The Emotional Frame and the Akedah

The Emotional Frame and the Akedah


Howard Adelman

Today is American Thanksgiving. When President Abraham Lincoln was immersed in writing what would become his famous Gettysburg Address after the American Civil War had dragged on through one of the worst periods in the history of that conflict “of unequaled magnitude and severity,” he issued the proclamation on 3 October 1863 that made the last Thursday in November (contrary to the widely held notion that the holiday is on the third Thursday) a national holiday, a nation-wide day to celebrate and give thanks for the bounty Americans had received and to establish, in the words of the editor Sarah Josepha Hale, “a great Union (my italics) Festival of America.” Americans were asked to remember that extraordinary bounty, a remembrance which “cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.”

Lincoln wanted to remind all his fellow Americans that outside the horrific theatre of the civil war, that conflict had been confined to America and did not turn into an international conflict, that throughout the war, the rule of law had been maintained, the productivity of the country had increased as had the range of human freedom. He attributed that beneficence to the mercy of God. He asked God to extend that mercy, “to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

Six months before that proclamation, in Paris, James Abbott McNeill Whistler exhibited at the Salon des Refusés (the display of art rejected by the Royal Academy but nevertheless held under the sponsorship of Napoleon III) his first famous, indeed, at that time, infamous, “Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl” alongside the even more, perhaps most famous (and scandalous at the time) work by Édouard Manet, “Déjeuner sur l’herbe,” The Luncheon on the Grass. Please view on the internet copies of both paintings, but particularly Whistler’s.

Just as Thanksgiving should be viewed in the context of opposition, opposition between horror and beneficence, contrast between violent conflict and peaceful harmony, so too should both the Whistler and Manet paintings be examined for their tranquil harmony even though Whistler’s red-haired mistress, Joanna Hiffernan, poses on top of a white bear rug with the menacing head of the bear facing us with jaws agape. In the Manet painting as well, one views vibrant oppositions: nude or partially clad women, one in the foreground and one in the back, sitting on the grass or dressing in the background with two fully-dressed men. The great spots of light contrast with both the filtered light in the background and the dark leaves and trees of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.

In both paintings, what stands out most is their stark simplicity. Neither painting has a message. Neither painting is primarily about the subject matter. Though each carefully, indeed brilliantly, simply represents precisely what you see, both have instigated enormous debates about their “meaning.” Though each painting has symbols aplenty, it is the atmosphere, the composition, that is most compelling in each even as the woman in white in Whistler’s painting boldly gazes out directly at the viewer as if confronting the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

That is the way I invite readers to examine the story of the binding of Isaac. Don’t read into it. Read it. Absorb the atmosphere and bracket the powerful, almost overwhelming, interpositions into the text.

As I have written before, the tale begins by referring to the words or narratives that precede it and provide the frame for the story. Those stories were about different sets of emotions. What stands out in the Akedah tale is the seeming absence of emotion. It is a painting of white on white.

Initially, there is a puzzle: “God put Abraham to the test.”  What is that test? In the dominant interpretation, God was either betting, or was behaving as if he were betting, with Satan to demonstrate to everyone, especially his arch enemy, that even if God asked Abraham to make the most extreme sacrifice possible, Abraham would not refrain from doing so. Abraham was God’s loving servant.

But God does not command Abraham to do anything. He requests. He says, “Please.” It is not a test of obedience because no obedience was requested or demanded. Abraham had already said to God when he was called, “Hinaini.” Here I am. I am ready and willing. In what follows, no histrionics take place, never mind extremes of emotion such as fear and trembling. We are shaken up, we shudder as Isaac would soon do, when we suddenly come to a realization that wakes us up to a new reality and a new sense of who we are. There is no shuddering in the entire story. Instead, as God lays out the mission he has set before Abraham, the overwhelming sense we have is of tranquility. An atmosphere of serenity pervades the story and stands in stark contrast to the content.

Do not be distracted by the chatter. What we see before us is simply an apple. It is a fact. God asks Abraham to take his only son whom he loves to Mount Moriah as an offering. The response: no tearing of hair; no guffawing at the sheer absurdity of the request; no challenge to God for seemingly betraying all His promises. You would think that Abraham was simply taking his son on a camping trip. Supplies are organized. Camels are saddled. There is no sense that Abraham is depressed at the request or even saddened by it.

Is what is happening a test of Abraham’s faith in God? Is God’s relationship to Abraham on a parallel with Abimelech, based on a conditional trust and expectations each had of the other? There is no sense that this is a tale about trust and distrust for Abraham. For there are no contingencies introduced which question that trust. For God and Abraham are bound by a covenant. Covenants are not conditional. They are categorical. God’s request is not a categorical order. It is the relationship that is categorical. There is not an iota of distrust suggested in the story even as God’s trust in Abraham is being tested.

Gunther Plaut in his Commentary wrote that the story is about “adherence without faltering, obedience with complete trust.” That is a contradiction. For if Abraham is simply doing what he does to demonstrate absolute obedience, where is there any indication of possible slippage? If Sören Kierkegaard is correct in asserting that Abraham did what he did, “for God’s sake because God required this proof of his faith,” one cannot help noting that if proof was required, where is there any sense of doubt?

We are not reading about a trial. We are not reading about temptation any more than we do when we look at Whistler’s or Manet’s paintings referred to above. For what is apparent in each of those pieces of art is the absolute absence of any eroticism in a situation which on the surface might be read as erotic. What is apparent in the Akedah story is that there is no sign of any slippage in Abraham’s adherence to the covenant. So how can it be a test of trust versus distrust. Just as the scene is totally serene, it also absolutely lacks any display that Abraham is troubled by God’s request.

There is no crying and no raucous laughter. The scene is tranquil. There is no fear and trembling on display nor any anger. There is no sign of distrust or any indication that Abraham’s faith is being tested. Abraham tells his servants to wait for them and “we will go up there and worship and we will return.” This is not a Job story. When Isaac asked, “where is the sheep?” it is just a query about a fact, a necessary fact without which the sacrifice could not be performed.

Nor is there any apprehension. When the ram appears in the thicket, there is no surprise. Suddenly there is action. The two build an altar. Abraham binds his son and the old frail man lays him on the altar, not a child but a grown man. We become incredulous. And then the shock. Abraham raises his knife. There is no real build up to this dramatic moment. God through his angel stops the proceeding. Now there is a command. Do not raise your hand against the boy. God was being tested. Now God knew he did not have to fear that Abraham would withhold his son. The son in that instant became part of the covenant. The ceremony of passing the baton has been completed. There was no need to repeat the circumcision ceremony and even draw a drop of blood.

Thus, there would be progeny. Thus, there would be freedom from fear. There never was an iota of distrust in Abraham. And suddenly, just as the story lacked any real build-up, the narrative shifts. Children are born. Nations are created. And the foundation of it all is now not justice but mercy. Civil wars are fought over different senses of justice. Thanksgiving is held to celebrate God’s mercy and the bounty He provides. What we just read was a simple story of white on white about the absence of raw and basic emotions. People may read it as a story about obedience and demonstrating one’s faith. People may read it as a story about deep and profound emotional turmoil. People may also widely believe that American Thanksgiving is held on the third Thursday of November. But it is on the fourth.

What matters is not what people widely believe, but the story itself and its context. It is a painting of white on white and a celebration of God’s mercy rather than His judgement.


With the help of Alex Zisman


The Emotional Frame of the Akedah

The Emotional Frame of the Akedah


Howard Adelman

In my last series of blogs before the Aside, I suggested that the four previous narratives prior to the actual story of the binding of Isaac provided a frame for understanding the story of the requested sacrifice. I suggest that the frame is an emotional one. Further, the frame encompasses the full range of basic human emotions which can be divided into four sets. (Research at Glasgow University confirmed that the 42 facial muscles operate to convey four basic emotions.)

The four sets and their corresponding narratives are charted below. I have also included how each relates to four different (and exhaustive) functions in life.

Story                                Emotion                      Life Function

Sarah Laughs                   happy/sad                   replication (vs barren)

Sodom &Gomorrah        hope/fear                     survival (vs death)

Abimelech                       trust/distrust                detachment (vs disgust)

Birth of Isaac                   anticipation/surprise   action (vs passivity)

There is no dispute that the core of the portion, Vayera (Genesis 18:1-15) is about replicating oneself, having progeny. However, in Hebrew thought, in contrast to Aristotle, happiness is not a goal in itself; it is a by-product of other activities, the greatest of which is giving birth to a child. Happiness (eudaimonia for the ancient Greeks) does NOT depend on the cultivation of virtue. As both Sarah and Rebekah unequivocally demonstrate, petulance and conniving rather than virtue may accompany a defence of your child or even your favourite child.

The pure form of laughter is boundless, open and all-encompassing but does not in-itself encompass the whole of life as it did for Aristotle. It is one pole of one pair of emotions; there are three other pairs just as basic. Happiness does not depend on fulfilling certain requirements, even keeping God’s commandments. It is not a consequence of meeting certain conditions, including obeying God’s commandments or even getting an education in the Great Works. Happiness is an accompaniment of certain types of actions. Happiness is NOT the supreme good. It is NOT an ultimate end in life, an end-in-itself. But it is a basic good.

