Wednesday, November 16, 2005

parshat Vayera: Avraham Sacrifice and Struggle

Dramatic Tension
The story of the binding of Yitzchak surely involves a struggle by Avraham. We read {Bereishit 22:1-2}:

א וַיְהִי, אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וְהָאֱלֹהִים, 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 text of the narrative, at the very start, thus mentions that this is a test of Avraham's resolve: וְהָאֱלֹהִים, נִסָּה אֶת-אַבְרָהָם.

As I put forth in this post on parshat Lech Lecha about Avraham's sacrifice in leaving Charan, as well as the binding of Yitzchak, the poetic form of God's command, together with the repetition of the same idea (son) in different terms, is a way of underscoring the dramatic tension involved. Different aspects of his Yitzchak are highlighted. Yitzchak is his son. His only son/his very soul. The one he loves.

The innocuous exchange in the first pasuk is to be read in this light. וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי. Hashem called to Avraham, to see if he was ready to serve Him. Avraham responds, "here I am, available and devoted to You, and ready to do Your will."

Similarly, the fact that the text focuses in on the detail of Yitzchak noticing that they are not bringing a lamb, questioning his father about it, and Avraham's response, which is not a lie but not exactly the truth either. Again, this detail is mentioned for its dramatic impact, such that we see that there is emotion connection between father and son, and the two directions in which Avraham is pulled. The psukum are Bereishit 22:7-8:
ז וַיֹּאמֶר יִצְחָק אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אָבִיו, וַיֹּאמֶר אָבִי, וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֶּנִּי בְנִי; וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה הָאֵשׁ וְהָעֵצִים, וְאַיֵּה הַשֶּׂה, לְעֹלָה. 7 And Isaac spoke unto Abraham his father, and said: 'My father.' And he said: 'Here am I, my son.' And he said: 'Behold the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?'
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.
Besides noting the clever juxtaposition of לְעֹלָה בְּנִי (and see related midrash), there is an important parallelism to notice. That is the initial exchange between Yitzchak and Avraham:

וַיֹּאמֶר יִצְחָק אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אָבִיו, וַיֹּאמֶר אָבִי, וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֶּנִּי בְנִי
"And Isaac spoke unto Abraham his father, and said: 'My father.' And he said: 'Here am I, my son.'"

The reader is supposed to be reminded of the exchange that led off the narrative:

וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי
"and God said unto him: 'Abraham'; and he said: 'Here am I.'"

Thus, both God and Yitzchak call to Avraham: God calls Avraham's by his given name (that God in fact gave him), and Yitzchak calls him by the relationship, and in both instances his response is the same. To God: Here I am, prepared to do your will. To Yitzchak: here I am, my son. I place great value in our relationship.

There is then a deliberateness to each of Avraham's actions. They are described in the minutest detail because Avraham is conscious of each and every one, and each and every one is a struggle:

ט וַיָּבֹאוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אָמַר-לוֹ הָאֱלֹהִים, וַיִּבֶן שָׁם אַבְרָהָם אֶת-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, וַיַּעֲרֹךְ אֶת-הָעֵצִים; וַיַּעֲקֹד, אֶת-יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ, וַיָּשֶׂם אֹתוֹ עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, מִמַּעַל לָעֵצִים. 9 And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built the altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood.
י וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יָדוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת, לִשְׁחֹט, אֶת-בְּנוֹ. 10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
To take one of just many examples in the list of micro-steps, Avraham does not just take the knife. He stretches forth his hand to take the knife. Then he takes the knife. This is for the purpose of dramatic tension.

In line with this, the midrash tells of how the Satan placed obstacles at every step of the way, including a river which came up to their necks, which they had to wade through. The midrash is not there to provide a nice, Biblically-based story for children, or to read Satan into the story. It is a way of showing how, at every step, Avraham had to struggle with his inclination not to go through with the akeida.

The emotional struggle comes to a climax, with Avraham about to go through with the sacrifice, when sudden relief comes - a literal deus ex machina:
יא וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו מַלְאַךְ ה, מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַיֹּאמֶר, אַבְרָהָם אַבְרָהָם; וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּנִי. 11 And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said: 'Abraham, Abraham.' And he said: 'Here am I.'
יב וַיֹּאמֶר, אַל-תִּשְׁלַח יָדְךָ אֶל-הַנַּעַר, וְאַל-תַּעַשׂ לוֹ, מְאוּמָה: כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי-יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים אַתָּה, וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ, מִמֶּנִּי. 12 And he said: 'Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him; for now I know that thou art a God-fearing man, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me.'
Hashem calls out lovingly to Avraham (thus the repetition), or urgently (and thus the repetition), and Avraham, in this final moment, says that he is ready. God responds that the actual sacrifice is not necessary (nor was really ever intended). The sacrifice was made in terms of willingness to follow God's command, even at great emotional/personal loss. Thus, Avraham has passed the test, and we see what the aim of the test was: וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ, מִמֶּנִּי. Again, poetic repetition stressing Avraham's great love for his son.

And the exchange of: וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו מַלְאַךְ ה, מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַיֹּאמֶר, אַבְרָהָם אַבְרָהָם; וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּנִי.
God: Avraham, Avraham
Avraham: Here I am:

again deliberately parallels the exchange in the beginning: וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי; as well as Yitzchak's call to his father: וַיֹּאמֶר יִצְחָק אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אָבִיו, וַיֹּאמֶר אָבִי, וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֶּנִּי בְנִי

This formulaic exchange is deliberate. The three occurrences frame the story - relationship to God, opposing relationship to son, and either decision in God's favor of the releasing of Avraham from this emotional tug-of-war.

