Parsha Shelach-lecha, Numbers 13 - 15
Judy E. Gross, June 11, 1999
Fear is politically incorrect now. Several years ago, the movie Defending Your Life made fear the reason to be rejected or even ejected from Heaven. More recently, an epigram of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav has made the rounds of Jewish studies, slightly misquoted to say "life is a narrow bridge, and the important thing is not to be afraid." And within the last several weeks, my kids report that the new Star Wars movie includes Yoda's wisdom that fear is bad because it engenders hate and all kinds of bad stuff. This week's parsha, Shelach-lecha, is a study of fear, but it instructs us that fear is only bad if you fear the wrong things or cannot act in spite of your fear.
The portion begins with the Israelites almost in the Promised Land of Canaan, still guided by God in the form of the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, but they still are uncertain why they left Egypt and if God, who forgot them for four hundred years of slavery in Egypt, really is giving them something worth having, including a good land.
Because the Israelites do not really trust God, God tells Moses to send spies or scouts into Canaan so that the Israelites can learn from the scout's reports about the land. These scouts are not just anyone: Moses is to pick a prince from each tribe so that each tribe will have a report from someone it trusts, and these princes' names and their fathers are listed at some length. People can know the princes at least by reputation and have reason to believe their report.
The scouts go throughout Canaan and find various tribes living in the land. The scouts return with a mixed report. The land is, indeed, flowing with milk and honey. They brought back a grape cluster, which was so large that two men had to carry it between them on a pole, as well as pomegranates and figs. But all the scouts except for Joshua and Caleb are afraid and insist that the land is dangerous - it eats its inhabitants- and giants live there. Indeed, the scouts report that when they saw the inhabitants, the scouts in their own eyes looked like grasshoppers in comparison and believed that that is how the inhabitants must have seen them. Their fear has made them believe that it is impossible for the Israelites to defeat the Canaanites. Despite Caleb and Joshua's urgings, the people refuse to enter the land to fight for it, instead repeating their refrain that they wish they had stayed in Egypt or would die in the wilderness rather than have their children carried off by the Canaanites. This is definitely a case of being careful what you wish for.
The people are so frightened that they start to stone Moses and are only deterred when the Presence of the Lord appears before the whole community. God repeats his offer or threat to Moses to destroy all the people and give Moses a different set of people to lead; Moses pleads on behalf of the Israelites on the familiar ground that the Egyptians will think God was not powerful enough to bring the Israelites into the land. Apparently, the Egyptians would have been right. God informs the people that as a punishment, they will not be able to enter the Promised Land immediately and will not be able to defeat the inhabitants of the land if they try to go in. Instead, they will wander for forty years in the wilderness until all of them over 20 years of age except for Joshua and Caleb have died; only the children will be able to enter the promised land. At this, the people decide that maybe they can change God's mind if they show they are not afraid of the Canaanite and overcome their fear to try to capture Canaan. God is not with them, and they fail. In a truly Shakespearian ending to the story, the scouts who gave the bad report of the land all die of the plague.
So what do we make of this story? Throughout the parsha, we and the Israelites are given pairs of choices. Some of these choices include that they could believe God that the land is good or send for themselves ("shelach-lacha") important people to give human opinions; see from the evidence of the fruits that the scouts brought back from the land that God truly was giving them a land of milk and honey or believe that the land was wilderness that ate its inhabitants; believe that the Nephtallim - the giants that God had destroyed with Noah's flood - lived in the land or that people that they could overpower lived there; believe that the scouts appeared to the inhabitants as grasshoppers or remember that even if they were grasshoppers, God had used a plague of locusts against Egypt. Their choice was to trust God or fear the land. They chose to fear the land.
Now, this parsha does not say that there is nothing to fear except fear itself. The Israelites had many things to fear, but the Israelites guess wrong and fear the wrong things. They fear the land that eats its inhabitants instead of fearing survival without God's help. They fear Nephtallim and wilderness when they should fear lack of order, rebellious people, sin that isn't forgiven, or God's punishment, including plagues. They should have feared not getting what they prayed for - or getting what they prayed for, believing their eyes when their fear made them see themselves as grasshoppers rather than as people or rather than believing their eyes when they saw the fruit of the land. They would have done better to follow Admiral Fisher's motto when building the last wooden warship for England: Fear God and Dreadnought.