Basic happiness entails being calm and untroubled, a concept captured by the term serene. In my blog on the section which I called “Sarah Laughs,” I distinguished various senses of laughter. A different sense of laughter or joy is determined by that with which it is combined. When combined with hope, the joy turns into elation. When married to trust, we experience a state of satisfaction, somewhat different than serenity since there is an objective reference credited with the joy. If the joy is tied to something anticipated in the future, the joy can become ecstatic.

Sadness is the absence of any sense of joy. When sad, we have lost touch with ruach, with the spirit in life. We are lonely, depressed and dejected – low in spirit. When combined with fear, the sadness expresses itself as a sense of grief about the past and gloom toward the future. When married to distrust, sadness turns into a deep sorrow. When we find ourselves in a dark tunnel without a ray of light coming from any opening, we have sunk into depression.

Between the two polarities of happiness and sadness are to be found derision, jest, absurdity and mockery. Each is a different admixture of happiness and sadness.

Abraham expressed his derision at the idea that he and Sarah could have a child at their advanced ages by laughing so hard that he fell flat on his face at the opposite proposition and promise that the couple would indeed have a child. We, alongside first Abraham and then Sarah in the first of the quartet of stories, laugh at the improbable juxtaposition of two antithetical propositions:

Abraham and Sarah will have a child

Abraham and Sarah biologically cannot have a child.

In one sense, you cannot laugh at the miracle of life and not fall on your face in embarrassment.

Abraham does not tell Sarah of God’s patently absurd promise. Sarah, hiding in the wings, also laughs at the prophecy, but inwardly, not as a sight gag as with Abraham. That is the difference between Sarah’s and Abraham’s derision. Abraham openly laughs at the messenger who conveys the incredulous prophecy. Sarah takes the message and laughs mostly at herself, at her unattractiveness at the age of ninety, at the biological absurdity of having a child at that age, at the idea of suddenly, and miraculously, opening her womb that had for so long been closed to the possibility of reproduction. There is a huge gap between her bemusement and Abraham’s scoffing.

Does it matter that Sarah denigrates herself while Abraham rails at the message itself? Abraham is not reproved; Sarah, in contrast, is questioned and challenged. The difference does matter. Abraham guffaws; he engages in slapstick. Sarah only denigrates herself. With self-abnegation, her laughter hides her sadness. However, there is an irony. Though hiding, in expressing her dejection even if behind the mask of derision of a promise, Sarah opens herself to the possibility that her womb will be opened. She is prepared for the possibility that others will share in her joy. As she says at the birth of Isaac: “God made me laugh so that all that hear will laugh with me.” (21:6)

Contrast Sarah’s self-disparagement with the sneering with which Lot is greeted by his son-in-laws when he tells them that the end of the world as they know it is at hand. They treat a life-and-death message, not just a promise of reproduction, as a jest.

In the story of Abimelech, which evidently takes place sometime between the prophecy that Sarah will have a child and Isaac’s birth, Abimelech supposedly absconds with a withered ninety-year-old no-longer beautiful woman. How absurd! Either Abimelech was blind to her age and, as in a Hollywood comedy, saw only smooth skin and a luscious figure when objectively that was not the case (a version of Ramban’s interpretation), or Sarah actually returned to her former beauty and smooth and delicate skin. If Sarah giving birth at her age seems a natural impossibility, Sarah becoming attractive to Abimelech seems an absurdity. We, the readers, laugh even as source criticism tears apart the series of stories to root them in different original texts, as if the effort at combination ignored all contradictions instead of playing with them.

In the final stage of laughter, when Sarah gives birth to Isaac, and Sarah becomes “a woman of valour” and a vehicle of continuity, when the pain of labour is followed by the exhilaration of Isaac’s birth, Sarah laughs on that last day as derision, jest, absurdity come together in an inversion of self-mockery; a child is born. “What is closed opens [the lungs], and what is open closes” [dependency and blood supply through the umbilical cord.]

If the theme of laughter in its various forms and the move from the hidden to the open and transparent takes place against the theme of reproduction through the four tales of the frame, a very different theme is introduced in the Sodom and Gomorrah story – one of fear and anxiety, anger and regret as Lot and his family cope with death on a mass scale. Lot moved to a prosperous city to participate in its dream of the future and delight in the present. Below the surface of pleasure and hedonism, there was anxiety.

With God’s determination to eliminate the sinners as well as the sins, normal anticipation turned to apprehension and worry. The sons-in-law ignored the fear and treated the threats as a joke. In contrast, Abraham took the threat seriously and, out of care and empathy for the innocent, tried to bargain with God. He was unsuccessful. Those blind to the threat were destroyed. Even Lot’s wife, who remained nostalgically attached to what she had, became frozen and unable to move into the future. In Aristotle’s philosophical world, she became inanimate like minerals and lost her soul.

God refused to live amidst us lest his wrath once released consume us. God disappeared from our presence in an act of contrition and mercy to protect us. Hope then became not reliance on God nor a deliberate ignoring of that which one should fear, but an acceptance and, as the emotion matured, a sense of self-confidence. The latter was not a belief in the best-of-all-possible-worlds nor its twin brother that emerged first from the womb of Rebecca, an illusionary belief.

The opposite of hope is fear, loss of hope and pessimism about the future and then an unjustified resigned paranoia towards any agent we confront. However, as that fear develops further, when caught up in the dichotomy of trust and distrust, directed at oneself, that anxiety and dread become timidity and eventually shyness when directed at oneself. It becomes panic, dismay and even fury when directed at others. It was in the latter stages that Lot’s daughters decide to sleep with their drunken father in order to conceive, to enjoy the happiness of progeny.

If the story of the three messengers, each a carrier of a different dichotomy than happiness and sadness – hope and fear, trust and distrust, anticipation and astonishment – dealt primarily with the polarity of happiness and sadness, if the story of Sodom and Gomorrah dealt with the duality of hope and fear, the story of Abimelech dealt with trust and distrust. However, the narrative went beyond basic trust and reliance on the word of another. Abraham misrepresented the status of Sarah as his sister (she is his half-sister) and not his wife. Abimelech, who absconded with her, was the recipient of a divine message in a dream that revealed the truth. Disgusted at the deceit and the position in which he had been placed, Abimelech confronted Abraham on his deceit driven by fear.

The result of the confrontation was not resentment or even war. Abraham and Abimelech entered into a contractual relationship based both on trust and distrust of the other, trust that the other would fulfill his side of the bargain and distrust that in the future the other might break the terms. The deal was not closed with a handshake, but with an exchange and a legal contract that reinforced the idea that Israelite society would be based, not on a shame culture, but on law, on contracts – even between a man and his wife – and on guilt.

Clearly, the above sketch only offers the flimsiest introduction to the emotions at work that frame the narrative of the binding of Isaac. The above depiction barely touches the story of Isaac’s birth, the tension between anticipation and surprise as action versus passivity become the prime tension (not faith and obedience) in the life of the Israelites.

Aristotle, despite his euphoria over happiness, despite his view that the happy man would be virtuous and that virtue will be the key to that happiness, acknowledges that a life of action is NOT a happy life. Further, action for Aristotle was divorced from the labour of producing one’s clothes and growing one’s food. Action and the productive life belonged to different spheres. Based on such a dichotomy, production could be assigned to serfs and slaves. A man of action was characterized by reason, by thought governing one’s behaviour. In what is possibly Aristotle’s most famous phrase, a human is a rational animal – the more rational and the less like an animal, the more deserving of happiness.

But there is an apparent contradiction as excellence (areté), the ultimate virtue, results from habit not deliberation. It is a product of practice. I will use the sketch above, the tracing of the bare outlines of our emotional expressions, to explicate the story of the birth of Isaac and the narrative concerning the binding of Isaac in the next blog. To understand how sketchy the above analysis is, the chart added hereto as an appendix offers a very abstract outline of the emotions upon which the Torah focuses rather than upon the laws of reason and logic.

The Torah is not a story of rationality, of the reflective and contemplative life, of meditation and in-depth introspection, of the pensive human. That absence in a people that will become known for their mathematical and scientific work has to stand out. Neither Abraham nor Isaac brood as we shall see. They do. They act. There is no alacrity in their behaviour. But I am adumbrating. I am stimulating your anticipation of the next blog. I want you to read it with hunger in your belly, with a voracious appetite – and impatience. I want you to be avid readers filled with fervour.

