the blind acts of Abraham. The power of the episode with Hagar and Ishmael is that Abraham listens to his wife. I don’t doubt the judgment of Sarah. 21:9 indicates that Ishmael was mistreating Isaac, though it doesn’t detail how. That would be enough of a basis to break up the family. Rather than send Ishmael alone, Hagar had to go with her.
What I see in the laughter episode with Sarah is quite different than what you see. You see G-d’s displeasure with Sarah. I see evidence that G-d communicated with Sarah, which establishes her as a prophet, too.
The Akeidah is meant to achieve the shocking effect it does. Not only does the text suggest that Abraham was never going to follow through, the point is not highlight the obedience of a man about to commit child murder. The point is to point out how complex and profound trusting in G-d is. (What some might call faith, I call trust.) Abraham heard his whole life that he would have a successor. Then the very son that he is granted is requested as a sacrifice. Abraham, more than anyone, was keenly aware of the paradox. In any event, one cannot simply look at the Akeidah from one angle. Consider also the angle of Isaac. He is a 37 year old man who refuses to resist his more than 100 year old father binding him to an altar.
Returning to Sarah for a moment. Recall that Sarah was a barren woman who wanted to a child. I don’t think that we, as men – nor we as fathers – can imagine how difficult that is to live through. Her ability to persevere in spite of this lack in her life always stands her in good stead before my eyes.


Dear Rabbi,

Rabbi: Other than the California/Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels, I have never seen an angel but in my hear, or call it faith, I know they exist and my parents are a part of that group. I hope to join them again some day. 
With respect to Ishmael, I never envisioned him as someone who could succeed Abraham, but to be given one bag of water and to expect him to live was an act of cruelty, yet I again state that a legitimate argument could be made that Abraham was given the word of G-d that Ishmael would survive and father his own nation. Otherwise, it was a blind act of obedience to the words of G-d that Abraham should let him go. The "partnership" between Abraham and Sarah is not in any way shown in the Torah. Sarah tells him what to do and he does it. Where is Abraham's argument that such an abandonment would mean sure death to both a mere boy Ishmael and his mother. 
I could go about Sarah forever but how do you get around the plain language of Genesis 18:13 wherein it is stated "And the Lord said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh, saying, 'Is it really true that I will give birth, although I am old?" Is this the reaction of a woman that has "faith"? To me Sarah shows jealousy in any affection Abraham may have shown Ishmael or even Hagar and she could not allow this to get in the way of the devotion Abraham had to show both her and Isaac. 
To me you are showing the "rabbinical response to Sarah. What do we know about Sarah other than she would go without so uch of an argument into the harem of other kings, she made it clear that Ishmael had to go and not even thanking G-d for what he gave her albeit in her "old age". What else do we know about Lot's wife other than she turned around and met her fate. For all we know she could have been a devoted wife who became too curious at the wrong time. The "rabbinical way" is to find good in those that are chosen and finding fault with those that are not. 
If you want me to consider the "angle" of Isaac, I have a great deal of trouble with his mental capacity. What does Abraham think of him? In Genesis 22:5 we read the following: "And Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go yonder, and we will prostrate ourselves and return to you." If Isaac was 37 and was referred to as "the lad" how far into adulthood had Isaac ventured by that age in the eyes of his father? On top of that, regardless of what you conclude of Abraham "knowing" that G-d would intercede, if Abraham had thought about what Isaac perceived what he was about to do to Isaac, don't you think Isaac should have been scarred for life as a result of seeing what his father was going to do in order to prove his loyalty to the All Mighty? Again, I believe in the rabbinical world the "chosen" can only do good and there is always some way of justifying their acts. By the way, you did not answer my question about the choice of obeying G-d or saying I will not do such a thing to my son. 


Dear Mordechai,

Yes, I have spoken with other people who see their deceased loved ones as angels watching over them, which I think is beautiful.

I think the Torah’s succinctness is one of its strengths. We don’t have elaborate drawn out passages; we have to work with the little that we have. When I look at Sarah and Abraham, I don’t see a relationship of love, but I do see tremendous loyalty one to another.

I could never teach that what Abraham did in banishing Ishmael was an act of cruelty, though I understand that’s a sensible reaction.

I think that acknowledging the imperfections of patriarchs and matriarchs makes sense; however, I do think they ultimately need to be elevated, not cast down. Faith is a Christian and Islamic concept that makes its way into Judaism during the medieval period. I see Sarah’s laughter as an indication of surprise, not a lack of faith.

You repudiate the “rabbinical way,” but you don’t offer any alternative save one that appears to hold the patriarchs and matriarchs in disrepute. I’ve already indicated that many Jews have rejected the rabbinical way – the Sadducees and the Karaites being the most famous. I do see moments where our rabbis – in the midst of persecution - elevated the Jew to great heights and the non-Jew was cast down, but I don’t see where we are left if we don’t affirm the basic goodness of the founders of our religion.

Once again, with respect to the Akeidah, I see you tearing down our ancestors. Now Isaac’s mental capacity is being questioned.

I do think that a relationship with G-d demands one’s entire being so that nothing intercedes between you and that love for Him. That is how I understand the Akeidah. I am glad that Abraham was the one who was compelled to make the choice between obeying Him and keeping his son alive. That was one moment in time. I don’t think that G-d would make such a demand of a person today, so I believe your question is moot.

Of course, I relish reading what you write even if I consider what you say heretical. I think we have to be able to have honest responses to the material we read, and I can see how the justifications of anything by the rabbis can become quickly tiresome.

In sum, the avot and imahot are fallible human beings like we are. They are not gods, nor are they paragons of perfection. I think in each case, however, you can find the excellence of each of them as they face the challenges that human beings encounter in life. Most importantly, they open themselves up to G-d and create a relationship with Him that we still enjoy to this day.  



Dear Rabbi,

It is not my purpose to in some way denigrate the importance of the patriarchs and matriarchs to the point of not believing their righteousness and importance to our religion. Their shortcomings show the strength of the religion in that they are not be deemed some sort of deity.  What I have tried to convey to you on many occasions is that the ability to interpret the Torah did not stop with the rabbis from the 2nd to 5th centuries or whenever the quotes often given are taken from. To me, you are just as important as far as an interpretation of what we read is concerned. You can choose the "precedent" of those that went before you, but what you have read and learned should include what you believe the circumstances to be. I am allegedly one of the "Chosen People". What has not been adequately explained to me is what I or my religious affiliation has been chosen for or for that matter why.


Dear Mordecai,

I acknowledge, with gratitude, that you have encouraged me to develop my own interpretations instead of relying on what rabbis before have said. You may not believe me, but the way I study the Torah is almost always without the aid of commentators. One thing I have noticed is that our discussions are conducted with sources in English. I cannot overstate how important dealing with the sources in Hebrew is. Perhaps that is something we can add to our discourse. The Hebrew may not solve the problem of Abraham trying to sacrifice his son, but it will illuminate more clearly than the English does why what is the Torah is written there, including material that disturbs us.

Ultimately, you are asking an important and gigantic question. What have I been chosen for and why? Since I trust that this issue will need lots of discussion, I won’t seek to answer them here at once, and I will trust that we will continue to revisit these matters together.