Unfortunately, the people had reason to fear at the end: they were sentenced to die in the wilderness. This death sentence had a predictable result. The Israelites unsuccessfully tried to change either change God's mind or win Canaan on their own. When that was unsuccessful, the people lost all hope, which in the next parsha leads to a major rebellion against Moses.
I say the result was predictable, but, in fact, this parsha does provide some protection for the Israelites; they do not need to be so afraid. First and most important, God is present for them. He has delivered them from Egypt and guided and protected them with the pillars of smoke and fire. He directly intervenes to save Moses. And even after sentencing the adults to die in the wilderness, He makes it clear that the children will enter the land. The guilty will be punished for the third and fourth generations - those that have to wander for 40 years - but the punishment will then be remitted.
After the bloody end of these chapters, the parsha continues in Chapter 15 with God giving rules to permit forgiveness of inadvertent wrong acts once the children are in the land. The Israelites are told that all, including the Israelite and the stranger who resides with them, are subject to the same laws, and are told that different rules apply to intentional violations of the law. When they find a man gathering wood on the Sabbath, presumably intentionally violating the law, they ask God the proper punishment. God instructs them to stone the man to death. They do. God then instructs the people to wear fringes on the corners of their garments to remind them of the laws.
At first blush, these provisions seem unrelated to the preceding story, but, when you think about them, you can see that they, in fact give the Israelites some protection and hope. First, it is absolutely clear that God's covenant with the Israelites was not abrogated. The group will survive the sojourn in the wilderness and will get the land. God has not withdrawn the promised land permanently. The children will not be carried off and killed as they had feared. God will accept prayers and sacrifices from them in the land - He has not turned away from them. He has reassured them that justice will prevail by preventing them from stoning Moses but telling them to stone the woodgatherer. (As I said, they are shown that there is plenty of reason to fear God. Moreover, the Illinois criminal justice system apparently could use a little more direct input from God on which people really are guilty and deserve the death penalty.) By making us cringe at the wood gatherer's punishment, He is perhaps even making us think a bit about our urges toward vigilante justice or following the precepts of Torah too closely.
God also provided equality as a protection. There was one law for the Israelites and the stranger residing among them. The princes of the people were subject to the same laws and the same punishment as the ordinary woodgatherer. All were to follow the law, but they were not excepted to be perfect. All could receive forgiveness for inadvertent transgressions. All were to wear the same fringes on their garments. It is notable that these fringes serve only to remind us of the law - God apparently gave up on visible signs of His presence as a way to make us believe in Him or trust Him. Even those who doubt Him or fear for the future could follow the law.
In the end, the people were not punished for having fear. When the people were afraid to go into the land, God suggested that they send the scouts to assuage their fear, but He did not punish them. They were only punished when they chose to ignore the visible evidence from the scouts and not trust God despite their fear. God gave them visible evidence of His support and the goodness of the land. If the people had believed their eyes, they could have gone into the land, albeit fearfully. To restate Rabbi Nachman's point about fear, life is a narrow bridge and the important thing is is not whether you are afraid; the important thing is that you choose to try to cross the bridge.
Judy E. Gross
Shofetim D’var Torah for 28 August 1998
Twenty years ago this month, I got the letter in the mail announcing that I had passed the bar exam and was entitled to be sworn in as a lawyer in Illinois. At the time, I did not realize that I had taken a major step toward the practice of Judaism as well as the practice of law. I had often heard it said that many Jews are attracted to law because of the ingrained habit of study: instead of studying Talmud, we studied law. But this week’s portion, Shofetim, “Magistrates”, makes it absolutely clear that law, including its study and practice, fulfills an essential role in Judaism and in life generally.
We come across some of what my husband likes to call “the famous bits” about law in this parsha. One is familiar to everyone: the lex talionis - “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. Now we as modern Jews are inclined to read this and say, “Well, it’s better than the law existing before it, and it served to make the punishment fit the crime” (in pre-Gilbert and Sullivan language). Both of these statements are probably true. We go on to say that it should not be taken literally (which the rabbis in the Talmud itself hold) and that it is outmoded. Those statements are debatable - but, then, I’m a lawyer.