A Taxonomy of Basic Emotions


Happy/Sad                             Transcendent emotions


Self-directed                           serenity; elation; satisfied; ecstatic

Other-directed                         derision, jest, absurdity and mockery


Self-directed                           dejection & lonely; gloominess & grief; sorrow; depressed

Other-directed                        grief & loss; nostalgia; betrayed; displaced


Hope/Fear                             Present oriented


Self-directed                           apprehension; worry; acceptance; confidence

Other-directed                        kind; bargaining; illusionary beliefs; Leibnizian optimism


Self-directed                           pessimism; paranoia; timidity; shyness

Other-directed                        hostility & loathing; terror & panic; dismay; fright & fury


Trust/Distrust                        Past oriented


Self-directed                           aware; grateful; anxious; brave

Other-directed                        attentive; tolerant; assured; admiring


Self-directed                           envy; ashamed; stubborn; embarrassed

Other-directed                        dislike; hostile; aversion; revolted; rejection


Anticipation/Astonishment Future oriented


Self-directed                           interested; vigilant; apprehensive; uncertain & anxious

Other-directed                        expectant; curious; bored; weary


Self-directed                           upset; stubborn; distracted; rejected

Other-directed                        amazement; astonished; annoyed; dislike and distaste


With the help of Alex Zisman

The Akedah

The Akedah


Howard Adelman

We have a frame. What we lack is knowledge of how the frame informs the content of the Akedah narrative. I will review the narrative and then attempt to tie the frame to explicating the meaning of the story.

The tale is almost too familiar so that when we read or hear it, our understanding is coloured by many assumptions. The bare story, however, is fairly simple and straightforward. Further, it is only 24 verses long (Genesis 22:1-24), and the last four verses are concerned with genealogy rather than the substance of the narrative.

Many questions are raised. What is the test? Who is being tested? What is the purpose and significance of the test? What is the meaning and role of faith? What is Abraham thinking and feeling during the events that unfold? What about Isaac? What are his feelings and thoughts?

Previously, I had referred to the words that came before and argued that these narratives provide the frame to explicate the tale, the text states that “God put Abraham to the test.” God addresses Abraham. Abraham responds in a phrase repeated earlier in Genesis, “Here I am.” (verse 1) In the dominant conventional interpretation, God then issues a command. Just as he ordered Abraham to leave his family in Ur in Mesopotamia, he now instructs Abraham to take his son, explicitly described as his favourite son whom he loves, to the land of Moriah. Further, he is told from the very beginning of the trip that when he arrives at his destination, he is to “offer him as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I (God) will designate.” Heights are not just geographical. The intention is to raise the covenantal relationship to a new height.

From the overlay of centuries of interpretation, the most familiar sense of the text is one of obedience. Will Abraham follow God’s orders? Will he take his favourite son, the one whom he deeply loves, and offer him to God as a burnt offering on a distant mountain top? Questions immediately arise. Did God issue a command or a request. In the Plaut text, the words are translated as, “Take your son…” Rashi translates the same words as: “Please take your son…” (Rashi Commentary, 230) God is making a request, not issuing a command. For Rashi, the inclusion of the particle na’ (naw) suggests an entreaty. God is, in effect, saying that, “I pray that you take your beloved son Isaac…” Or, as I would word it, God is saying, “Abraham, I want you to do something for me please.” Abraham obliges.

There is a clear difference between an entreaty and the expectation that a subject obey unconditionally and without question to what on the surface appears to be an extraordinary – indeed, a most unethical – demand, to sacrifice his most beloved son. One says: “Do this.” The other says: “Please do this for me.” What difference does it make if it is a command or a request if what is commended or requested seems crazy?

There is a difference. If it is a command, then Abraham has no escape. Abraham has agreed to carry out the order to the final degree. However, if it is a request, Abraham can say in his own mind that I will go along with the gig and see what happens. I can always opt out. I trust that God keeps his promises and does not really intend to have me burn my own son. In the command mode, David Hartman writes: “This is the story of the Akedah: the demand (my italics) of God that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, the only son of his wife, Sarah.” Such a demand is indeed in apparent breech of God’s promise to make a great nation through his son, Isaac. As Hartman adds, “Nevertheless, Abraham obediently set off for the land of Moriah as instructed.” (A Living Covenant, p. 43)

Obedience does demand a leap of faith if the commandment is to undertake a travesty, not simply to justice in killing the boy, but a travesty to God’s own promise.  But if it is a polite request to perform a seemingly extreme act, then the issue is not about submission and the terror, or fear and trembling, that would accompany fulfilling such a mission, but an act of obliging another who Abraham has no reason not to trust and whom he always believed would never intend to see Isaac harmed. The test then is not of Abraham’s faith, for Abraham would have to have faith in abundance to go along with the gig. The test is whether Abraham believes that God is a trustworthy partner. For God does not instruct that Abraham slaughter his son, but only that he make an offering of his son. As the commentator Yosef Halle wrote, the text includes the word sham, there. Without that inclusion, the request would indeed mean a request to slaughter his son. With the inclusion of “there,” it means to bring Isaac up and offer him, but does not entail slaughtering him.

Look at the differences.

The Obedience Model                The Request Model

God                       commands or orders                  requests or entreats

God’s intent         to test Abraham’s blind faith    confirm Abraham’s trust

Abraham              obeys                                             agrees

A’s thought           faith against reason                    reasonable trust

Relationship         master and slave                        covenantal partnership

In the first model, God’s command is unintelligible and extremely mysterious. In the second model, God’s intent and plan of action is yet to be revealed; it is just unknown at the time the command is issued. When the time comes, what is now unintelligible will become clear. In the first model, we as readers are dumbfounded that the same Abraham who stood up to God at Sodom and Gomorrah for principles of proportional justice would now accede to a request that had absolutely no iota of justice, but blatantly challenged on a very personal level Abraham’s trust that his God was a just God. For those who believe in homiletics, who believe that faith precedes all else, the first reading is a test of that faith. For those who believe that the text is a tale of ethics relative to the period, it will be a story about establishing a higher morality and rejecting child sacrifice. However, even if the latter solves the puzzle about God’s sense of justice, it does so only by diminishing Abraham’s.

Note that in the tale, when the pair and the accompanying servants reach the foot of the mountain, Abraham says to his servants, “You can stay here with the ass. The boy and I will go up there, we will worship and we will return to you.” There seems to be no doubt in Abraham’s mind that the boy will return with him and not be sacrificed. There seems no intention to mislead the servants. There is no indication that Abraham believes that when he offers his son that God will accept the offer.

How then does one interpret the conversation between father and son when Isaac asks where the sheep is for the offering? Abraham replies, seemingly in full confidence, that Isaac can count on God providing the sheep. Abraham trusts God to provide. Isaac trusts that his father is reliable. Thus, they complemented one another in their trust.

Then we arrive at the dramatic climax. The two prepare the altar. Abraham binds Isaac and places him on the altar. Abraham even raises the knife in the air. Does Abraham ever believe he might be asked to thrust that knife into his son’s flesh? Does Isaac ever believe that his father might? If Isaac suspected such, he could have easily overpowered his frail and aged father for Isaac was not a child but a mature young man. So the climax is the binding of Isaac and raising the knife.

It is then that God calls off the performance. God addresses Abraham as he did at the beginning of the story. Only this time God repeats Abraham’s name twice. Rabbinic commentators have generally interpreted the doubling of names as an expression of endearment, as when a parent says, “John, my dear boy John, …” Abraham replies, as he did at the very beginning of the narrative, “Hinaini,” “Here I am.”

Later in the Torah when Moses asks God for his name (Exodus 3:14), God replies in the most common translation, “I am that I am.” אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה‎, ehyeh asher ehyeh. However, since ancient Hebrew lacked a future tense, an alternative translation is that God answers, “I shall be who I shall be.” The reference is not to Being but to Becoming. God is the one who reveals Himself over time. That is the God in whom one should trust. Abraham, when he answers, “hinaini,” “Here I am.” Why hinaini and not ehyeh poh? The suggestion is that in Abraham’s answer, he is saying, “I am here for you.” I can be trusted. I am a good partner. And I trust that as you reveal yourself to me, trust on my part will be a condition of that partnership, but will be reinforced with every revelation about Yourself.

God now commands and does not request. “Do not raise your hand against the boy.” (22:12) Not, “Do not kill him.” God is remonstrating Abraham for going too far in the partnership. In binding Isaac, Abraham had proven he trusted God would not see Isaac harmed. But in raising his hand with a knife, Abraham has gone too far, for raising the knife is a threat and Isaac then would necessarily be frightened. The climax should simply have been the binding of Isaac, not holding a knife over his bound body. It was sufficient proof of our partnership that you bound Isaac and trusted that I would see that no harm came to the boy, appears to be God’s thought. God remonstrates Abraham.

If God was to continue the partnership in the next generation, Abraham had to enjoin Isaac in the covenant. The first stage began with the circumcision. The completion stage took place when Abraham bound Isaac and Isaac, testing both his dad and God, acceded to being bound. There was no need to raise the knife. Then God repeats his promise that Abraham via Isaac will give birth to a great nation.

Does the frame I already described reinforce or undermine this interpretation?

To be continued.

Sodom and Gomorrah

Sodom and Gomorrah


Howard Adelman

The first side of the frame for understanding the story of the binding of Isaac is the narrative about how Sarah received the message that in her old age she would have a child, a segment I titled “Sarah Laughs” (SL). The second of the four-sided frame is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (S&G). It is revealing if we compare two themes in the two otherwise very very different narratives.


