Thursday, November 09, 2006

Vayera (Rashi)

For further teachings on this week's parsha, see the archives for November 2005. For more on Shlomo Carlebach see the archives for October 2004.

“And The Two of Them Went Together”

The centrality in Jewish thought and theology of the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, requires no introduction. Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz was fond of saying that the difference between the Akedah and the Crucifixion was emblematic of the difference between Judaism and Christianity: in the one, God sacrifices Himself for Mankind; in the other, man is asked to sacrifice that which is dearest and most precious to him in the pure, disinterested, not to say paradoxical and possibly absurd, service of God.

His sister, the noted Bible and parshanut scholar Nehama Leibowitz, analyzed the literary style of the Akedah account in one of her Studies, noting that it is written in a semi-chiastic, symmetrical format. That is, just about every significant linguistic phrase in the first half of the narrative (Gen 22:1-6a) is repeated or mirrored in the second half (9-19): the call to Abraham; the use of the phrase “your son, [your beloved], your only one”; the ma’akhelet, a rare word for knife; the pile of wood; the reference to the place as the one “that I shall show you” and afterwards as “where God was made seen”; etc. For our purposes, what is most significant here is that it points towards verses 7-8 as the dramatic center of the story, framed by the repetition in 6b and 8b of the phrase “and the two of them walked together” (וילכו שניהם יחדיו). We shall consider here Rashi’s comments on these verses.

22:6. “And the two of them walked together.” Rashi: Abraham who knew that he was going to slaughter his son, went with joy and willingness, like Yitzhak, who did not feel [i.e., know] the thing.

The first time this phrase is used, it indicates solidarity of father and son, notwithstanding the total difference in their knowledge or expectation of what was to take place. Given that Yitzhak had no particular reason to suspect that he was about to be offered on the altar and (as far as Abraham knew) meet his death, the significant point is with regard to Abraham: that, notwithstanding the grisly task that awaited him, and with it the imminent destruction of all hopes for continuity of his life’s work through his beloved heir, he “went with joy and willingness”—as if he were still innocent of what was to ensue. (We will comment further on what it means to rejoice despite the imminent death of oneself or a loved one below, and in next week’s paper).

Immediately thereafter, all this changes: the literary intuition of Rashi, following the midrash in Genesis Rabbah 56.4, is that the repetition of the phrase “and the two of them walked together” must indicate that this was not self-evident; that there was some change in the relation between them between verse 6b and 8b, which could only have been cased by Isaac’s sudden enlightenment as to the real purpose of this journey. At this point, the conversation between Abraham and Isaac in 7-8a, which on the surface could be read as almost trivial, or even as a parental white lie, is seen as conveying the terrible truth:

8. “[God] will make seen the sheep.” He will choose Himself the sheep. And if there is no sheep, “as a burnt offering, my son.” Even though Isaac understood that he’s going to be slaughtered, “and the two of them walked together”—with equal heart.

Between the first and the second “and they walked together” Isaac asks a crucial question: If we are going to offer a sacrifice, where is the sacrificial animal? Abraham’s answer, “God will make seen the sheep, my son” is broken down by Rashi into two syntactic units, as if two separate answers: ”maybe God will show us a sheep; an if not, you, my son, are the burnt offering.” In this way, Abraham is seen as breaking the news to his son that he is the one intended for sacrifice. And yet, Rashi concludes, the two continue to walk together as one. The shocking news is accepted by Isaac calmly: whatever extraordinary spiritual and psychological qualities enabled Abraham to perform this strange act, calmly and obediently and faithfully—what Kierkegaard calls being a “knight of faith”—are equally present in the son (however old or young he may have been at the time; the most popular midrash on the subject make him to be a 37-year-old adult). Our midrash here conveys this idea most elegantly through the repetition, in connection with both verses, of the identical words: ” this one to bind, that one to be bound; this one to slaughter, that one to be slaughtered” (זה לעקוד וזה ליעקד, זה לשחוט וזה להשחט).