Another famous bit we read in this parsha is “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” We like to twist this one to mean “social justice,” by which we generally mean giving food, housing, and political power to the poor. But in this portion, “justice” is used more like the word means for the Department of Justice than for the Democratic Party platform. In fact, justice is so important in the entire Torah that the Noahide commandments require even non-Jews to establish courts of justice.
This week, we read mainly criminal law. Justice relating to criminal law includes the duty to investigate violations of law, to try cases, and to punish wrongdoers. The system must be fair. Trials must have witnesses, magistrates must not take bribes and must be fair to the rich as well as the poor, but in the end, the magistrates and the people must enforce the law. Even the system of sanctuary cities established here operates on the same principles. God required the Jews to establish sanctuary cities to which a person who accidentally kills another may flee to escape unwarranted revenge from the victim’s family. But this is not the unconditional sanctuary of the Medieval Christian practice that anyone in a church asking for sanctuary could not be tried for a crime while he remained in the church building. In Torah, the elders of the sanctuary cities had a duty to investigate the killing. If the killing turned out to be intentional, the killer was to be extradited and punished.
Although this portion concentrates on criminal law, portions before and after it address civil law - personal injury, damages, etc. You may think these laws are outmoded, too, except that many of our statutes and common law came directly from the Bible, including rules for lost objects and the redemption period for land after bankruptcy. (When the rabbis said the law of the land was the law, it was easier to comply with both state and religious obligations for those living in a state where the civil and criminal laws coincided with the mitzvot.)
True, we don’t turn directly to Torah when we make, enforce, or interpret laws. If someone wrongs us, we are more likely to go to the police or the circuit court than to a bet din. Nevertheless, we must understand that Torah - the Bible - and Judaism as a Bible-based religion is a religion of law. Some of the laws say don’t murder, some of the laws say don’t leave water jugs in the road, some say leave food for widows in the corners of your fields, and some say be ethical in business. Others say observe festivals on specific days and honor the Sabbath. And unless we wish to live in the state of nature described by Thomas Hobbes, with every man against every other, with life nasty, brutish, and short, we had better follow some laws. According to Talmud, the world depends upon three things, Torah, prayer, and mitzvot - laws: the world cannot survive without mitzvot.
So, which laws do we obey? Not many of us are ready to begin stoning people who carry wood on the Sabbath; we have enough trouble punishing murderers and thieves. No-one can or would want to comply with all the mitzvot in Torah, not even counting the Talmudic instructions for carrying out the mitzvot. And even the most observant Orthodox Jewish men like to forget God’s injunction to Abraham, “Do as Sarah tells you.”
God tells us to “be mindful of all my mitzvot and do them.” I read this to say that we must be mindful of all - we must study the mitzvot thoroughly, but we do not have to do all. This interpretation is not merely excessive lawyering. The command itself separates knowledge and action. In fact, the whole structure of the mitzvot proves that we must do some but not all. Some of the mitzvot can be performed only in Eretz Israel. Some can be performed only in the Temple or while the Temple stands. Some are for priests, some are for landowners, some are for people with troublesome relatives. And some must change over time as our knowledge changes. For example, Torah prescribes one day of observance for what we now call Rosh Hashanah and one for what we now call Yom Kippur. Because they were uncertain of the day of the full moon’s appearance, the rabbis of the Talmud decreed that outside Israel, Rosh Hashanah should be observed for two days. They also attached an extra day to almost all other holidays, although knowing the limits of their power and people’s interest in fasting for two days straight, they never extended Yom Kippur. Now that we know the exact date of Rosh Hashanah, it is an unnecessary violation of Torah to observe Rosh Hashanah for two days.