  1. In SL, Abraham hid from Sarah the news that God had promised that she would become pregnant and Sarah hides within the tent and eavesdrops on the discussion between Abraham and God’s messengers.
  2. In S&G, God asks (Genesis 18:17), “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?”


  1. a) One can almost hear God chuckling to Himself fully aware of the irony when He asks the question (and He asks, in contrast to Abraham and Sarah who act) as if He were considering whether He should behave in the same way that Abraham and Sarah did.
  2. b) What considerations go into God offering an answer? Two factors. First Abraham is to become the forefather of a great and populous nation and a blessing for all other nations. Second, Abraham has been chosen to defend what is just and right as a condition of the first – becoming a father of a great nation.
  3. c) We do not get an answer. The question appears to be rhetorical since, when Abraham pleads with God to save the city if a minimum of ten just men can be found within its walls, Abraham has to know God’s intentions just to plead with him. The contrast stands out. While God is totally transparent, Abraham and Sarah hide.


  1. In SL, Abraham pleads with the three strangers to be their host.
  2. In S&G, Abraham pleads with God not to destroy the city if only 10 just men can be found who live there.
  3. a) Note the similarities between the two types of plea. In neither case does Abraham’s plea constitute begging. Abraham, in offering his hospitality to the three strangers in SL, does bow down and call himself a servant, but it is as a generous host. Secondly, both pleas are interpersonal; neither involves a formal, let alone written, petition.
  4. b) However, note the radical differences. In SL, the plea is an appeal both to the needs of the strangers and the demands of the norms of hospitality. Abraham entreats the three divine messengers in a most earnest and humble way. “My lords, if it pleases you, do not go on past your servant.” (18:3) In S&G, there is no bowing and scraping on Abraham’s part. Instead, Abraham does not even simply stand before the Lord; he approaches Him. Abraham walks towards God. He was being forward. There was no humility, no begging. Abraham’s intercession, his proposal, was an offer, a plea bargain.
  5. c) In SL, Abraham is successful – he gets the divine messengers to stop, stay and accept his hospitality. In S&G, Abraham is successful, not in stopping God, but in setting the conditions for a reprieve. Abraham does not achieve a stay of execution. Abraham does not even get God to send his angels to investigate. God announces: “I will go down to see whether they have acted in accordance with the complaints against the citizens.” (18:21) Abraham sets the conditions for a possible reprieve – if there are at least 10 just men in the town.
  6. d) Finally, in S&G, Abraham succeeds because of a rational argument rooted in the principle of proportionality. Even if only a few innocents are affected, no punishment should befall the city. But one need not be a purist. Nine innocents may be killed, Abraham establishes, but not ten. The principle of proportionality is determined by absolute numbers, not by a ratio. In SL, Abraham made an emotional appeal that implicitly evoked the principle of hospitality.

What is most noteworthy is that it is Abraham in both cases who establishes the rules of behaviour, not God.

What is the connection between humans hiding and God being transparent while, at the same time, humans are setting the standards for action rather than God? There seems to be no connection. For in one case, Abraham and Sarah (humans) hide and God does not. The second is not a contrast between human and divine behaviour, but between two different types of human behaviour apparently with the same designation.

However, on another level, there appears to be a connection. From God’s side, from the side of full transparency, we are dealing with either impossibilities (Sarah being attractive enough for Abraham to want to have sex with her and Sarah being able to bear children in her old age) or with normally unacceptable behaviour – destroying everyone in a city, infants and children as well, for the sins of their parents. However grave the sin, the destruction seems totally disproportionate.

In contrast, those who hide are fully understandable as actors, whether on the rational or the emotional plain. Their disbelief in the first case seems totally justifiable. Abraham’s offer of a plea bargain also seems to appeal to a higher sense of justification. But the evidence in the first case will be an event that seems impossible. The evidence in the second case – apparently no evidence is found to support Abraham’s conditions, that is, there are at least ten just men in the city – seems very likely, but proves to be impossible to find. These two expressions of the mixture of impossibility and implausibility, so characteristic of some of the best fiction, are what give each of the stories their power.

In the case of SL, the attitudes of Abraham and Sarah on first hearing the promise of a child is totally consistent, not only with their experience, but with ours as readers. In the case of S&L, Abraham’s plea seems most reasonable. It is God’s actions which come across as either totally impossible (SL) or totally unacceptable even if less than 10 non-sinning adults could not be found. If one thinks about it, God’s action seems totally unacceptable.

But why are supernatural events accepted in the first case but remain dubious in the second? The first operates in the realm of scientific possibility and, to go along with the narrative, one has to adopt Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s rule of thumb for the narrative to have any power – “a willing suspension of disbelief.” The second takes place in a realm in which evidence is required, not to support a fact and justify a belief, but to support an act and justify it.

Feasibility is operative in the first case. Desirability operates in the second. In the first, God’s actions disobey natural scientific law; what happens is biologically unfeasible. In the second, God’s action seems legally and ethically unnatural, not only with respect to the likelihood of finding ten innocents within the confines of a city, but with respect to natural ethical norms. In the two cases, the non-natural wins over the natural. But the non-natural in explicitly operating juxtaposed to natural scientific laws and natural ethical and legal norms.

In the SL tale, there are two human actors, Abraham and Sarah. In the S&G narrative, the tale of Abraham bargaining with God over standards for mass killing is succeeded by the story of Lot. Note the differences between the story of the strangers passing Abraham’s tent and the angels and their meeting with Lot.

SL                                     S&G

Number of strangers                 3                                           2

Location                        in front of a tent                  at the gate of the city

Appeal to self-interest   feel refreshed                   so the angels can get

away early

Method                            bow                                     bow, face to the ground

Behaviour                      eat outside                           enter the tent

Staying overnight          acceptance                           rejection

What follows is different in the two cases. In the first, Sarah equivocates.  In the second, an intolerant mob comes on the scene and demands that Lot surrender the strangers. Lot pleads with the mob rather than for divine intervention. But divine intervention comes with a literally blinding light. In SL, there is a promise. In S&G, Lot and his family are offered an escape. In SL, Sarah greets the promise as if it is a joke. When Lot pleads with his sons-in-law to leave, they treat his insistence as a jest. In SL, there is no use of force. In S&G, the angels seize the hands of Lot, his wife and his two unmarried daughters. They are urged to flee to the hills. Lot agrees to go there, but only when the strangers promise that the town be made a sanctuary. Then the annihilation of the population, the city and the vegetation follow.

There are two other differences. Sarah looks back in time and regrets her initial response to the promise. Lot’s wife looks back in space and I s reified as a pillar of salt. Second, Sarah gives birth as a result of sleeping with her husband. Lot’s two daughters each give birth as a result of incest with their father and give birth to nations, not rooted in laughter (Yitzhac or Isaac) with both its negative and positive associations. However, the Moabites and the Ammonites by their very names cannot forget that they were nations born in sin rather than a divine promise, for mo-av means “from my father” and ben-ammi means son of my paternal kin.

When I come back to the story of the Akeda, I will try to use these differences to show how an understanding of the words that came before the Akeda throw light on the meaning of the binding of Isaac story. By then I will have depicted the other two sides of the frame.


With the help of Alex Zisman



Sarah Laughs

Towards an Interpretation: The Akedah (Binding of Isaac Genesis 22)

Sarah Laughs


Howard Adelman

Of the four classes of interpretation discussed in the last blog, this analysis offers notes for a discussion of which interpretation is best supported by the text. Except for the mystical one. That esoteric re-imaging of the text in terms of, for example, an analysis of the Hebrew alphabet, is omitted as a contender for two very non-objective reasons. First, I neither possess the tools nor the time to master the intricate tools of such an exercise. Second, I have no sympathy for, nor any temptation to, reinterpret Torah to fit an eastern cosmological religious view as offering a path of understanding towards the cosmic union of man and God through the forces of nature. That is not how I read the text nor see any reason to even make the effort. I also have no personal sympathy for esoteric mystical approaches in general.

As for the pietist existentialist interpretation of Sören Kierkegaard and his Jewish very learned cousins, such as Yeshayahu Leibowitz, they require attention. But, as I adumbrated in my last blog, I begin with very little sympathy for a pietist perspective, whether Christian of Jewish. Nevertheless, this type of interpretation is far too important to ignore. It will be relegated to the wings rather than occupying stage front. However, it will emerge to dominate the final scene, but in the opposite way to the one on offer. To begin, I will focus on two main contenders – the dominant traditional version of the text and the ethical evolutionary perspective prevalent in Reform circles and among a significant minority of Orthodox commentators.

Genesis 22:1

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.’

Instead of the, “It came to pass after these things”, the Plaut text and commentary begins in English with the simple introductory phrase, “Sometime afterward.” Both versions suggest a transition from the previous chapter that simply says “next.” This underplays the significance of the phrase, “אחר הדברים האלה”.

