Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Lech Lecha: Avraham's Sacrifice

The first pasuk (Bereshit 12:1):
א וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ. 1 Now the LORD said unto Abram: 'Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto the land that I will show thee.
Why the repetition of country, kindred, and father's house?

Ramban is good here for his summary of other positions on a related issue: How could Avraham have been commanded to leave when he already left two psukim earlier, in Bereishit 11:30:

לא וַיִּקַּח תֶּרַח אֶת-אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ, וְאֶת-לוֹט בֶּן-הָרָן בֶּן-בְּנוֹ, וְאֵת שָׂרַי כַּלָּתוֹ, אֵשֶׁת אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ; וַיֵּצְאוּ אִתָּם מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים, לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן, וַיָּבֹאוּ עַד-חָרָן, וַיֵּשְׁבוּ שָׁם. 31 And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son's son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram's wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there.

so they already left for Charan, and so how could the pasuk say "from your country." Rashi answers that, true, they had already left to Charan, in Canaan, but this was a command to distance himself from his father's house even further. Ibn Ezra answers that this command was earlier, received in Ur Kasdim.

Both are good explanations, though I lean more towards the latter. There is no issue of being out of order, for besides the famous line "ain mukdam ume`uchar baTorah," there is an even better argument to be had. The description of the movement in 11:30 is part of a genealogical list (what we might refer to as P, even without adopting the Documentary Hypothesis's idea of multiple authors), and is describing on a macro level what is happening through various generations. When finished with the list, we zoom in to the micro, personal level and hear the command in more detail (thus J). This macro/micro level is evident in general. Thus, the "E" account of Genesis and creation of man is a macro-account, and the "J" account of man zooms in on part of one "day," and is a micro, personal account.

Thus, we might have the movement and Terach's death as part of the genealogical account, a zoom-in to elaborate on the movement, and a further fullfillment of the command via a movement from Charan.

Note that there is certainly movement from Charan, and not just from Ur Kasdim. This is detailed in 12:4:
ד וַיֵּלֶךְ אַבְרָם, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֵלָיו ה, וַיֵּלֶךְ אִתּוֹ, לוֹט; וְאַבְרָם, בֶּן-חָמֵשׁ שָׁנִים וְשִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה, בְּצֵאתוֹ, מֵחָרָן. 4 So Abram went, as the LORD had spoken unto him; and Lot went with him; and Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran.
This pasuk combines elements of the personal ("J") at the beginning, with a return to the genealogical/macro ("P") at the end.

Proving that this out-of-orderness is so is a simple reckoning of the dates: Terach had Avraham when he was 70 (see 11:26), and lived 205 years (11:32). Avraham was 75 when he departed Charan (see 12:4), and so Terach must be 70 + 75 = 145. Terach lived to 205 years, and 205 - 145 = 60, and so Terach has another 60 years left. Now, one might claim, from a Documentary Hypothesis point of view, that the two accounts of ages are contradictory and should not be harmonized, but this is not so. Firstly, one could easily see the "P" trait in the end of verse 12:4, which gives Avraham's age. And secondly, God's command is to leave "your father's house," implying that Terach would be still alive. There is no reason to see contradiction. Rather, there is the macro-description of the generations, a focusing and zooming-in on one particular element within this macro-description, and a return to the macro-description where appropriate.

Thus, we must end the detailing of the generations, and so we mention Terach's age when he finally dies, but we focus in on the event of moving, which is before Terach's death.

Now, Ramban believes Ibn Ezra is wrong (as is Rashi), and that the command was given after leaving Ur Kasdim. The "country, kindred, and father's house" all refer to Avraham's leaving of Charan. He brings proofs, among which are the statement that Terach took Avraham from Ur Kasdim (11:31) rather than Avraham taking Terach.

This was in fact what I was going to propose as an explanation of the first pasuk in Lech Lecha before seeing any of this other aforementioned complication. That is, the command refers to moving from Charan.

(Alternatively, I would allow this to refer to the movement from Ur Kasdim to get eventually to the place which God shows him (=Canaan). As to Ramban's problem that is is Terach who takes them, he is after all the head of the family, and so he would be said to travel, taking along his family, even if this had resulted from a command to Avraham. There are two different perspectives here, the macro and the personal, and I would not use one to absolutely disprove the other. Further, we see there is some out-of-orderness, from the fact that Terach's death is recorded, and this happens after the second command. Regardless, I think that this can refer to a single movement.)

Avraham's Sacrifice
Why mention all these movements - "מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ?" What is the reason for the repetition? The purpose is to show the extent of what is being asked. What we have here is Biblical poetry, in which repetition of the same idea in different words is used. Thus, also, the phrase לֶךְ-לְךָ, which besides being more formal has sound repetition. These all convey the same idea. Why repeat? To dramatize the extent of his sacrifice. (Ramban says something similar.) He is not just going, on God's command. He is leaving his land. He is leaving his kindred, or else his place where he grew up. He is leaving his father's house. All because of God's command. These need not refer to different entities, but to different aspects of the same entity.

We see the same device used in parshat Vayera, in the command to sacrifice Yitzchak. In Bereishit 22:2:

א וַיְהִי, אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וְהָאֱלֹקִים, נִסָּה אֶת-אַבְרָהָם; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי. 1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him: 'Abraham'; and he said: 'Here am I.'
ב וַיֹּאמֶר קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר-אָהַבְתָּ, אֶת-יִצְחָק, וְלֶךְ-לְךָ, אֶל-אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה; וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם, לְעֹלָה, עַל אַחַד הֶהָרִים, אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ. 2 And He said: 'Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.'
The midrash says at much about the dramatic content of this repetition in Vayera by transforming אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר-אָהַבְתָּ, אֶת-יִצְחָק into a dialogue between God and Avraham. First God specifies "son," and Avraham says "I have two sons."
God: Your only son.
Avraham: Each is the only one from his mother.
God: Whom you love.
Avraham: I love both.
God: Yitzchak.

Besides perhaps conveying some idea about lack of favoritism, we might also say that God's specification was obvious, and that Avraham is in denial, hoping that Yitzchak will not eventually be specified. Add to this that "your only one," יְחִידְךָ, is used elsewhere in Tanach as another term for "soul." Thus, this is something very dear, as dear as Avraham's own life.

The message of this dramatic repetition is that one should not take Avraham's binding of Yitzchak as a callous act, with a complete lack of emotion, in order to blindly follow God's orders. Rather, it was a true struggle, for Yitzchak was his only son, the one he loved, and for whom he had been waiting all these years.

Look at all the features that repeat. And, not only do they repeat, but they repeat against a purported YKVK/Elokim (E/J) variance.

In Lech Lecha, YKVK does the commanding, and uses the formal לֶךְ-לְךָ, which also has the sound repetition. The same happens in Vayera, in 22:2, with Elokim doing the commanding, in the phrase וְלֶךְ-לְךָ, אֶל-אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה. In Lecha Lecha, we have the repetition of מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ. In Vayera, we have אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר-אָהַבְתָּ, אֶת-יִצְחָק. Finally, we have the stress that this is a supreme sacrifice for God's command. Thus, in Lech Lecha, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ, and in Vayera, עַל .אַחַד הֶהָרִים, אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ

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