1997In the Torah parashah for this week, Vayera, Bereshit 18:1-22:24, we find one of the most eventful and wide-ranging of all parashiot, teaching us many important mitzvot, and concluding with one of the most central stories of our sacred literature. This last chapter of the parashah, Bereshit 22, is the Akedat Yitzkhak, the Binding of Isaac, which we also read on Rosh Hashanah. I would like to focus on this final story in the parashah. This chapter, seen as the tenth test of Abraham, is incredibly rich and begs for attention.
In the first 19 verses of this story, in broad outlines, we read that God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham agrees without argument, and Isaac goes along willingly. When Abraham, Isaac, and the two servants who travel with them arrive at the place that God will tell Abraham, Abraham leaves the two servants and journeys on with Isaac on foot. They arrive, the altar is prepared, and Abraham binds Isaac on the altar.
Abraham takes the "knife" and is about to slaughter Isaac when a messenger of God appears and halts him. After an interchange, Abraham sees a ram caught in the thicket, and sacrifices it instead of Isaac. On account of what he has done, Abraham is blessed and the promise that his seed shall be "as the stars of heaven, and as the sand on the shore" is given to him. Abraham returns to the servants, and they return to Beer Sheva.
A spare enough storyline, this is the cause and jumping off point of thousands of words of commentary; book upon book has been penned to explore this story. It has affected the Jewish psyche through all ages, even to the point that women in the medieval period would take it as an example and kill their children, rather than allow them to be taken captive in sieges.
This parashah is a marvelous example of how the Torah is a living document. It is not settled, it is not closed, and it is not a dead, stale thing that we can look up in a dusty volume when we remember it. Instead, Torah calls out, shouts to us, _demanding_ that we pay attention, and wrestle with the text. We have no choice.
And even though many have striven to understand the text, it is still open to interpretation. As a single example, I would like to look to Rashi*, the 11th century commentator on Torah and Talmud. In his reading of this parashah, Rashi has a series of questions that the parashah evokes for him. A smattering of them gives a sense of how far we can delve into this text, and how rich it is. Herewith, a sample few of his many questions.
The chapter opens with the words, After these things - what things are these? What events or words have happened that cause God to ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? Rashi introduces a bet between God and "Satan" to explain this.
"Kakh nah", take, please. Is this "please", as some translate it, or does it mean something else? Rashi explains this as simply precative language; language that is used to emphasize the sense of pleading or request, rather than command.
Your son, your only son, that you love, Yitzhak. What is this about? Is it a monologue, or is it more of a dialogue between God and Abraham, with Abraham's side missing? Why does God speak in such indirect terms? Rashi sees it as a dialogue with the point that God is easing Abraham into the realization of what is being asked slowly so as to be kind and not shock him.
To the land of Moriah. What is this moriah? Is it one of the mountains, or is it a people, or a place? What could it mean? Where might it be? Rashi identifies it as the future site of the Temple.
Why was it on the 3rd day that they arrived? Is there significance to that? Three days was time for Abraham to reconcile himself to the idea of sacrificing his son, according to Rashi.
And Abraham lifted his eyes, and he SAW the place. Why did he see it, if God was going to tell him of it? What was it that caught his eye and made Abraham know that this was the place? Rashi posits that God showed Abraham where it was by appearing above the place as a cloud, just as God would be a cloud of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night in the wilderness for the Israelites under Moshe's leadership.
Ma'akhelet. Translated as knife, but the usual word for knife is sakin. What is this "knife" that is taken? Rashi seeks the meaning of the root of the word, which he sees as being derived from le'ekhol, to eat, so that this form of the word would mean the one that consumes. The instrument that Abraham carries then, is a "consumer of flesh", a rather graphic description for that which is used to take a life.
Why do we read that the two of the went together (as one, in unity). Rashi posits that Isaac accepts his fate, and the two are of one mind, and at peace in their hearts.
What is this phrase "God will see for Himself the sheep"? Rashi indicates that God will look our for God's self, so Isaac is not to worry about it.
Why does it mean that it is unclear how to read the phrase, "for a sacrifice my son" - is it parsed as 'for a sacrifice, [directed to Isaac] my son', or as an aside, 'for the sacrifice [of] my son'? Rashi sees this as the moment that Isaac is made fully aware of the intention, and then walks on in tacit agreement.
This is just a part of what Rashi asks, and each of the numerous commentators has their own set of questions that the story evokes. This is true even to today when questions are still being asked about how to read this text.
This parashah is fabulously complex, rich, and deep. It invites us to enter into a dialogue with it and to continue to explore it. It reinforces the fact that the Torah is a _LIVING_ document, one that is open to us today, that we must continue to read, consider, think about and learn from. The answers are within the text - or perhaps we should say that for each of us, our answers are within ourselves, found by way of entering through the text. In this view, the Torah is as much alive as each one of us. It deserves the same consideration and attention as we would give another person.
* Rashi is the acronym of Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak. He was born in Troyes, in what is now France, in the Champagne region in the mid 11th century. His dates are about 1040-1105. He was the son of a family of vintners. He studied in Worms and in Mainz, the major centers of Jewish study in Europe, at the academies there.
As the oldest son, he was called home to work the vineyards on his father's death in the early 1090's, and came very reluctantly - a happy circumstance for him and for us - shortly afterwards, in the year 1096 the first crusade took place, and the academies of Worms and Mainz were destroyed by the passing "army".
Rashi had been a student of the foremost minds in Talmud in Europe, and had taken extensive notes about the lectures he attended. He used his crib sheets to write the first commentary on the Torah and Talmud after the death of most of his teachers. His work made him both famous and a major figure in Talmudic circles, and he was widely read by other scholars. His commentary serves as the basis for all others, and is the forerunner of every commentary that exists.
Rashi is also famous for his understanding of the text as having the character of both Peshat and Derash. Peshat is the simple meaning of the words on the page - a literal understanding. Derash is the deeper meaning that can be sought in the text - derash is from the root Lidrosh, to interpret. This double view of the text leads to a much richer and more meaningful reading of it.
Rashi had problems accepting anthropomorphisms, the depiction of God as having human characteristics and human limitations, including physical ones. Because Rashi lived through the first crusade, there is an anti-christian polemic to much of his writing.
An interesting sidelight is that Rashi is the source turned to for the study of medieval French - his writings contain uncorrupted versions of that language, and have been used to help scholars of French determine usage and meaning of many words.
Many of us know the term Rashi script. It is the style of printing that Rashi is usually presented. Rashi did not actually write this way - it was used by a typesetter to set off his commentary from the scriptural text so that no one would make any mistake about which was which, and it bacame the standard.
Prepared by Rabbi Joe Blair, Duke University.