Rashi, however, takes the transition as significant and interprets “devarim” to mean “words” rather than the more generic “things”. He suggests that two references are involved. In his midrash on the text, he speculates that the reference is to the words of God, who, in an argument with Satan along Job lines, makes a verbal bet that if He asked Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, Abraham would do it. A second reference is to words that Isaac had with Ishmael. Where the latter boasts of his willingness to sacrifice his foreskin at the age of thirteen when the operation is very painful and much slower to heal, Isaac insists that if his father asked him, he would go far beyond a willingness to sacrifice a mere fleshy part of one organ, but would willingly sacrifice his life if his father made such a request.

I take the text as significant. But my reference is not nearly so esoteric. The reference is to the words of the previous stories that preceded this chapter. They offer clues and adumbrate the meaning of the binding of Isaac. The events preceding this narrative set the stage for what is about to happen.

What are those events immediately prior in the words of the text? There are four narratives that serve to frame the story of the binding of Isaac. The first is the tale of the three strangers who pass by and are invited by Abraham to be his guests. The second is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The third is the tale of Abraham’s interaction with Abimelech. The fourth, the necessary prerequisite to the binding of Isaac, is the miraculous birth of Isaac borne by Sarah when she was very old.

Let’s start with the first story of the three strangers. The portion of the Torah, designated as Vayera, begins with Abraham idling in front of his tent on a hot afternoon when he looks up to see three men standing there. At once upon sighting them, he ran forward to greet them. Bowing before them, he invited them to partake of his hospitality by encouraging them to wash, refresh themselves with a drink and break bread with him. When they agree, Abraham instructs Sarah to bake fresh cakes and even sacrificed a calf to feed the three strangers veal cooked in milk. (Abraham was not kosher.)

After the strangers ate, they asked after his wife by name. How would they know her name? Without a pause, Abraham responds to the question rather than raising the subject of their knowledge of his wife. He replied, “In the tent.” One of the three strangers said, “Your barren wife will have a son” and I will return when the birth is due. Sarah, who had long before had become post-menopausal, laughed (inwardly as we shall see), not so much at the promise that she, at her age, could bear a child, but at the idea that Abraham would have any interest in having sex with herself as an old withered woman.

The stranger who spoke, now explicitly referred to as the Lord, asks Abraham why Sarah was so scornful for no deed is impossible for God to perform. Further, and significantly, God seems to interpret the laughter as focused, not on the ridiculousness of Abraham wanting to lay with her, but on her inability to bear children. God now repeats the promise that Sarah will bear a son. Sarah, in fear and trembling, and frightened for her life at the thought of who was speaking, then lies. She denies she laughed. God insists that she did and tells her, leaving us with the puzzle of how He could address her face-to-face when she hid herself in the folds of the tent.

What are we to make of this story?  What will it have to do with the binding of Isaac? In Genesis 21:6, after giving birth, Sarah says, “And God brought me laughter.” She was overjoyed at the birth of her son at her stage of life. Her laughter was also one of incredulity. She names her son, “laughter,” that is, Isaac. And Isaac will grow into a man bemused by his very existence at the same time as he enjoyed a rich life with two wives and two radically different twins, one, pondering, serious, very physical and very loyal, and the other, a mother’s boy and a schemer.

Abraham, in contrast, in this portion never laughs. But at the end of the previous portion which offers another version of the same tale, it reads that

Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed (vayitzchak) at the suggestion that he and Sarah would have a child, not because he had lost interest in Sarah as a sexual being, but because both were so old. He did not laugh inwardly but was outward and at full volume. His laughter is interpreted traditionally as an expression of wonder and joy in contrast to Sarah’s incredulity and scorn at the idea. But the plain reading of the text provides no indication that Abraham and Sarah’s laughter were expressions of different responses and, if one is not reading into the text, one comes away with the impression that in both cases, both future parents expressed disbelief.

The difference is that in the second account, Sarah denies she laughed. Further, it may be Abraham who insists that she did laugh in spite of her denial. However, unlike Abraham who fell over himself in raucous laughter, Sarah laughed inwardly (bekirbah) and to herself and at her innards, at the thought that her womb could have a placenta, at the thought that she once again in old age could be attractive enough for a man to want to enter into her, and inwardly because she could not laugh freely and out loud. Therefore, she was telling the truth when she denied laughing, meaning she denied laughing in any noticeable way. The absence of open laughter was a sign of a locked womb, a womb not open to the seemingly impossible. The silent laughter recognized by the holy messenger was the opening needed to allow Sarah to become pregnant.

Therefore, when God or the angel insists that Sarah did laugh, he may have been remonstrating Abraham for not telling her so that, like Abraham, she would not have to be surprised when the three angels appeared. Was this a setup to let us know that Abraham had doubted God so much that he never even told Sarah the news such was the extent of his disbelief? If that were the case, then Abraham endorsed the denial. But God knew. God knew that Sarah laughed even though she, unlike Abraham, only laughed to herself.

Why did Sarah deny she laughed and then later embrace that laughter? What was she afraid of? In an orthodox and unimaginative interpretation, Sarah’s denial simply meant humans are not to mock God. But there is no indication she mocked God. Disbelief is not the same as mockery.

When Sarah laughs the second time when Isaac is born and she names him, it is both in celebration and recognition of the absurdity of the whole event as well as the possibility that she herself may become a laughing stock for bearing a child at such an advanced age. The root letters of Yitzhak are tzadi-het-kuf [tz-h-k] – as well as Gen. 18:12-15, see Gen 17:17; 21:6 and 21:9 – unequivocally referring to the sheer joy at the miraculousness of the event. But the celebration is peppered with the previous disbelief and scepticism. Further, the delivery of the child comes at a time in life when she can only expect to enjoy the beginning of her son’s life but not delight in his maturity and in her grandchildren. It is a bitter-sweet moment.

In what way does that laughter and the denial prefigure the Akedah story? Is it possible that Isaac accompanied his father up the mountain in a bemused state? Then Isaac’s behaviour would not so much be an expression of faith in both God and his father, but as a distant amused detachment. More significantly, have we been alerted to reading the Akedah story with the same mixture of disbelief and amazement? If so, why?

My daughter, Rachel, wrote a commentary called “Wise Women: On Laughing and Remembering” published in Project Muse. ( (pp. 230-244) She noted that not only did Sarah laugh to herself, but there is no depiction of any face-to-face encounter with the three supposed angels. So how could they know she laughed? If the three were mere mortals, they would laugh for it would be quite natural and an expected response which would be foolish to deny. Who would not laugh at the idea of a ninety-year-old woman bearing a child? And if they were all-seeing and all knowing, why would they ask about Sarah’s whereabouts?

They could ask precisely because they knew. Sarah, on the other hand, hides herself at the doorway of the tent. Like Eve, she hides when confronted. It is not God who is hidden, but humans who hide from themselves. Even on a relatively very minor response, such as bemusement, one is accountable and transparency is demanded. But rarely given. While Plato focused on the need for people to come into the open and in the sunlight to really know the truth, Biblical tales focus on the hiding, on living in the shadows. There is more truth discovered in exploring those shadows. As Rachel wrote, what we have is not a Kierkegaardian suspension of the ethical, but a coming face-to-face with reality. To believe she would have a child, Sarah would have to embrace a “teleological suspension of the credible.”

But that is precisely what the story is about. Sarah’s laughter adumbrates and sets the stage for that which is incredulous – that Abraham would willingly and without complaint sacrifice his son upon God’s orders, that Isaac, who was far stronger than his old father, would quietly comply with being tied up and lying on an altar to be sacrificed. We are in the arena of the incredulous. And, after all, that is what laughter is about – recognizing the incredulous. And, as my daughter wrote, in order for Sarah to give birth to a child, she had to not only learn to laugh, but to laugh openly and in joy, not in mockery and scorn, but in an expansive, inclusive and joyful way. “God made me laugh, so that all who hear will laugh with me.” (Gen. 21:6) The inner and the outer had to join hands, not in a metaphysical union with a cosmic consciousness, but in a concrete and embodied union of the inner and the outer, not so much the projection thrown by a background light of one’s own image on the wall of a cave produced by others, but in order that one can transcend one’s own self-image.

Halloween has just passed, a night in which children hide themselves behind masks and costumes as they seek out the sweet pleasures of the world. I suggest that the Akeda may be more about family politics and psychology than about the “suspension of the ethical,” that is about the dialectic of the physical and the metaphysical, not to escape this world into a unity with a cosmic consciousness, but to dance with joy in the dialectic of the natural and the supernatural, the physical and the metaphysical.


