Abraham has a reputation as a man of deep faith willing to obey God even when God commands him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Further, he appears as a coward when he comes across Abimelech and insists that Sarah, his wife, is his sister lest he risk his life if the men he confronts desire her. But he reveals himself as a warrior, once with men when his nephew, Lot, is kidnapped, and a second time when God threatens to destroy Sodom and Gommorah. Then Abraham becomes a warrior with words, challenging God’s ethics in destroying the innocent just to get rid of those who are evil. How many innocent ones can be lost? What is the tolerable level of collateral damage? Abraham gets God to reduce the maximum loss from 50 to 10.
How do we reconcile the passivity and possible cowardice (or was it realism) of Abraham with his activist moralism? The realist explanation for calling Sarah his wife is one, for he can be both a pragmatist and an idealist. But what about his willingness to sacrifice Isaac? It is hard to think of anything more unconscionable unless Abraham is just going through the motions because he knows God will lift His edict at the last minute. But that poses another dilemma. It means that Abraham is a dissembler before God. The willingness to sacrifice his much-loved son would then be insincere. This dilemma has confounded commentators through the ages; I have never read a satisfactory answer.
Abraham’s relationship with God is based on confrontation. Why would he not question such an order let alone go along for the ride? Abraham’s behaviour seems totally out of character – but I may have a possible answer. Let me first describe Isaac and Jacob as characters before I put it out as a possibility.
Isaac is a wuss. He was always a wuss. There are no nuances to his personality. He is passive in the extreme, intellectually and physically myopic when it comes to Rebekah and his twin sons. He does what tradition and his gut (in the sense of stomach rather than courage) dictates, He is not a man of reflection. He is not a man of spiritual depth. It is obvious that he has been severely traumatized by the behaviour of his father when he was tied up on the altar. And he did not have available psychoanalytic therapy.
Plaut writes as if Isaac and Rebekah had an idyllic romance and marriage. The story says something different. Rebekah was a force of nature, a beautiful and independent woman who saw a chance to escape the bonds of her family by running off with a strange man thirty-seven years her senior. She was aided by her transactional and self-centred brother, Laban, whose generosity was such a contrast with Rebekah’s since it was certainly not genuine and heartfelt. Entranced by the quality of nose ring that Ezekiel, Abraham’s servant assigned to guide and speak for Isaac, placed on her nose and the bands he put around her arms, he was easily sold. He did not even have to learn a thing about Isaac’s character. In any case, there had probably been a shidduch when Rebekah was only 3-years-old. Isaac loved her when he finally saw her when she was still very young. Who wouldn’t! But Isaac was a momma’s boy and he simply saw Rebekah as his comforter when his mother died when his father took him up to Mount Moriah when he was 37-years-of-age to sacrifice him.
Is it any wonder that Isaac admired what was opposite than himself, a man of nature, an outdoorsman, a son of absolute and plain honesty, who was exactly as he presented himself. It is no surprise that Esau, the elder twin, was not only the one traditionally given preference for an inheritance, but also Isaac’s favourite.
But what a marriage it turned out to be. A woman of great generosity, Rebekah deceives her husband in the worst way, taking advantage of his blindness to ensure he makes the correct historical choice on whom to offer his blessing. We are forgiving, for Isaac knows not what he does. He is totally oblivious to how to play his role in the historical drama unfolding. He can talk. He can converse. But his level of conversation is pedestrian. And when he picks up obvious clues that what is before him is not what it seems, his questions are weak and not pressing.
That brings us to Jacob whose grandfather was such a man of initiative and action and even one willing to take on God in the field of ethics. Jacob’s father, in contrast, was a simple man, a traumatized man, a passive catatonic man whose level of communication was very limited and true to the very way he had to have a marriage broker acquire a wife for him. Jacob, the second twin, was an ambitious boy, but a bookish one, a homebody, but one even willing to risk the wrath of his older twin brother. Pushy! You have not met pushy until you read about Jacob.
Contrary to Plaut, the means Jacob employed must be read as necessary breaches rather than assessed in terms of pure morality and the dictum that one should not deceive. If the future depends on it, if the past hangs in the balance of continuity or an abysmal finish, then history entitles one to use such means. It is true of Rebekah. It is true of Jacob. It is not that the end justifies the means, but that this end is an exception that necessitates the means adopted.
There is a cost as there always is in history. Jacob will endure a life of struggle and suffering – the hubris of being tricked by his father-in-law, the loss of his beautiful wife, and the apparent loss of his favourite son. And Jacob will be renamed Israel for he will bequeath his trials and tribulations to his heirs. But he was unlike his grandfather who confronted God, who, in the end, failed and had to be saved at the last minute by God because Abraham could find no escape himself from the terrible assignment he had been given.
Jacob wrestled with the divine and prevailed. Unlike his own father, until he was old, he was always a cautious calculator, wary even of his brother who genuinely loved hm and forgave him for stealing his father’s blessing. He was a man who could combine hard-headed calculation and a commitment to an historical future with imagination and vision. Israel born Jacob was a man of history. He was a man who went beyond being a challenger and confronter of God, or a quiet conversationalist and conformist like his father. He became a committed true partner of God in the making of history.