So we as Reform Jews must pick. (I know many of you have heard me expound on this before, but why keep a dead horse if you don’t beat it occasionally?) We individually and as a community must study, struggle, and determine which laws, including those created by the rabbis in the Talmud, are appropriate for us to follow, which truly are mitzvot. Studying Torah, it is clear that choosing mitzvot is difficult, for even in Torah people choose which of God’s instructions to follow. And sometimes they decide in a way that most of us now would think right and just, such as deciding not to kill all the people living in the Promised Land before the children of Israel arrived, but in Torah, it is counted as a wrong decision and punished. I think we have to take our chances, deciding the best we can. I also believe that the Jewish people are one, and as each individual Jew carries out some mitzvot, the Jewish people as a whole are being mindful of God’s mitzvot and doing them. I am not, by the way, suggesting that we Reform Jews are counting on the Orthodox to perform our mitzvot for us. We have to follow appropriate laws. But we are not paying attention to Torah if we conclude that the only laws we must follow relate to charity for the poor. We can’t edit out the rest of Torah. Jews must follow laws. We must honestly decide which laws we believe will make us better Jews --- and, dare I say it, which laws we believe God commands us to obey
Vayigash Gen. 44:18 - 47:27
D’var Torah by Judy Gross
January 2, 1998
Vayigash is the portion in which Joseph, apparently the most powerful man in Egypt, finally reveals himself to his brothers and brings Jacob’s entire family to Egypt to save all of Israel from the famine in Canaan. To me, the most interesting aspect of this portion is its theme of control: how Judah, Joseph, Pharaoh, and finally Jacob try to control other people, events, and even God. In this portion, for the first time, Jacob realizes that he cannot control God. He also realizes that he doesn’t need to.
Let us begin, as does this portion, with Judah. Judah in previous stories has shown more that his share of human frailties, including plotting to sell Joseph into slavery and acting disgracefully to Tamar, his son’s wife. But in this story, he appears after having pledged to Jacob his own life and freedom as surety for Benjamin, his youngest brother, Rachael’s child and Jacob’s favorite since Joseph’s disappearance. When Joseph pretends that he is going to imprison Benjamin for theft, Judah realizes that Judah, in fact, has no physical power. His family is starving and at the mercy of one who is like Pharaoh ( Gen.44:18; a comment that I did not think was intended as a compliment). Judah gives us a beautiful example of the song we sang last week for Hanukkah, "Not by might and not by power". Judah comes up to Joseph ("vayigash") and, using only moral suasion, manages to disarm Joseph.
Judah doesn’t threaten Joseph, even with God’s wrath, he merely reports that losing Benjamin will deeply hurt his father, perhaps leading to the death of both Jacob and Benjamin. Judah’s speech is powerful: "Now if I come to your servant my father and the boy is not with me--- since his own life is so bound up with his --- when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will send the white head of your servant our father down to Sheol in grief." (Gen.44:30-31) He fulfills his pledge to Jacob by offering himself as a slave in Benjamin’s place on the grounds that he could not stand seeing how distraught Jacob would be if he lost Benjamin: "For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!" (Gen.44:34). And it works. Granted it works because in fact, Judah’s father was also Joseph’s father, and Joseph was an essentially moral person. It wouldn’t work against true evil, but from this portion, we see that telling someone what is right may lead to his doing right.
Judah’s rather minor role shows us what is possible. Joseph’s behavior shows us major limitations on the control by even the most powerful. Joseph has been manipulating and controlling his brothers shamefully. Judah’s speech is necessary because Joseph planted a cup in Benjamin’s bag and accused him of theft. Joseph previously had exercised his control over his brothers to deny them food unless they brought Benjamin to Egypt, which they did most unwillingly. Finally, Joseph loses control of his brothers and himself because of Judah’s words. However, in one last attempt to maintain his power over the Egyptians and to save face before them, when Joseph realizes that he is breaking down, he sends the Egyptians out of the room. He fails. He so completely loses control of himself that his cries can be heard all the way to Pharaoh’s palace.(Gen.45:1-2) His inability to control himself limits his total control.
I don’t mean to paint Joseph’s desire for power and control too strongly because Joseph always recognized some major limitations: he told his brothers that God had sent him before them to ensure their survival on earth (Gen.45:7) and "to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance" (a statement foreshadowing the Exodus and simultaneously providing a wonderful example of the human action necessary to carry out the Divine plan and fulfill the Covenant). He further says that God had made him "a father to Pharaoh", ruler throughout Egypt, and lord of Egypt. So he attributed his acquisition of power to God, not to himself or to Pharaoh. But even after their reconciliation, he still chose to try to control his brothers and father. He sent his brothers to bring Jacob, told them how to behave on the journey, what possessions to bring and what to abandon, where they would live, and what they would do for a living. His power over his brothers was somewhat limited: his brothers did not become either Joseph’s or Pharaoh’s serfs.