With the help of Alex Zisman

Jacob’s Character – Part A

And Jacob Fought the Angel – Part A


Howard Adelman

To repeat. the relevant verses from Chapter 32 of Genesis are:

כה וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר. 25 And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
כו וַיַּרְא, כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ, וַיִּגַּע, בְּכַף-יְרֵכוֹ; וַתֵּקַע כַּף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ. 26 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him.
כז וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי, כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ, כִּי אִם-בֵּרַכְתָּנִי. 27 And he said: ‘Let me go, for the day breaketh.’ And he said: ‘I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.’
כח וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, מַה-שְּׁמֶךָ; וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב. 28 And he said unto him: ‘What is thy name?’ And he said: ‘Jacob.’
כט וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ–כִּי, אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל: כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל. 29 And he said: ‘Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.’
ל וַיִּשְׁאַל יַעֲקֹב, וַיֹּאמֶר הַגִּידָה-נָּא שְׁמֶךָ, וַיֹּאמֶר, לָמָּה זֶּה תִּשְׁאַל לִשְׁמִי; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ, שָׁם. 30 And Jacob asked him, and said: ‘Tell me, I pray thee, thy name.’ And he said: ‘Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?’ And he blessed him there.
לא וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם, פְּנִיאֵל: כִּי-רָאִיתִי אֱלֹהִים פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים, וַתִּנָּצֵל נַפְשִׁי. 31 And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: ‘for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.’
לב וַיִּזְרַח-לוֹ הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָבַר אֶת-פְּנוּאֵל; וְהוּא צֹלֵעַ, עַל-יְרֵכוֹ. 32 And the sun rose upon him as he passed over Peniel, and he limped upon his thigh.
לג עַל-כֵּן לֹא-יֹאכְלוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-גִּיד הַנָּשֶׁה, אֲשֶׁר עַל-כַּף הַיָּרֵךְ, עַד, הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה: כִּי נָגַע בְּכַף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּגִיד הַנָּשֶׁה. 33 Therefore the children of Israel eat not the sinew of the thigh-vein which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day; because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh, even in the sinew of the thigh-vein.

“And Jacob Fought the Angel” is the name of Elie Wiesel’s chapter on Jacob in his book, Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends in which he deals with Jacob’s struggle. What is Wiesel’s portrait of Jacob? Wiesel places the event of wrestling with the “angel” in the context of the anticipated meeting with his long estranged brother the next day. When Jacob should have been preparing for that meeting, for Wiesel, he was in fact embarking on a radically different course. As you will see, I interpret the struggle very differently, as a proof text of his character rather than a radical departure from it.

How does Wiesel characterize the wrestling match? Silence. Absurd. Opaque. No reason is offered for why the struggle took place. Was it deliberate or accidental? Only Wiesel, without any justification, characterizes the stranger, the angel, as the assailant, as the aggressor. But how can he make such an assertion when the text is a blank? The only words uttered by the stranger at dawn are, “Let me go, for the day breaketh.”

Wiesel characterizes Jacob’s response as belligerent. “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Jacob set conditions. That is uncontroversial. Wiesel also inserts the claim that the angel demurred. Certainly, the angel did not offer a blessing right off the bat. But then Wiesel adds another action not in the text: “they clutched each other once more.” I assume that what Wiesel means to say is that they continued to grapple with and hold onto one another. (See Karen Schmidt’s sculpture, “Jacob Wrestling With the Angel”) Jacob did not let go and then grab the angel once again. Further, Wiesel wrote that, after the awesome fight, “in the end they had to give up, neither being able to proclaim victory.” But the clear and unambiguous text reads that the angel conceded that Jacob had prevailed. The “angel” had to give up when Jacob would not. This may not mean victory. It could mean simply that Jacob won because he was willing and able to continue the fight, but after dawn, the angel was not willing to do so. There is no explanation for this unwillingness except that it had to do with the dawning of a new day. Was it the angel of death and darkness that had visited Jacob and Jacob prevailed simply by surviving the battle?

Wiesel claims that Jacob was not the only one injured. So was the angel, but not physically. His sense of self and morale were injured. Again, there is nothing in the text suggesting such a result, but Elie Wiesel’s interpretation entails reading into the blanks and filling out the narrative sketch. Wiesel writes that the two parted friends or at least accomplices. Jacob let the angel go (again called the aggressor by Wiesel) and the angel responded by giving Jacob a new name – Israel. Though there is controversy about the meaning of the name, it is generally taken to mean “he who prevails with God.” “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.”

Who was the man with whom Jacob fought? For he is named as a man, as “ish”? Was he just a stranger, any stranger, a human-all-too-human? Or was he a messenger of God, an angel? Or was he God Himself as Jacob appeared to declare? Was he Jacob’s imaginary construct of the battle he expected in meeting up with his brother? Or was he really struggling with himself projected as another? When Jacob asked the stranger who he was, the answer was not forthcoming. Perhaps no answer could be offered because part of the struggle entails determining who Jacob’s opponent was in the short tale.

Then there is the problem of the new name. What was wrong with the old one? Why that new one? And why does Jacob continue to be called Jacob and not Israel after the battle? When Abram becomes Abraham, the old name disappears. Jacob keeps both his old and his new name. Wiesel says about this that it is not just a puzzle but unlike the previous questions, with this renaming we are left in total darkness. We do not know who Jacob’s opponent was, why they engaged in a personal struggle or why the outcome was the renaming of Jacob. An enigma within a larger puzzle!

Wiesel then reviews Jacob’s character as it has been revealed in his life narrative up until this point. “Jacob is the least interesting [of the patriarchs] up to this point.” Interesting! His life lacked greatness until this point. His problems were interpersonal and did not rise to a larger-than-life level. Abraham had been a pioneer. Isaac had been an inspired poet. Both had charisma whereas Jacob was an introvert, shy, easily manipulated, fearful, a mediocrity at best even as he accumulated wives, concubines, children and wealth on a far larger scale than either Abraham or Isaac. He was like a very rich man whom adventurers and artists demean, not to mention intellectuals. There is no puzzle about why Isaac preferred his brother Esau. He had neither majesty nor a sense of real tragedy. Nothing controversial in any of this.

Then the surprise. “The portrait as drawn in the Bible – before Peniel – is striking in its pallor. It depicts a man straightforward but unimaginative, honest, but anxious to avoid risks. An introverted, frustrated man given to fits of temper, leading a marginal life. A weakling, manipulated by others. Everyone made him do things – and he obeyed. Such was his nature. Incapable of initiative, he could never make up his mind. His mother – Rebecca – gave him the idea of disguising himself as Esau…He cried but he obeyed. And it was Rebecca who, once the act was played, advised him to go away for awhile, to take refuge with his uncle Laban, and again, it was she who gave him his instructions for the journey, including whom not to marry. Naturally [why naturally???], he promptly fell in love with the first girl he met – Rachel – and blushing like a shy adolescent, wanted to marry her on the spot. Yet somehow he ended up marrying her sister. Doubly unhappy, he loved someone he could not marry and was loved by someone he had married without love. He did not complain about it, not too much.”

Some of this is recognizable. An innocent abroad, manipulated and manipulatable. But guileless? After how he dealt with Laban? But Wiesel’s response might be that the affair with the streaked, the spotted and the mottled sheep was God’s idea, not Jacob’s. But where is the evidence to say he was unimaginative? Is this not a Nobel-Prize-winning writer’s condescension? And, most of all, why honest? Is Wiesel suggesting that Jacob was just a tabula rasa corrupted by others? But surely even one who abets a fraud, let alone is the instrument for perpetrating it, is neither honest nor innocent.

Further, Jacob could not be compared to Lot, generally considered the epitome of the average man. There is no indication that Jacob, though an acquisitor on a grand scale, had a taste for luxury, comfort or pleasure as Lot did. And if Lot is the closest comparable, why does Jacob forgo what seemed to be Lot’s greatest virtue – his hospitality, his sense of decency when he met strangers? Lot invited them in to share his food. Jacob fought with the stranger. Lot was courageous, willing to risk himself to protect his entourage. Jacob held back behind the lines with half his troops when Esau approached with 400 men. If Lot was redeemed by his courage, his indecisiveness, his faint-hearted character, his angst, why would Jacob, who is reborn as Israel, remain risk-averse and reliant on Plan B if Plan A failed?

Look at Jacob compared to Abraham, a coward if there ever was one, saying his beautiful wife was his sister lest he be killed by the nobility he encountered. Instead, he delivered Sarah up, not once but twice. And look at his own father, who played the same game with Abimelach, king of the Philistines. Talk about someone who obeys blindly! Abraham was willing to sacrifice his long-wished-for son simply because God told him to do so. Kierkegaard may have celebrated this act as a profound expression of faith, but I read the story as an expression of Abraham’s supine character that makes Jacob comparatively look like a warrior. And Kierkegaard himself, unlike Jacob, was a coward of the worst order, an ugly man offered the most beautiful woman in Denmark who then breaks his engagement and confesses, “Had I faith, I would have married Regina.” Jacob, unlike Kierkegaard, was not a faithless man, but one who, once he declared his love, was determined to see it through whatever it took. And this is key!

Let’s go back. Who are the main characters in this brief drama? There is Jacob. It is important to get his character right at this point if we are to understand what is going on. Compare Jacob with his father, Isaac. He was not a little child when Abraham took him up the mountain to be sacrificed. He carried the wood for the fire. And he was not an innocent abroad. He had to know what it was all about. He asked where was the animal to be sacrificed. And it is Isaac who in his old age is so easily tricked that rabbinical commentators will twist and turn and go to great lengths to insist he had to be in on the gimmick. But Isaac was the archetypal naïve, passive and submissive son. Jacob was the wily one, determined not to be like his father, but also not to follow in the footsteps of his brother who was the exemplar of a strong warrior son. Jacob was a romantic.

