Saturday, December 3, 2016
Thursday, November 24, 2016
After the climactic event of the akeida, the Torah turns its attention to more quotidian matters: the death and burial of Sarah and the finding of a son for Yitzchak. In this shift, a number of the major characters move off the scene. Not only Sarah and Avraham, but God as well. In our parasha, God is neither seen nor heard; God is only spoken about.
This shift in God's role is intimately connected to the passing of the baton from Avraham to Yitzchak. Avraham is a visionary, a charismatic leader to whom God has directly spoken. People are drawn to his passion and his person, feeling that they can connect to God just by being in proximity of Avraham. But not everyone can be nor should be an Avraham. For the vision to live on and continue to the next generation, what is needed is a successor who can sustain the vision without the immediacy of God's presence. One must move from charisma to forms and rituals that can communicate and embody the faith. If this can be achieved then the belief can survive and be passed forward.
Avraham heard God's voice throughout his life; but after the akeida, it is seeing that takes central stage: "And Avraham called the name of that place, God Sees, as it is said to this day, on the mount God will be seen" (Breishit 22:14). In future generations, the Torah is telling us, God may not always be heard, but if we try hard enough, then "even to this day" God can be seen.
The theme of seeing God and seeing as God goes back to the story of creation. God sees that the world is good. Adam and Eve fail to see as God would; they see the tree as "good for eating," and not as forbidden and off-limits. The later generations continue to see the world through their lens of self-interest, seeing, coveting and taking whatever they want. As a result, God sees that the world that was good has become bad, and it must be destroyed so it can start over.
The message is clear - God sees what is good and we must learn to see the world through God's eyes. Avraham is chosen and given this task. He is told not to go to the
but to go to the land which God will show him; he must learn to see the place
that God has chosen. Avraham's story ends with God telling him to take his son,
to perform the akeida on
"one of the mountains that I will show you," to again strive to see where
God is directing him. It is thus at the critical moment that he sees what it is
God truly wants from him; he sees the ram and offers it instead of his son. land of Canaan
An essential part of seeing the world through God's eyes is seeing God in the world. This is a choice that we make. We choose how we interpret the events in our lives; are they chance events brought about by an arbitrary cosmos, or are they acts of divine providence, in which God's presence can be seen and felt? The culmination of Avraham's story is his declaration, his hope, that God will always be seen, "that is should be said until this day, on the mount God will be seen'."
How is this accomplished? Most essentially, by how we speak - "that it should be said until this day". How we narrate and interpret the events of our life becomes the lens through which we see the world. Avraham called out in the name of God everywhere he went. By invoking God constantly, Avraham changed people's perception of reality. People began to see a world in which God shapes all events. The famous rabbinic story of Avraham drives home this point:
Reish Lakish said, "Read not, 'he called' [in the name of God] but 'and he made to call'." This teaches that our father Abraham caused the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, to be uttered by the mouth of every passer-by. How was this? After [travelers] had eaten and drunk, they stood up to bless him; but, said he to them, "Did you eat of mine? You ate of that which belongs to the God of the Universe.Thank, praise and bless Him who spoke and the world came into being." (Sotah 10b)
It is not the intellectual belief - that God provides - which was the most important, but the discourse that Avraham created. By talking about thanking God for the fruit, by encouraging others to "thank, praise, and bless," that is, to talk about this as well, Avraham shaped the way others saw the world. Such talk becomes habitual, it spreads and impacts others, whether they are aware of it or not. "God is with you in all that you do," Avimelekh says to Avrahm (Breishit 21:22). By talking about God, Avraham has made Avimelekh see God; Avraham has brought God into the world. As Rashi (24:7), puts it: "[Avraham says to his servant:] 'God, Lord of the Heavens and the Earth.' [This is to say, while in the past God was only Lord of the Heavens,] now God is also Lord of the Earth, for I have made God's name commonplace in the mouth of all".
This talking about God which leads to seeing God, is the blessing that Avraham passes on to his servant, to Yitzchak, and to the next generation. The God who has taken me from my father's house, says Avraham to his servant, will also be with you to ensure the success of your mission. This will become a reality if you see it as such. The servant has learned this lesson well; he prays and the right woman appears. A skeptic might say that this is luck but the servant knows it is God answering his prayers. When the servant acknowledges God's hand in the meeting of Rivka, he makes it a reality: "And he said: 'Blessed is God the Lord of my master Avraham... as for me, God has guided me to the house of my master's brother" (24:27).