A historical comment: Rashi lived at the time of the First Crusades, during which the venerable Jewish communities of the Rhine Valley (perhaps 200 miles east of Rashi’s home in Troyes) suffered terrible pogroms, forced conversion, and slaughter. Hence, Jews during that period identified particularly strongly with the Akedah as a paradigm; a martyr’s death “for the sake of the Holy Name” was a central religious value. And, unlike Abraham, there was no angel to stay the hand holding the sword at the last moment, but there were many who literally died for their faith. Shalom Spiegel, in his book The Last Trial, has written movingly and learnedly of this parallel, presenting various texts from midrashim, chronicles, and piyyutim in which the comparing to the Akedah is made explicit. More recently, historian Israel Yuval, in his book Two Nations in Your Womb (recently published in English translation), has discussed the bizarre-seeming phenomenon of parents themselves killing their own children to prevent them falling prey to the Crusaders, who might raise them in the alien faith—and at times these acts of ritual murder were performed in a manner closely patterned after the animal sacrifices in the Temple.

In general, the Akedah has played a strong role in Jewish imagination. It is invoked at times as a motif in Israeli life as well—there are those who depict the young soldiers who fall in battle as victims of a latter-day Akedah (the adult society’s inability to make peace?); while others draw a parallel between Rabin’s assassination and the Akedah: and indeed, not only was his name Yitzhak, but he was murdered on the Motzei Shabbat preceding Parshat Vayera, i.e., that week during which the Akedah is read.

“For now I know that you are truly God-Fearing”

12: “For now I know that you are God-fearing.” Rashi: “Now I know…” From now on I have an answer to the Satan and the nations of the world, who wonder what my debt is to you. I have an opening, now that they see “that you are God-fearing.”

On this verse, Rashi presents his interpretation of the actual reason for the Akedah, one quite different from its standard explanation as a test of Abraham: whether of his single-minded devotion to God, or of what Kierkegaard calls the “theological suspension of the ethical”—that is, his willingness to suspend not only his fatherly feelings but also his ethical sensibilities of what is right or wrong. Rashi doesn’t go into all that: the Akedah was not to test Abraham, but to prove to the non-Jewish nations Abraham’s incomparable devotion and thus religious superiority, which by extension accrues to the people Israel and explains why God favors them. Again, what we have here is best explained in the context of Jewish-Christian polemic: Judaism and the Jewish people, the seed of Abraham, being vindicated by the Akedah!

Ethics and Theology

A letter from a reader about the philosophical issue raised by the Akedah prompted me to formulate the matters once again, even though I’ve dealt with it in previous years. Mark Feffer asked me:

“God said to Abraham, ‘kill me a son.’ Abraham said, ‘God, you must be putting me on.’” Did Bob Dylan think/know that in actuality Abraham refused to kill Isaac and God said, “Shhh, Just play along!”? How could Abraham agree? This is no God of Ethics that Abraham knew, to paraphrase the Satan as Abraham journeyed to Moriah (yera’eh?).

This is the classic problem: the conflict between ethics and the theocentric love of God that transcends all reason. The argument goes something like this: if God is the ultimate source of all things, whatever God says must by definition be ethical. Who are you [i.e., puny human being] to think that you understand ethics better than He who gave the ethical law in the first place? This is the origin of the whole idea in Habad that the mitzvot are le-ma’alah mi-ta’am vada’at, i.e., transcend all [human] reason or understanding. Hence the celebration of the hukim, those mitzvot which we cannot understand, such as parah adumah, as the archetype for all religious action. This is a strong motif, especially in contemporary Orthodoxy.

And indeed, ethical philosophy based on human reason alone is a thorny complex subject. Kant tried to develop his categorical imperative by which we say: do not commit any action whose maxim—i.e., underlying principle—could not be made universal. Bit there are many holes that can and have been poked in this and similar attempts to ground ethics purely on reason.

On the other hand, there is a whole school that says that God cannot be unethical, and that there is such a thing as conscience, natural law, etc., that is inherent in man’s mind/heart/soul. I tend towards that view (see the stuff I’ve written about the Noachide Code in past years). And indeed, one can say that the Akedah story ends up with Abraham being told NOT to do it, so ethics is also given its day. Or is it? After all, God tested Abraham to see if he was ready to do the Akedah—that is, God was interested in his state of mind, not his actions—and presumably he got good marks, judging from the blessing given him by the angel thereafter, because he was prepared to do the Akedah with all his heart, unquestioningly.