Abraham, as much as he wrestled with God over morals, ended up obeying God without question and following God’s orders. Abraham, in spite of his great virtues and his ability to found a great culture based on laws and contracts and guilt rather than shame, was unable to become God’s historical partner. This is the lesson of the Akeida. Certainly, Isaac was not up to the task. But from the time Jacob was a boy, he proved he had the toughness, the ruthlessness, combined with the vision and the commitment, to help determine his historical destiny. In contrast, Esau married women who proved to be disastrous for his own people.
Whereas Abraham had told Abimelech that Sarah was his sister rather than his wife, for such a moralist, that was not a lie but simply circumlocution, for Sarah was indeed his half-sister by another mother. Isaac, in contrast, was willing to tell an outright lie that was not even defensible for he should have known, given Abimelech’s past record, that if he told the truth, the king would not have permitted the rape of his wife, Sarah.
Jacob always bet on the side of caution as well. He was both an adventurer and risk averse. However, he did learn from experience. Compared to his grandfather and his own father, Jacob was capable of turning the millions he inherited into billions and became a very wealthy man. And he knew how to compromise rather than confront – as long as he was able to preserve what he had built. He found lebensraum, not by engaging in war, but by moving his location – by going west as it were, though more accurately south-west. He travelled and settled elsewhere. Then he could enter into an Abraham Accord with a former adversary so they could live side by side.
That brings us to this week’s parashat, VaYeitzei, and Jacob’s dream that tells us so much. Jacob laid down with his head on a stone to rest from his travels. He had a dream. A stairway or a ladder was set on the ground. You could not see the top for it stretched high in the sky. There wee no limits to one’s rise in the world, as Barack Obama expressed in his memoir, The Promised Land. You could be he whom you aspired to be; the prospects were endless. Of course, how you ascended – or descended – depended on the angels of your better nature. Suddenly, God was there – not in the heavens above, but standing beside Jacob. And God renewed the covenant He had made with his grandfather and father. “Remember, I am with you. I will protect you wherever you go and bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:15)
The arrangement is transactional on both sides. Jacob offers a conditional commitment. If God keeps and protects him, he, Jacob, will keep the covenant. If Jacob is true to his calling, God, in turn, will adhere to the covenant. Again, in return, Jacob must promise to give back more to the world than he gets out of it. God gets a profit from the exercise.
Jacob as well as his descendants had a divine partner, a guarantor of eventual success as long as they followed their better angels. Not God. Rather they had to be true to their better beings. Further, the partnership had an expiry date – when the task is achieved. Not “God’s in his heaven; all’s well on earth,” but God is on earth beside us so that we can reach up into the heavens. It is a collaboration. It is a partnership.
There are three basic stages in developing this partnership. At the first level, in imitation of Abraham, one confronts God. One argues with God. In a partnership, one gives as well as receives. And at the foundation of that partnership one gives ethically in a context of situational ethics that rejects absolutes as a moral dictum.
At the second stage there is a conversation. One must learn to listen as well as address God. It is perhaps the only, but a very critical lesson, that we learn from Isaac, in good part, because of Isaac’s failings. He did not properly listen to the timbre in what was said to him. Instead of one sense checking another, he let his tactile senses dictate what he perceived. He suffered from mindblindness as well as physical blindness. He never engaged a principle of falsifiability.
Note that this type of learning is more of an emotional than a cognitive process. For we must learn to listen to the heart of the other. It s not knowledge and understanding of the Torah, but understanding the Torah by means of understanding one’s fellow human being. Commitment does not come, as the Greeks believed and most mediaeval rabbis came to believe, through knowledge and understanding of books, especially the Torah, but through understanding humans through the Torah and the Torah through understanding humans. This is an experiential and an empirical process rather than one derived from homilies and abstractions. Stories, narratives and role models provide the core lessons.
The third stage or level of this development depends not on confrontation nor on conversation but builds on both to establish a collaborative relationship with God. God is as dependent on what we do as we are dependent on an Other to see things through to their historical purpose. The ethics is not one of abstract moralism, of the ideal of altruism as depicted in Pirkei Avot in which one serves in total bondage to obedience to a divine spirit, but a challenge and a conversation in working out both what you should become and how the divine spirit will be revealed. This is not a metaethics of selflessness, but a grounded ethics of realizing the self.
Superior living as a Jew does not entail studying Torah and Talmud as I was taught in Talmud Torah, though, ironically this taught me my love for all literature, but studying both as simply one window into the world and then using the window into the world to comprehend the Tanach. It is all a two-way street. Back and forth between yourself and God. Back and forth between the Torah and the world.
That is what love is. It is not a static steadfast divine attachment but a process of growth and mutual discovery as God and history are revealed. To repeat, our partner, God, is there beside us, grounded and on the ground and not in a distant heaven. God and humans are partners, are collaborators. They work cooperatively in bondage to one another. They perpetuate a covenant and do not abandon that partnership when the going gets tough. The covenant is a dynamic process in which the terms evolve by mutual consent.
This is what Jacob came to understand This is why Jacob was renamed Israel.