Look at how Isaac gained a wife. A servant did all the work for him in advance. Jacob fell for Rachel when he saw her. It was love at first sight – in contrast to Wiesel’s scepticism about such a process. That was simply the foolish infatuation of a young inexperienced man, according to Wiesel. But if so, why did Jacob love Rachel his whole life? He had another wife. He had two concubines. Rachel took the longest time to conceive. But he loved her without qualification. His love was unstinting. And unlike his father, he never paid a bride price. He worked to gain what he loved. Why does Wiesel ignore this magnificent trait of Jacob’s?

Let us review Jacob’s life and character and spot where Wiesel makes some outlandish claims. Like Sarah before her, Isaac had to plea with Elohim so that Rebecca could conceive. Indeed, she had twins. And the Lord said, “Two nations are in your womb. Two separate peoples shall issue from your body. One people shall be mightier than the other. And the older shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23) Before we know anything about each child’s character, we know their destinies. Each shall father a different nation. Jacob’s children, unlike the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, will remain united, one out of many. Though it is often interpreted that the nation founded by Jacob will be the mightier, I think the test tells us the opposite. It is Esau’s nation that will be the mightier in the double sense – it will be much larger, much stronger, but also in the sense that it will be ruled, not by law, no matter how much law will be integral to its success, but by the principle that might is right.

But the nation of Esau will serve the nation of Jacob. In what sense? This is the real mystery of that story. How will the weaker and far less numerous of the two peoples be a ruler over the other? Why will might serve what issues from Jacob? Jacob is indeed, as Wiesel portrayed him, an introvert, a mild-mannered male, a mother’s boy rather than a sports-loving outdoorsman. TheNadvantage there is the first exchange between them. And it is an exchange. And it is not one initiated by his mother. When Esau came in from the outdoors and Jacob was cooking a stew (a male cooking stew!!!) and asked for some because he was famished, Jacob said, “Sure, but trade me your birthright for the stew.”

There is guile. There is initiative. You are desperate. I will take advantage of your desperation. Further, he does not ask in exchange for a bowl of stew the gift of the next animal that Esau slays. Jacob asks for Esau’s birthright. What is a birthright, a bekhorah, in the Torah? It is what is due to the firstborn. For Jacob, though a twin, was born clinging to the heel of Esau. Instead of the double inheritance, Esau was being asked to give up half of his inheritance and transfer it to Jacob. What chutzpah to ask for such an exchange in return only for a bowl of lentil stew and a small loaf of bread! But a birthright implies more than a material inheritance. It implies a right to become the spiritual leader of a people, Reuben, Jacob’s eldest son, was bestowed that honour even though it was later transferred by God to the children of Levi.

Does this suggest that Jacob was only a passive manipulated character? He was calculating but not tricky. He did not trick Esau into giving up his birthright. He just revealed that Esau with his impetuosity, with his focus on the immediate rather than the long game, was incapable of founding a nation based on the rule of law, the foundation of which was a tort or contract, a willing exchange made between two mature individuals. Already, Jacob revealed he was a keen reader of another’s character. As I indicated in an earlier blog, this is not only a story of the second-born displacing the first-born as the spiritual head of a people, but the character of the second-born intended to rule over the first-born, for civilians to rule over warriors, for intellect and careful and calculated thought to rule over the impetuous, for diplomacy to rule over the resort to war whenever possible. That is also the meaning of the encounter between Jacob and Esau when they come together after twenty years of estrangement.

Look at Rabbi Gunther Plaut’s interpretation. (Gunther, who witnessed my marriage to my wife in exchange for my helping him on his report on refugees, was the editor of the Torah and commentary used worldwide by Reform congregations.) He found Jacob’s actions in this case to be morally reprehensible. I did not. Machiavellianism is integral to political success. In myself, I found I was inadequate to such a task. Not because I was not a good bargainer, but because I could not make the bargain that would so benefit my self and the future look trivial. To be Machiavellian requires that one be such a magician that the observers do not even know you are playing a trick. Jacob was already shown to be brilliant in this way even when he was quite young.

Then comes the story of Jacob’s tricking his father out of the blessing intended for Esau, coached in doing so by his own mother, Rebecca, and obedient in spite of his reluctance, not because of the trickery, but by the fear of being caught by so simple and clumsy a ruse as wearing an animal skin to seem hairy to his blind father. Rebecca urges him on. “Your curse, my son, be upon me! Just do as I say and go fetch them [two lambs] for me,” so that I can prepare a tasty dish that your father loves. And anyone who loves bagels as much as I do does not find it hard to understand why Isaac fell for the trick. Set aside your doubts. Just eat the bagel you were offered.

So what becomes of this mediocrity that Wiesel tries to put forth as an accurate description of Jacob’s character? It evaporates into a mist. It isn’t his adventure at Mount Peniel that makes Jacob. It is who he is that allows him to prevail at Mount Peniel. He doesn’t gain majesty there; he is already majestic. The only question is why when on the surface he appears to be so ordinary.

That revelation comes in the story of his marriages to Leah and Rachel. There is character. There is to be found wisdom. There is to be found decisiveness and commitment. And it will not be based on a cold calculation, but on true love for another. The core of the story of Jacob is his romance with Rachel, his refusal to set aside her older sister Leah even though he was tricked into marrying her, and, most of all, precisely his surrender to the will of women rather than the will of man. Jacob was a mother’s boy. That is his great virtue. He did allow Rachel and Leah to work out between them who would sleep with him each night, one of them or one of the concubines. But nothing, absolutely nothing, diminished his love and commitment to Rachel. This did not make him an infatuated nebbish as Wiesel suggests, but made him worthy of becoming the father of a great nation, the nation of Israel and deserving of the name, Israel.

Jacob was steadfast in his love, but always recognized that it was women who would, and should, determine the future. It was women who laboured in childbirth and were the initiators of what would be, not simply of what could be made through technological progress. Though women certainly have proved to be just as capable in that realm. But it is because of the pact between Leah and Rachel that Jacob’s sons stayed together as one nation. Isaac’s sons never did so, Abraham’s sons certainly failed to do so. Only Jacob had the wisdom and foresight to understand where real power is to be found. It is in family. It is the ones who hold the family together.

So who is the stranger with whom Jacob wrestled?

To Be Continued

Don’t Marry a Shicksa

Don’t Marry a Shicksa – Parashat Chayei Sara פרשת חיי שרה
Genesis 23:1 – 25:18


Howard Adelman

The previous section, Vayeira, focused on the immigration experience. This section focuses on integration, more accurately, the refusal to integrate and the insistence on being a nation unto itself, a nation among other nations. This section links three stories: 1) the death of Sarah and the negotiations for her burial plot (chapter 23); 2) Abraham sending his servant back to the place of his birth to find a wife for his son Isaac, the identification of Rebekah and the return to Isaac with Rebekah; (chapter 24); and 3) the juxtaposition of Abraham taking a third woman as his wife, Keturah, her children, the death of Abraham and, most importantly, his leaving the bulk of his wealth to Isaac and not to Ishmael, the son of Hagar, or the sons of Keturah.

Let me begin with the previous Parashat, Vayeira, or at least the theme of immigration in that section. I wrote about it last Friday morning, but was interrupted with busy-ness and did not finish. (Yesterday, my failure to write a blog and fulfill my promise was a result of a totally unexpected emergency, oral surgery in which two of my implants were removed and I received a bone graft and eleven stitches.) I will deal with the theme of immigration first, but not with the full previous parashat.

For a religion that supposedly so reveres its past, that centres its services around the Torah and the study of Talmud, Judaism has a peculiar founding father, Abraham. He was an archetypal immigrant who set out into the world to forge a different path for his family and his children. He obviously rejected ancestor worship and the belief that the greatest wisdom had already been revealed. He so clearly rejected the premise that the past was superior to the future. Instead, he set out on a journey to the West in which neither the path nor the destiny were known in advance.

What forces impelled him to move – famine, economic collapse, civil war, conquest? None of these appear to have been factors. What vision impelled him to leave his immediate family? It did not seem to be riches, though rich he would become. It did not seem to be the vision of the explorer intent on discovering “undiscovered” lands. There was no impulse to prove the earth was round or that the torrid parts of the planet supposedly at the ends of the earth were actually habitable. Nor did his travel seem to be impelled by new transportation technologies – railroads or automobiles – since he still went forth in the traditional way of the nomad shepherd with his camels, walking and following his herds. For such a conservative, he was a very radical individual, though not radical enough to claim that the text in which he would be inscribed was written as a result of the dictation of a divine being. But there is a hint that Abraham could read and write for he entered into contracts.