Sure, a search for the word הִנֶּנִּי will reveal that this type of exchange is not uncommon in sefer Bereishit. However, those other instances occur once in a narrative. Here, it is the repetition, the parallelism, and the framing, which imbues these exchanges with an extra deliberateness of meaning.

Compare one other example where the הִנֶּנִּי exchange is meaningful. There, once again, it occurs twice in the narrative, in a way that frames it and produces a beautiful contrast. I am referring to Yaakov's taking of the blessing by misleading his father Yitzchak. In Bereishit 27:1, Yitzchak calls for his eldest son:
א וַיְהִי כִּי-זָקֵן יִצְחָק, וַתִּכְהֶיןָ עֵינָיו מֵרְאֹת; וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-עֵשָׂו בְּנוֹ הַגָּדֹל, וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו בְּנִי, וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, הִנֵּנִי. 1 And it came to pass, that when Isaac was old, and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see, he called Esau his elder son, and said unto him: 'My son'; and he said unto him: 'Here am I.'
When Yitzchak comes in later, pretending to be Esav, we read:
יח וַיָּבֹא אֶל-אָבִיו, וַיֹּאמֶר אָבִי; וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֶּנִּי, מִי אַתָּה בְּנִי. 18 And he came unto his father, and said: 'My father'; and he said: 'Here am I; who art thou, my son?'
יט וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל-אָבִיו, אָנֹכִי עֵשָׂו בְּכֹרֶךָ--עָשִׂיתִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ אֵלָי; קוּם-נָא שְׁבָה, וְאָכְלָה מִצֵּידִי--בַּעֲבוּר, תְּבָרְכַנִּי נַפְשֶׁךָ. 19 And Jacob said unto his father: 'I am Esau thy first-born; I have done according as thou badest me. Arise, I pray thee, sit and eat of my venison, that thy soul may bless me.'
Thus we have a contrast between first and second meeting between father and son.

Update: I really should mention the E/J issue that manifests itself here. This narrative is obviously problematic for the Documentary Hypothesis. You can read Speiser's comments in the Anchor Bible Genesis (pg 166) for a summary of the different opinions. It is clearly one narrative, yet it is introduced with Elokim as God's name, and that name is used several times. Yet Avraham names the place based on the Divine Name of YKVK. And this after the angel of YKVK speaks to him. So some claim it is really "E." Speiser says that the two narratives are superimposed on one another, or fused together. And Speiser labels this "J," with perhaps scribal errors producing the instances of Elokim. And then sort of labels it a teiku. ("The issue is thus not a closed one by any means.")

That is the beauty of being a Biblical scholar. When the text contradicts your pet theory, you can simply emend the text to make it fit. As you might surmise, I am not impressed with this
approach of emendation. And furthermore, the construction of the story, with the three exchanges of calling to Avraham and Avraham's reply of "Hineni," which frame the story and produce a dramatic effect, I would disagree that this was just a fusing of two stories.

The classic Elokim/Hashem dichotomy of God's Attribute of Judgement/Attribute of Mercy, which Chazal apply is so many other cases, actually works out quite well here. The harsh command, and test, was given by Elokim, while the resolution and stay of execution was given by an angel sent from Hashem.

While I'm on the subject of emendations, I might as well mention DovBear again. He has a post about the words in Lech Lecha, "and the Canaanites were then in the land," which one might say was written from the perspective of an observer in the land of Israel after the Canaanites were no longer there, producing a problem for Mosaic authorship. Ibn Ezra speaks about this issue. I discussed this a year ago in a blogpost (from the midpoint until the end), and give various explanations: how this serves a narrative function - given that the narrative context in the two instances I cite - about Canaanite, and then Canaanites and Perizites - are about inheriting the land or acquiring the land, such that one should note that this inheritance has not taken firm hold just yet. One should also note Tg Pseudo-Yonatan on the subject. And further, I give two other explanations - that we are comparing their being in the land then, as opposed to before then, and not as opposed to after them - in other words, the land was not empty; and that the Torah was given to people who, next generation, would have inherited the land and driven out the Canaanites, and so this was written to be timeless, with future generations in mind. R' Student at Hirhurim, this year, posted something similar on the subject, mentioning Cassutto, who gives three explanations: that of modern scholarship, that they were already in the land [Baruch Shekivanti!], or that it serves a narrative function similar to the one I mentioned above. Cassutto is real scholarship.

I hate to pick on DovBear so much in a short period of time, but I am annoyed not so much at his explanation (which I think is quite bad) but at the commenters who see modern critical methods used and are impressed. He proposes emending אז to עז - they were strong in the land - and that is why God gave him this promise here and not elsewhere. Besides being an emendation to save a pet theory (in this instance, Mosaic authorship), the unemended text of אז makes much more sense, while עז fits in less well in the text. Plus - he doesn't realize this, or neglects to mention it, we would need to emend the later אז about the Canaani/Perizi as well. I would point out we can keep אז and it fills a good narrative function - in both instances, talk is made of inheritance of the land, and so we should know that they were in the land at that time. Now, such an א/ע shift might be acceptable on the level of derash - switching consonants in a phonologically related group, such as gutturals, is a midda that Chazal do use on occassion (since the text resonates with what one could also hear), but to suggest this on a peshat level, and allege errors in transmission, is unfounded and frankly a bit silly. Which is OK - people can give pshetlach. I am more annoyed with the commenters who were wowed by the mis-application of modern critical methods and thought this was the best thing since sliced bread.

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