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Parshat Vayera: Putting a Bad Conscience to Use

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Genesis, co-published by OU Press, Maggid Books, and YU Press; edited by Stuart W. Halpern

Putting a Bad Conscience to Use

The story of the Akeida is, together with the revelation at Sinai, the central event in Jewish history and religion. One of the most remarkable aspects of this episode is the one word by which Abraham accepts upon himself this historic trial and its mental agonies and spiritual sufferings. God called to him, “Abraham!” and, in magnificent simplicity, the response is forthcoming: “Hineini,” “Behold, here I am,” or, “I am ready” (Genesis 22:1).

One of the commentators, Rabbi Abraham ben haRambam – the only son of Maimonides – emphasizes the quality of this response by contrasting it to that of Adam. He writes, “How great the difference between Abraham who answered the divine call with the word ‘hineini,’ and Adam who, when God called out to him, ‘Where are you?’ answered, ‘I saw that I was naked and so I hid.’”

Now this comparison is somewhat disturbing. The answer of Adam is, after all, the response of a human being pursued by God who demands an explanation for a terrible failure, whereas Abraham’s response is to a divine call not necessarily connected with any human offense. Is this not an invidious comparison? Is not Abraham great enough in his own right without seeking to enhance his reputation at the expense of his grandfather Adam?

I believe the answer I wish to offer not only justifies the comment of Rabbi Abraham ben haRambam, but has the widest ramifications both for a proper understanding of the Bible and for our own lives. This answer is that both men – Adam and Abraham – were, in a sense, being reprimanded!

The story of the Akeida begins with the words, “And it came to pass after these things.” What things? asked the rabbis (Genesis Rabba 55:4). In their answer they indicate that the words of the Bible imply some severe introspection. The Akeida took place, they say, after hirhurei devarim, deep meditation and self-analysis by Abraham. Abraham, according to the rabbis, was troubled. He had a bad conscience which caused these hirhurei devarim, these introspective sessions. The Akeida was a kind of punishment, and it was brought on by Abraham’s errors.

What is it that troubled Abraham? There are several interpretations (see Genesis Rabba 55). One of them (a midrash cited in Kav haYashar) refers to the special celebration arranged by Abraham in honor of the weaning of his son Isaac. The Bible refers to that party as “mishteh gadol,” a great feast. Our tradition maintains that the greatness of this banquet was due to the guests who attended: “Gedolim hayu sham” – a party which was attended by all the giants of the time. Shem attended, Eber was there, Og was one of the guests – all the crowned heads of the ancient Near East were at the great party that Abraham prepared. But this is precisely where the trouble lay: only the gedolim, the great ones, were there; but there was no mention of ketanim, small people, ordinary human beings, the poor, and the marginal and the unwanted. Certainly Abraham, who was renowned for his hospitality over all else, should have known enough that at his personal simĥa he ought to have as major participants also the poor and the rejected. Abraham’s conscience troubled him; had he not contributed to a subtle transformation and dangerous degradation from hospitality to mere entertainment? For this should be an occasion for the uplifting of downtrodden spirits, not the namedropping of high and exalted personages.

But whatever occasioned Abraham’s troubled conscience, it was responsible for the Akeida episode. So that the divine call to Abraham was a conscience-call. What Rabbi Abraham ben haRambam meant, then, was that both Adam and Abraham responded to the call of a bad conscience – Adam for the eating of the forbidden fruit, and Abraham for his omissions at the feast – but that is where the comparison ends. When it comes to the responses of these two individuals: “How great the difference!”

When Adam sinned and heard God calling him, he said, “I heard Your voice in the garden”; in the underbrush of his mind there takes place the rustling of a primitive conscience. “I saw that I was naked”; there is a sudden awareness of his nakedness, of shame and disgrace. And so what does he do? “And so I hid”; he withdraws, hides himself, denies that he did anything wrong. He runs away and, when confronted by God, blames his wife or the serpent…

How different is Abraham! God calls him and his response is: “Hineini,” “Here I am!” I am willing to harness my bad conscience to a good use. I am ready to go through an akeida, to overcome the past by creative achievement in the future, teaching the world the real meaning of faith and the lengths to which one must go in order to uphold it. Rashi tells us that the word hineini implies both anava, and zimun – it is the language of both meekness and preparedness. Indeed, it is the language of meekness because it reveals a bad conscience, and it is the language of preparedness because Abraham is ready to do something about it. He is ready to take the bad conscience and make good use of it.

So the difference between Adam and Abraham is in what to do with a bad conscience: whether to hide or to use it. And what a difference there is between them! A bad conscience irritates the mind and the heart, until that bad conscience is either repressed or converted into something creative and constructive. It is much like the grain of sand that is either expelled by the oyster from under its shell, or transformed into a shiny and precious pearl.

This example of Abraham has been repeated at chosen moments throughout history. The Nobel prizes which were awarded recently offer such an example. Alfred Nobel is a man who gave a fortune for awards to those who contribute to the advancement of peace in the world. Why did he do this? It was an effort to overcome his bad conscience for having created dynamite and made war more destructive. Many of the greatest Torah scholars in our history were people who brought to their spiritual and intellectual endeavors a special passion that arose from the knowledge of having strayed in their youth.

The same holds true for philanthropy. I knew a man who was very generous in his endowments of various communal institutions. As so often happens, others begrudged him this mitzva. They pointed to certain incidents in his past which were not luminous examples of all the great virtues. What should be the Jewish reaction? It should be: marvelous! God bless that man! The greatest communal institutions were built by people who knew how to use a bad conscience and convert it to good use. Hospitals, schools, synagogues, welfare institutions of all kinds, are the products of people who have learned from Abraham to take their hirhurei devarim and use it to say “hineini” to the call of God. And who, after all, is there who is so saintly that he never has an occasion for a bad or troubled conscience? On the contrary, any man or woman who honestly feels that he or she has no bad conscience at all should have a bad conscience for being so insensitive as not to have a bad conscience! Would we rather a man have no conscience at all, that he be a moral idiot? Would we rather he be like Adam who responds only with “and so I hid” – that he deny his past, that he evade his responsibility? Certainly the transformation of guilt into philanthropy has a respectable precedent in the hineini of Abraham.