But I just had a crazy idea for an alternative, post-modern midrash: maybe God’s test of Abraham was punkt farkert, exactly opposite: He wanted Abraham to refuse, to prove the power of his moral autonomy and his sense of natural morality, and he failed the test. As a result, God realized that human beings had to be treated as not-fully-mature moral beings; that they were unable to act with real moral courage or inner power, but needed to be led or “babied” somewhat (in this view, the ideal is more like that of Nietzsche, or Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor). But then one needs to explain away the blessings he receives thereafter: perhaps they were all material blessings, as in the end even Abraham is unable to appreciate the more subtle, rarified ethical heights.

As I said, just a crazy speculation.

Readers’ Response: On Noah, Violence, etc.

Reader David Greenstein wrote:

Two points touching on your words of Torah. First, about Lekh Lekha: about humans giving blessings, I think of the enigmatic last mishnah in Berakhot, where the response to the religious challenges posed by heretics (“once the minim, schismatics, became spoiled) was the insistence that individuals (outside the priestly confines of the Temple) exchange greetings by blessing one another with the Divine Name (“God be with you… May God bless you”—taken from Ruth 2:4). It is possible to respond to times of restricted religious faithfulness by circling the wagons, or one may take the opposite tack and spread blessings liberally (see the Tosefta here). This was, as you observe, the Abrahamic way of Reb Shlomo z”l.

Re violence: Here are some thoughts I shared last week with some friends. After the flood had abated Noah sent out the raven who is unsuccessful in scouting the terrain. Then he sends the dove who also, initially, does not find dry land. But the Torah includes a remarkable verse, saying “he put out his hand and he took her and he brought her into the ark” (Gen 8:9). So much detail! Why tell us that he stretched out his hand? Why not simply report that the dove, unlike the raven, returned to the ark this time? It seems that the dove might not have made it without Noah's help. And Noah may not have stretched out his arm if he had not first seen the failure of the raven. This simple act speaks of an emotional attachment, a real caring that Noah feels toward this poor creature, with whom Noah had entered into a mutual relationship of need and trust.

But this verse stands in stark and disturbing contrast to two other events and actions: the attention to small details in the act of “stretching out one’s hand and taking” is chillingly repeated at the Akedah (“and Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son”; 22:10), where the purpose is lethal rather than embracing, though the emotional weight is perhaps even greater. But closer to this story there is another tragic echo, for immediately after Noah leaves the ark, where he has lived in intimate relation with the dove and all the animals and birds, he again takes them—and slaughters them on the altar as a sacrifice. The ark, into which Noah hastened to bring the dove, was a respite and shelter from this habit of killing. But it was only a temporary one. Perhaps Noah intuited this as he stretched out his hand.


Blogger Rachel said...

Thanks for this thoughtful post.

maybe God’s test of Abraham was punkt farkert, exactly opposite: He wanted Abraham to refuse, to prove the power of his moral autonomy and his sense of natural morality, and he failed the test.

There's something compelling about that argument for me. In other circumstances, Abraham has been perfectly comfortable talking back to God; but this time he goes along with God's plan quietly, without giving his own son the same consideration he gave to the townsfolk of Sodom and Gemorrah. Perhaps with this silence, Abraham failed the test; God gives him an "out," but punishes him by never speaking to him directly again. (Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has written about this possibility, though I can't remember where...)

6:44 AM  
Blogger My signature said...

Maybe Abraham was not supposed to comply or refuse. Maybe he was supposed to mediate (ch 18), intercede (ch 20) and offer Isaac as a living sacrifice (as he had done with Ishmael in the chapter previously) and offer himself as a substitute sacrifice (which would model God's commitment to the point of death in the cut animal covenant in chapter 15, and also purge Abraham from his persistent fear of death associated with endangering Sarah in the past).

The nature of the test may have been to synthesize and fulfill all the elements of the akedah command in a covenant educated "responsive" manner instead of a literal manner of hearing.

There are many verbal differences between Ishmael's command and Isaac's command. One is congruent with the order of banishment, the other is incongruent by at least 6 verbal techniques with the order to offer him up as a burnt offering.

literal vs responsive hearing
submission vs synthesis
Baal, Molech vs YHWH

It was a sophisticated test.

12:09 PM  
Blogger My signature said...

sorry, my name is arlyn.

12:10 PM  

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