Friday, October 18, 2013

Midrash of the week: Yitzchak's compliance

A focus on a midrashic interpretation on Vayera, that takes an ambiguous text and turns it in a completely unexpected direction.

The area of ambiguity, if you can call it that, is just what Yitzchak knew and when he knew it. Certainly the simple and straightforward reading of the text is that Yitzchak had no idea what was to happen. After all, he asks, in all innocence (Bereshit 22:7), "Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt-offering?" He would not ask this had he known. Avraham's response is that God would show them the lamb, rather than telling him, "YOU are the lamb". And then Avraham binds Yitzchak, which suggests that otherwise, Yitzchak would have struggled. At this point Yitzchak surely knows, but he is surely not complicit.

A midrashic focal point, though, stands on the pasuk describing Avraham's response:
ח  וַיֹּאמֶר, אַבְרָהָם, אֱלֹהִים יִרְאֶה-לּוֹ הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה, בְּנִי; וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם, יַחְדָּו.8 And Abraham said: 'God will provide Himself the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.' So they went both of them together
Consider the words וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו, "and the two of them went together." This could mean that Yitzchak remained ignorant and so willingly accompanied his father. But it could also mean that the two of them proceeded forward with common purpose. Earlier, in pasuk 6, the same phrase occurs, and there it is taken to simply mean literal travel, with Yitzchak ignorant.
ו  וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֲצֵי הָעֹלָה, וַיָּשֶׂם עַל-יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ, וַיִּקַּח בְּיָדוֹ, אֶת-הָאֵשׁ וְאֶת-הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת; וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם, יַחְדָּו.6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife; and they went both of them together.
Similarly, other "ambiguous" parts of that pasuk can be reinterpreted to advance this idea. Avraham's answer to Yitzchak's query, on a peshat level, is pure denial: אֱלֹהִים יִרְאֶה-לּוֹ הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה בְּנִי. With Avraham being sweet and calling him "my son" -- though one can readily see that this is part of what makes the test so hard for Avraham. But midrashically, if this is the big reveal, then we can take this as two statements -- either the lamb, or my son.

That shifted understanding of the narrative is what leads some to say that the act of binding was Yitzchak's suggestion.

This is not a big chiddush. This is straightforward Rashi on the pasuk:

will provide for Himself the lamb: i.e., He will see and choose for Himself the lamb (Targum Jonathan), and if there will be no lamb, my son will be for a burnt offering. And although Isaac understood that he was going to be slaughtered,“ they both went together,” with one accord (lit. with the same heart). - [from Gen. Rabbah 56:4] יראה לו השה: כלומר יראה ויבחר לו השה, ואם אין שה, לעולה בני. ואף על פי שהבין יצחק שהוא הולך לישחט, וילכו שניהם יחדו בלב שוה:

So what in the point of this post? After all, you can read a Rashi! 

The point is that we should take some time and savor the midrash and the underlying text. Not just to know what the midrash says, but to (a) see that is it in fact a midrash rather than merely a clarification of an otherwise unclear base text and (b) see how this one midrash introduces a paradigm shift. And then, to ruminate upon the peshat meaning, without the midrash, and why these phrases occur. What is the role of the repeated וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו in the peshat narrative? And then to see what is being reinterpreted by the midrash, and to appreciate that as well.


Why is the place called Hashem Yireh? The pasuk and Rashi:

And Abraham named that place, The Lord will see, as it is said to this day: On the mountain, the Lord will be seen. יד. וַיִּקְרָא אַבְרָהָם שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא יְהֹוָה | יִרְאֶה אֲשֶׁר יֵאָמֵר הַיּוֹם בְּהַר יְהֹוָה יֵרָאֶה:
The Lord will see: Its simple meaning is as the Targum renders: The Lord will choose and see for Himself this place, to cause His Divine Presence to rest therein and for offering sacrifices here. ה' יראה: פשוטו כתרגומו, ה' יבחר ויראה לו את המקום הזה להשרות בו שכינתו ולהקריב כאן קרבנות:

Yet, there are many plausible etymologies based on this perek. Hashem selected the place in this story as well:
עַל אַחַד הֶהָרִים, אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ
but we aren't told which, and then 
אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר-אָמַר-לוֹ הָאֱלֹהִים
but still no seeing involved, until
וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם--מֵרָחֹק

Or another plausible etymology, based on this:
וַיֹּאמֶר, אַבְרָהָם, אֱלֹהִים יִרְאֶה-לּוֹ הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה, בְּנִי

Or, the second instance of Avraham lifting up his eyes and seeing, when his lie to his son actually comes true:
וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה-אַיִל, אַחַר, נֶאֱחַז בַּסְּבַךְ בְּקַרְנָיו

These are difficult to work into the end of pasuk 14, אֲשֶׁר יֵאָמֵר הַיּוֹם בְּהַר יְהֹוָה יֵרָאֶה.

By the way, part of what is "bothering Rashi" in the above is the move from the active verb (binyan kal) יִרְאֶה, to the passive verb (binyan nifal) יֵרָאֶה. Is Hashem seeing or is He being seen? And Rashi neatly resolves or harmonizes this, by saying that Hashem saw (and chose) the spot, and therefore there he will be seen.


isaacson said...

I was always curious about this midrash. If we take it as a factual statement what are the implications? In such a situation, with Yitzchak not receiving such a command from God would he not have a right or obligation to either run away or perhaps to kill his father first?

joshwaxman said...

Interesting idea. I don't know. Maybe via the command of a navi it is different. Certainly the authors of this midrash believed Yitzchak's actions to be praiseworthy.


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