We in the twenty-first century (at least, but not only, in the Reform movement in Judaism) read our sacred text, which provides the geography of our imagination and the story of the founding fathers, as a literary and not a divine document. But the Torah remains sacred. The preservation of the stories of the past, not just as oral memory, but as an inscribed written body of literature, was revered. But not as a product of the printing press – though copies were available this way – but as hand written scrolls of old. What has this to do with immigration?

Abraham did not leave his extended family in Mesopotamia to make a life better for himself – though he would do that – but to be the founder of nations. He was destined to have children as numerous as the stars in the heaven and as the dust on the earth. And he could not do that unless he had children. But Sarah was barren. Did Abraham have a low sperm count? Did Sarai have a problem with ovulation? The latter is the likely possibility since Hagar had Ishmael and his third wife, Keturah, had many children. So why will the “chosen” bloodline run through Isaac? If you wanted to guarantee that the Israelites would become as numerous as the stars, would you not choose a woman who would show a capacity to bear many children? But Abraham was promised that he would be a father of many nations, not just one. It seems there was no guarantee or even likelihood that the dominant one in terms of numbers would be the Israelites.

People immigrate, not for themselves, but for their children. We just finished an election where immigrants and refugees were a central theme of the campaign. Donald Trump railed against Mexican illegal immigrants and refugees from the Middle East being suspect as terrorists. As well, Donald Trump put down women and people with disabilities. He displayed the fine art of an alpha male as a menace to women. Donald Trump was the first presidential candidate since WWII to run on a platform to restrict immigration.

Further, he outperformed among voters who were concerned with these themes, along with related considerations, such as fears of terrorism and opposition to free trade. In the primary, voters, concerned about immigration and related cultural concerns were the core of his support. In Florida, for example, voters who cared about immigration outscored others by 38 points. In the general election, The Donald outperformed among white voters with no college degree. A huge turnout of this section of the population turned out to vote and won him the presidency in the rural and working-class areas of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, unless a recount reveals that these victories were offset by other votes.

Let us look at Abraham as an immigrant in a foreign land as perceived through his experience. Did he miss home? Did he miss his family? Did he fit in?

A week ago, Thursday, in the evening, we watched an excellent French comedy, The African Doctor. It was based on a true story of a Congolese man from Kinshasa trained in French medicine who takes his family to become the doctor of a small French village somewhere north of Paris. It is a hilarious comedy in which the new arrivals are initially ostracized, but eventually become heroes in this small town. It is a story about “fitting in” and the difficulties in retaining an inherited identity in a strange land.

If you are a Platonist or a neo-Platonist (Chabadniks for example), death is the ultimate immigration experience, for the migration of the soul is so much more important, and more difficult than leaving the habits of feeding and caring for the body behind. But if the experience of life and death on this earth is the primary concern, then the major issue about the life of the soul will be narrated through the life and death of the body and how that is handled. Caring for the dead body is as important as caring for the living. In terms of the latter position, what better way to illustrate the split in adaptation than with a doctor responsible for caring for the living bodies of native French women and men. Even as he cares for bodies, in his experience, it is his soul and that of the French small town that are at stake, even if cast within the construct of a hilarious French farce.

One message of the movie was that earthly migration is not Platonic. There is no preservation of the soul separate from the body. However, one does NOT forget one’s inherited physical life – food, singing, soccer. It is the opposite message of Platonism – we should not forget who we are as bodies, including being black or white, including whether we eat pickled herring or scones and cream when we migrate. We should and cannot leave our bodies behind, but must take our bodies with us when we migrate. And the body politic into which we move must adapt as well as accommodate us as we as immigrants adapt. The ideal migration is not a Platonic migration that separates body and soul, but one that integrates body and soul on both sides of the earthly divide, the immigrant and the native.

So it is not true that you must abandon your past to move into the future. The “old country” comes with you when you enter the new. Hineini –“Here am I” and not “I am here” – has to be the mantra. For the ‘I’ is a becoming, not an essence who is present. The emphasis is on the here and now without forgetting what the I had become and what the I wants to be.

The parashat on Sara begins with her burial, more accurately, with the purchase of her grave. Sarah is buried among strangers in a plot purchased from the Hittites among whom Abraham lived. Their leaders offered a plot to Abraham as a gift. Abraham refused the gift. He insisted on paying and agreeing in a contract to buy the land in Kiryat Arba, now Hebron. When Abraham initially proposed to pay for the burial site, the Hittite leaders replied: “Hear us, my lord: you are the elect of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us will withhold his burial place from you for burying your dead.” (23:6) This was an act of great generosity. But Abraham turned down the gift. “Let him (Ephron) sell me the cave of Machpelah that he owns, which is at the edge of his land. Let him sell it to me, at the full price, for a burial site in your midst.” (23:9)

Ephron offered the site a second time. Abraham reiterates a second time: “Let me pay the price of the land; accept it from me, that I may bury my dead there.” (23:13) Ephron finally concedes: “A piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver—what is that between you and me? Go and bury your dead.” (23:15) Ephron must have been very exasperated and irritated by this point. What chutzpah of this stranger among us to refuse a gift when it is offered! Further, Abraham’s response was really an insult to the traditions of hospitality of the resident population among whom Abraham lived as a resident alien. Nevertheless, Ephron compromises and agrees to Abraham’s deal – 400 shekels, the market price for the land on which the burial cave is located.

So the story of Sarah’s death becomes, not a tale of weeping at the loss of the companion of his life, though there is a very brief mention of mourning, but about a contention between the peoples among whom Abraham had settled, their generosity of spirit and their act of gift-giving within a shame culture. Abraham insists on holding his own, on paying for the land and obtaining a deed of ownership. Abraham insists on contract law and the principle of guilt when one fails to uphold a contract rather than a reliance on shame characteristic of a culture of generosity.

Abraham adopts from the local population the principle of the spirit of generosity to strangers and incorporates that principle as a mainstay of his religion. At the same time, Abraham insisted on holding onto what would become a characteristic of one nation he was founding, the principle of the social contract and of guilt versus the practice of gift giving and of shame used to bind parties. It is a tale of accommodation and integration of strangers rather than of assimilation.

In that spirit, Abraham will not permit his son Isaac to marry “out”. He insists on sending his servant back to the “home” country to find a bride from his own tribe. And the servant locates a woman of high spirits and generosity, a risk taker willing to leave her family behind and join Isaac whom she had never met and knows virtually nothing about, to participate in this epic journey into the future and in a strange land.

This is a story of all immigrants. Immigration entails leaving one’s homeland behind and coming to a new land. It may even mean carrying into this new land a new spirit and a different set of values, such as that of legal contracts and a guilt culture rather than one of generosity, of gift giving in a shame culture. Abraham and the Israelites will accept the tradition of their hosts of generosity and welcoming the stranger as a central imperative. But they will also insist on founding a nation on the principle of a social contract in which legal contacts are the backbone of the economy.

All immigrants wrestle with the same dilemma – how to maintain one’s family ties and one’s traditions and how to live in the new world, how to adapt but not simply assimilate, and how to teach by example standards which the local population may choose to adopt as well. On the one hand, kith and kin, a kindred spirit and preserving one’s identity as an Iranian or Chinese, as an Indian or a Jamaican, are important to all immigrant groups to different degrees. But so too is adaptation. What values are crucial that you should not surrender to the dominant values of the host population? What values of the host should you integrate into your own culture? The dialectic of accommodation is never easy. But to be successful, a spirit of negotiation, of give and take, is crucial.

What about the third section of the parashat which tells about all of Abraham’s other children, to whom he was very generous in getting them established. However, in his will, he made Isaac his sole heir, Isaac whom he insisted marry from within his clan? And that becomes a crux of passing on one’s heritage. For if the males – and this is changing as females more frequently do so as well – go forth out into the world and marry “out” of the clan, not only does this weaken the family as the core of the body politic of a society for preserving a collective memory and a tradition of values and the means to practice them. It also leaves behind a surfeit of women of one’s own clan, women who will more likely remain barren through no bodily incapacity, though artificial insemination and surrogate fathers may help. A result: the numbers in the clan with ties and commitments to preserving those traditions both weaken and the numbers decline at one and the same time.

This is the dilemma not only of Jews but of all ethnic groups. One way of responding is turning inward, insisting on only marrying in and creating and preserving practices that clearly set one’s group apart. Segments of Jews, Hutterites and Mennonites, all adopt such a strategy. Other Jews turn their backs on all of that. They no longer wish to see the back of God and retain the collective memory of the past. They leave the tribe to become global citizens. Still others try to stand astride both worlds, the world of the new while respecting and preserving the old. They can meet the challenge by avoiding the Scylla of insisting only on inwardness or the Charybdis of opting for marching outward. Or they can try to integrate the outer into the inner by welcoming the stranger into the covenant of Israel while adapting into the dominant nation in which they find themselves.

After all, one of the greatest heroines of Jewish history, if not the greatest exemplar, was not a Jew-by-birth but a convert. Each one has a choice. Each family has to decide how and to what extent it will preserve its heritage. And the practices of burial of the dead, of marriage and of having children will be at the core in making such decisions.