These events could be understood in a radically different way if seen through different eyes. The Gemara (Hullin 95b) makes a shocking statement: "Rav... said: Any omen (nachash) which is not like that of Eliezer, Abraham's servant... is not considered [the Biblically prohibited act of] divination." Rishonim grapple to explain why, if this were the case, it was acceptable for Avraham's servant to perform his test; did he commit the sin of divination? (see, for example, Rambam, Avoda Zara 11:4, and Ra'avad and Kesef Mishne ad. loc.; Radak on Shmuel I, ch. 14; Gur Aryeh Breishit 24:14). The answer is that it all depends on the framing. Were the servant to have interpreted the sign as magical, it would have been nichush - something which happened "merely by chance, and not through God's providence." (Sefer HaHinukh, mitzvah 249). But by praying, the servant saw what transpired as an answer to his prayers; he saw in the events not chance or magic, but God.
In the servant's long retelling of his encounter with Rivka, we hear how, through the eyes and in the words of the servant, God is ever-present. "And God blessed my master...", "God will...make your path successful", "And I said, 'God...[she] will be the one that God has chosen for my master's son", "And I blessed God... who led me down the true path to take the daughter of my master's brother for his son." And it is this discourse that is then consciously or unconsciously adopted by his listeners: "And Lavan and Betuel said, "From God the matter has come, we cannot speak to you bad or good" (24:50).
We live in a world in which God does not speak to us directly. Despite this, we can in fact choose whether or not to see. Avraham's faith is sustained through learning to see, and how we see is first and foremost shaped by how we talk. Speaking is seeing, and seeing is believing. Indeed, "more beautiful is the conversation of the servants of the fathers, than the Torah of the sons." (Breishit Rabbah 60). It is through such conversation, such daily discourse, that our world is shaped and that God is seen.
Thursday, November 17, 2016
Why did God test Avraham with the command to offer Yitzchak as a sacrifice? This is really two questions. First, what purpose was the akeidah meant to serve? And second, how could God have commanded such a reprehensible act, implicitly condoning murder, even if the plan was to retract the command all along?
Midrash Tanhuma addresses both of these questions. Let's start with the first one. The midrash asks why God tests only the righteous:
Said Rabbi Yonah - flax, the more you pound it, the more it improves. When is this true? When it is of good quality but when it is of inferior quality, if you pound it, it bursts. Similarly, God tests none but the righteous.
Said Rabbi Yehudah bar Shalom -a potter does not tap on a weak vessel or jar, lest it break. On what does he tap? On a strong vessel...
Said Rabbi Elazar - this can be compared to a farmer who has two cows, one strong and one weak. On which one does he place the yoke? Is it not on the one that is strong?
According to Rabbi Yonah, when God tests a person, it is like the pounding of the flax - it is not pleasant for the flax, but the flax comes out stronger as a result. Similarly, our ability to withstand adversity, to persevere, to keep the faith even in the most difficult of times, transforms us and makes us stronger than we were. This approach is adopted by Ramban: "The purpose of a test is for the one being tested. God commanded this act in order to actualize Avraham's potential, that he should receive reward for his good acts and not just his good intention." (Commentary to Torah, Breishit 22:1).
Rabbi Yehudah offers an explanation more in line with the pshat. A test allows one to know the quality of that which is being tested, just as a potter taps a pot to know that it is good. God tested Avraham to know how God-fearing he was, as the angel says, "Now I know that you are God fearing." The problem here is obvious: God is all-knowing, so any such test would be superfluous. Perhaps the point of the midrash is that a potter taps his pot to demonstrate its quality, not to determine it. The test allows others - Avraham himself and all future generations - to know the quality of Avraham's faith and character. Thus, Breishit Rabbah states that the word nissa (to test) indicates that this test was like the raising of a flag (neis) announcing Avraham's greatness to the world.
Rabbi Elazar provides the third metaphor: placing a yoke on a cow. Here, the farmer is not interested in the cow. He wishes to plow his field and he chooses the animal that is best suited for the task. God has a lesson to teach humanity. The nature of the lesson has been debated through the centuries but according to the pshat of the text it is clear: one must be prepared to give up everything that is dear to him for his love and fear of God. Avraham was commanded in the akeidah not to test him, but because he could be trusted to carry it out. Rambam echoes this position when he states, "Know that the aim and meaning of all the trials mentioned in the Torah is to let people know what they ought to do or what they must believe... The purpose not being the accomplishment of that particular act, but the latter's being a model to be imitated and followed." (Guide, III:24)
Any one of these three explanations is satisfactory provided that we could find a satisfactory answer to our second question. How could God ask Avraham to take the life of another in God's name?