Joseph’s exercise of power was not limited to his brothers. By the end of the portion, all the people of Egypt came to Joseph first to buy food, then when all their money was gone, when all they had left were their dying bodies and dying land, to beg food and to trade their freedom for food. (Gen.47:18) True, when Joseph made all the people serfs to Pharaoh, he was proving that his personal power had limits: he did not directly benefit from the transactions as he did everything in Pharaoh’s name, and the Egyptian priests received their grants directly from Pharaoh without losing their freedom. This portion also foreshadows the most obvious limitation on Joseph’s control. In just a few short chapters, all of Israel will be slaves in Egypt. Joseph cannot control events after his death, nor does he truly control all of Egypt.
It is interesting at this point to examine Pharaoh’s power. In this portion, Pharaoh’s power is shown to be quite limited. He, in fact, is almost a comic figure. He extravagantly invites Joseph’s entire family to live in Egypt, but in doing so, he is a puppet: he extends an invitation that Joseph had already given, telling them to live where Joseph has already told them to live. Everyone has already begun to act on Joseph’s word, without even waiting for Pharaoh’s rubber stamp. Moreover, when the famine becomes severe, Joseph, not Pharaoh, sets Egyptian land policy. Finally, when Jacob arrives in Egypt, Jacob blesses Pharaoh (Gen.47:7) - which might seem presumptuous, except that we were told that Joseph was made father to Pharaoh, so it is appropriate that Joseph’s father act like a crotchety old grandfather when speaking to Pharaoh. "The years of my sojourn [on earth] are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life....(Gen.47:9)" Indeed. This also foreshadows Jacob’s blessing of Joseph’s sons, Jacob’s real grandsons, in the next portion.
So what of Jacob’s power? We see that Jacob exercised some power over Pharaoh. We know that he maintained power over his sons because he sent them to Egypt for food several times even though they did not want to go, and, when forced to send Benjamin with them, extracts a promise from Ruben that Ruben’s children will be hostage for Benjamin (Gen.42:37) and a promise from Judah to stand surety for Benjamin (Gen.43:7). In the next portion, Jacob controls his sons with blessings and curses and also chooses how to bless Joseph’s sons. Nevertheless, Jacob understands the limits on his power: he makes Joseph formally swear to bury him in Canaan, rather than in Egypt (something that, by the way, God had already promised would happen). Jacob understands that control ends with death.
Jacob also understands, finally, that he cannot control God. During the course of his life, Jacob had four encounters with God. In the first three, Jacob tried to control God. Only in this portion, his fourth encounter, does he do everything right.
In Jacob’s first encounter with God, Jacob was, well, Jacob. Jacob is fleeing from home and the wrath of both Esau and Isaac, both of whom he has tricked. He goes to sleep and is treated to the magnificent spectacle of angels going up and down a ladder to Heaven, with God at the top of the ladder (Gen.28:12 et seq.). God tells Jacob that Jacob will receive the blessings of the Covenant and that God will go with him on his journeys. So Jacob explains to God what God must do for Jacob in order for Jacob to worship God: give me stuff and I will worship you. "If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house -- the Lord will be my God...."(Gen.28:20)
Jacob’s second encounter is just as magnificent a story as the first: Jacob is fleeing Laban's wrath (whom he has tricked), returning to his homeland in fear of his brother Esau. Jacob was alone in the night and wrestled with God (or some aspect of God), literally trying physically to force God to bless him. It doesn’t work; one touch cripples Jacob for life. And Jacob explains it as a victory: after all, he did not die. God has changed Jacob’s name to Israel in this encounter, but generally, he is still called Jacob. Jacob’s wrestling did not change the Covenant.
Jacob’s third encounter with God, after the rape of Dinah and his sons’ massacre of the men of Shechem, when, you guessed it, Jacob is fleeing the wrath of the peoples around Shechem, is basically just a different version of Jacob’s name change, with God’s confirmation of the Covenant.(Gen.35:9) Between these encounters, Jacob continues to live his difficult life. God, in the meantime, has kept His freely granted promise to make make Jacob’s family a multitude, hence the long list in this portion of all Jacob’s children and grandchildren who go to Egypt. (Gen. 46:8-27)
On this trip to Egypt, Jacob encounters God for the fourth time, "in a vision of night."(Gen.46:2) And Jacob gets it right. God calls "Jacob, Jacob." Jacob does not bargain, does not try to physically overpower God, and doesn’t even calculate whether God gave him all the stuff he had demanded in his first encounter. Instead, he says "Hineni", "Here I am", the only correct answer in Torah to a call from God.
