Seeing The Ram

The miracle of the ram caught in the bushes was that, in the final moment, Avraham was able to perceive it as an alternative to sacrificing his son.

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Provided by KOLEL--The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada's Reform movement.

Overview

Continuing the story of Abraham and Sarah, our Torah portion this week opens with Abraham sitting in his tent, recovering from his circumcision, and being visited by three mysterious men, apparently messengers from God, who visit and tell Abraham and Sarah that Sarah will indeed bear a son. She doesn't believe it, and laughs.

God decides to warn Abraham that Sodom and Gommorah, two sinful cities, will be destroyed. Abraham argues with God for the sake of the righteous ones in those cities, but there aren't enough good people to save them. A crowd in Sodom tries to force Lot to turn over his guests; he escapes the destruction with his two daughters, who sleep with their father when they think the whole world is destroyed.

Abraham and Sarah travel to Gerar and Sarah enters the house of the king there. Sarah does have a son, Isaac, and she expels Hagar and Ishmael when she thinks they threaten Isaac, but God saves them and makes them a promise that Ishmael too will be a great nation. Finally, Abraham hears the call from God to take Isaac and offer him as a sacrifice; at the last minute, Abraham's hand is stopped by an angel, and a ram is offered instead.

In Focus

And Abraham raised his eyes and saw--behold, a ram!--afterwards, caught in the bushes by its thorns; so Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up instead of his son.
(Genesis 22:13)

Pshat

The story of the binding and (almost) sacrifice of Isaac is complex and troubling; one possible reading that the Torah seems to support is that God was testing Abraham's faith, and when he passed by showing his willingness to sacrifice even his son for God, God gave him an alternative, the ram.

Drash

Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Ancestors), a section of the Mishnah (rabbinic compilation of legal material) devoted to advice for ethical and reverent living, quotes a list of special, miraculous things that were created on the last day of Creation- i.e., things that can't be explained in any normal or rational or scientific manner except that somehow God created these things as exceptions to the rules of nature and history. (Pirkei Avot 5:8). On this list of specially created things was "the ram for Abraham our father."

Now, the rabbis who wrote the Mishnah were intelligent people, and somehow I don't think they were teaching only that this ram sat in the bushes caught by its horns for thousands of years just waiting for its moment to be sacrificed--though that in itself is a powerful metaphor for the patience and humility one might require if one is find one's true purpose in life. (No, I'm not suggesting that one should sit around waiting to be sacrificed--this is only a metaphor!)

So let's assume that the rabbis of the Mishnah included this ram in their list of specially created objects because they didn't know how else to explain it, and while they probably didn't believe that an ordinary ram could survive under those circumstances, they were stuck with a difficult text to resolve and elucidate.

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Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger is currently the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, NY. A former student at Kolel, he served as Kolel's Director of Outreach from late 1999-2001. He was ordained in the first graduating class of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism, and holds a Master's of Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto.