The parshah Vayera (“And HaShem Appeared”) is packed with familiar action. It opens with angelic guests informing Abraham and Sarah that they will have a child in their old age. Abraham tries to convince God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah, but when a minyan of righteous people cannot be found, God destroys those cities. While traveling, Abraham again has Sarah say she is his sister, fearing that the locals might otherwise kill him. Sarah gives birth to Isaac, and later insists that Abraham send away Hagar and Ishmael. God hears their cries and reveals a well to Hagar, adding that Ishmael will be made into a great nation. Then God puts Abraham to the test, asking him to sacrifice Isaac.
Origin of my midrashic idea
The core of this dvar is a midrash on the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. The idea occurred to me during the High Holidays as I read and listened to the Akedah yet another time. My attention was drawn to the ass, the beast of burden that accompanies Abraham and Isaac for three days before they proceed alone to the traumatic action on Mount Moriah. I thought of another ass, Balaam’s ass who sees what its master cannot – an angel with a sword prepared to slay Balaam, and imagined that Abraham’s ass could have prevented the tragedy of a father binding his son as a sacrifice from happening.
Parallels between Vayerah and Balak
The stories are very different in tone and purpose, yet I have found a few connections. In Vayera it says “So early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass” and parshah Balak tells us “When he arose in the morning, Balaam saddled his ass.” To start early in the morning is to be committed, no avoiding, no dilly-dallying, and for a man with servants to do the saddling himself is to take on personal responsibility.
Both men climb to a height and have transformative experiences involving the number three, and the Hebrew root ר - א - ה. Abraham travels for three days, ascends to a height, sees a ram caught in a thicket, and changes his intent to sacrifice Isaac. We read “And Abraham named that site Adonai-yireh whence the present saying, “On the mount of HaShem there is vision.” Hebrew: be-har y-h-w-h yera’eh. Three times Balak takes Balaam to a height and asks him to curse Israel, but Balaam obeys God and blesses Israel each time. We hear “As Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God came upon him.” Hebrew: vayar et-yisrael.
My midrashic retelling of the parashah
Sometime afterward, God put Abraham to the test, saying to him, “Abraham.” He answered, “Here I am.” “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”
So early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. He split the wood for the burnt offering, and he set out for the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar.
Then Abraham said to his servants, “You stay here with the ass. The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you.” Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac. He himself took the firestone and the knife; and the two walked off together. Then Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he answered, “Yes, my son.” And he said, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” And Abraham said, “It is God who will see to the sheep for this burnt offering, my son.”
As the two of them walked on together, the ass broke free from the servants, pursued and passed Abraham and Isaac and moved in front of Abraham, blocking his way. Abraham turned to the left and tried to go around the ass, but again found his way blocked. His third attempt, to go to the right side of the road was also stymied by the ass. Abraham yelled at the ass – “Who are you to keep me from fulfilling my vow to HaShem.” The ass said to Abraham, “Look, I am the ass that has served you many years until this day! Have I been in the habit of defying you?” And Abraham answered, “No.” The ass gestured with his head toward a green area near the road. Abraham’s eyes fell upon a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns; thereupon he bowed right down to the ground.
While Abraham went to fetch the ram the ass said to Isaac, "fear not, and know that in time God will prefer the offering of prayer to the offering of animals. You will learn the way of prayer, and will be in a meditative prayer-ful state when the woman you will come to love first sees you from her camel."
Abraham returned with the ram, and said to the servants, “one of you speed home on this wise donkey, and tell Sarah that Isaac and I will return soon, for I fear she will be worried that we have been gone so long and I said nothing about my plans.”
They continued with the other servant to HaMakom, the place pointed out by God, a place that is a Name of God. Abraham offered up the ram as a burnt offering in place of his son. He had known since his youth that unlike his father’s idols, God spoke and acted. Now through this story his people would know that although God would require ritual animal sacrifice, God would never expect or accept human sacrifice.