Tanhuma seems to have this question in mind when it tells the back-story of the akeidah. According to this midrash, Yishmael had taunted Yitzchak that while he, Yishmael, submitted to circumcision at the age of 13, Yitzchak was circumcised as an infant and was not prepared to suffer for God as much as he did. Yitzchak responded: "Were God to say to my father, 'Slaughter Yitzchak your son,' I would not resist." The midrash continues:
Immediately the matter pounced upon him, as it says, "It was after these
devarim, these words (of Yitzchak), and God tested Avraham."
If Yitzchak was prepared to give his life to God, God is now - in the eyes of the Midrash -off the hook. This point is illustrated in the Talmudic discussion of the need for hatra'a, forewarning, for a person who is about to commit a cardinal sin. Only if the person states that he knows that this sin is punishable by death and is choosing to sin nonetheless, do we execute him, because then he "accepted this death upon himself." (Sanhedrin 40b) A human court can only use violence against another person if that person has given them license to do so. Similarly, according to the midrash, God had license to ask Avraham to do violence against Yitzchak because Yitzchak had given God permission to do so.
The midrash also defends God by positing that God was not the initiator; God is merely following Yitzchak's lead. There is also a subtext that Yitzchak's boast was inappropriate, that would should not be seeking to suffer or give our lives for God needlessly. The command to Avraham was a punishment for Yitzchak, laying the responsibility for the akeidah even more fully at Yitzchak's feet: "Immediately, the matter pounced upon him."
But, with all this, shouldn't God have refused? This is taking innocent life; nothing should have compelled God to command it! The next passage in the midrash provides an answer to this question:
This is as the verse states, "Where the word of a king is, there is power: and who may say unto him, this is what you should do? He who keeps the commandment shall fear no evil thing (Kohelet 8:4-5). Whatever God wants to do, He is the ruler, and no one can stay his hand. But who can tell him, "Here is what you should do"? "The one who keeps the commandments" - these are the tzadikkim, the righteous ones who keep God's mitzvot, and God fulfills their edicts....
This audacious passage reads the juxtaposition of two verses in Kohelet to teach that a righteous person can tell God what God must do. This idea that God fulfills the decrees of a righteous person is found in the Talmud (e.g., Sotah 12a) where the Gemara tells us that God fulfills the wishes or pronuncements of tzadikkim. In our case, the meaning is more shocking: a righteous person can tell God how to act even to the point of countermanding God's own wishes. The midrash gives an example: God wanted to destroy the people when they made the Golden Calf but Moshe grabbed God - as it were - by the collar and would not let this happen; Moshe told God what to do!
Once we have established that God's hand can be forced by the demands of the righteous, God is now totally off the hook for commanding the akeidah. Yitzchak wanted this test and God had no choice but to acquiesce.
Implicit in this need to defend God is the recognition by the midrash that God's command to Avraham presents deep moral challenges. This grappling with the command of the akeidah also seems present in the Rabbis' citation of the verse "Who can tell the king how to act?". In this citation, we can hear the Rabbi's desire to challenge God for commanding the akeidah, and at the same time their acknowledgement of their inability to do so, for who are they to say that God acted incorrectly?
Breishit Rabbah uses this verse in just this way: "Who can tell the king how to act?... [In the Torah it states,] 'You shall not test God,' [and yet,] 'The Lord tested Avraham'." By testing Avraham, the midrash is saying, God is acting against God's own rule. We can call attention to this, raise questions and struggle with this, but in the end we must accept it and submit to God's authority.
The irony in the Tanchuma is that alongside their reticence in voicing a critique, the Rabbis have also asserted that a tzaddik can challenge or countermand God. They are willing to state that Yitzchak did this - by asking God to command the akeidah - but they are not prepared to do this themselves and directly challenge God for giving this command.
In these short passages of Tanhuma, we see the Rabbis offering multiple ways of understanding the purpose of the akeidah, and the moral challenges that it presents. The grappling is subtle and it is expressed through the tradition, not in opposition to it. As we face struggles in our own lives and feel that we are being tested by God, let us pray that we will have the strength to endure, to deal with our challenges constructively and emerge stronger from the process.