So why did Jacob change? He did change, that is certain. After all, directness was never one of Jacob’s attributes. The only other time Jacob had even used the word "hineni" was when he invented a dream to explain to his wives why he was leaving Laban’s household, to try to convince them that God was directing his fortunes. (Gen.31:11) But in this portion, Jacob finally learns what is important. Controlling God wasn’t it, and having stuff wasn’t it. It was, instead, Joseph’s life.
When Judah returned from Egypt to fetch Jacob, he told Jacob that Joseph was alive and a lord in Egypt. Jacob’s heart stopped from shock and joy, he cried "Enough", and then the spirit of Jacob reentered Jacob’s body. (Gen.45:26-27) The word used for "spirit" is "ruah", the same breath of God that brought life to Adam and Noah’s protection from the flood. In fact, the Zohar insists that this was the Shechinah (spirit of God) entering Jacob’s body for the first time since Joseph disappeared. (Zohar vol.1,216:6: Soncino Zohar, vol.2,p.302) I prefer to think that Jacob had been without the spirit of God even longer, ever since Jacob made the soup for Esau and began his life of trickery so long before this. This portion then is the story of Jacob demanding, and needing, less and less from God. He didn’t need the wealth for which he had cheated Esau and Laban, he didn’t need to demand a blessing or stuff from God. Without being asked or harassed, God had given Jacob the protection of the Covenant. And God had given him his son’s life: that was enough.
D'Var Torah for the Portion Va-Yishlach
Judy E. Gross, 29 November 1996
The past several weekly Torah portions have been stories of Jacob -- and Jacob's actions, except with respect to Rachel, have ranged from the ethically questionable to the unquestionably unethical. What we know about Jacob is that he wants a blessing, but he apparently doesn't know any better than we do what the blessing is or how to get it.
First, he thinks that property is the important thing, so he bargains with Esau to exchange a bowl of soup for a double portion of an anticipated large inheritance from Isaac. His mother, Rebecca, then convinces Jacob that what he really needs is a paternal blessing, so Jacob impersonates Esau to get the first-born blessing from Isaac. When he must then flee from Esau's justifiable wrath, Jacob, as part of his dream of angels on a ladder to heaven, dreams that God has blessed him. However, Jacob discounts this blessing and tries to bargain with God for safety and property. He then seems to confuse the blessing with marital bliss. After his uncle Laban cheats him over Rachel and Leah, and over his share of the livestock herds, we arrive at this weeks parsha.
Jacob is heading home, with his two wives, two concubines, eleven sons, one daughter, and vast herds for which Jacob had out-cheated Laban. He is returning to meet Esau, but neither Jacob's nor Esau's motives are clear. Why is Jacob hunting for Esau? Is he looking for trouble, as Rashi criticized him for doing? Does he want to make up? Is he instead hoping that Esau won't really be there? Does he long for a family reunion?
In any case, Jacob sends messengers to look for Esau. They return, reporting that Esau is coming to meet Jacob, and is accompanied by four hundred men. Although the commentators are unanimous that this constitutes a threat, the text is intentionally ambiguous. Was Esau hunting for his brother to get even, or to give him protection, or was Esau hunting for something else entirely? After all, Esau had originally threatened harm to Jacob after Isaac's death -- and the text does not indicate that Isaac had died.
Jacob assumes the worst of Esau. He takes defensive measures with his camp, prays to God for protection, and then takes action to propitiate his bother. He prepares a large gift of 550 valuable animals from his flocks and sends them in groups one after the other in a manner reminiscent of Puss in Boots. Jacob says (in Everett Fox's translation):
I will wipe (the anger from) his face
with the gift that goes ahead of my face.
Afterward, when I see his face,
perhaps he will lift up my face? (Gen. 32:21)
Then he discovers that the blessing he seeks has nothing to do with saving face.
So what happened? Jacob's earlier interaction, especially with Esau, Isaac, and Laban, can all be seen as wrestling matches. Jacob literally wrestles with Esau in the womb, and he figuratively wrestles with Esau over the birthright, with Isaac over the paternal blessing, with Laban over his wives and herds, and with God in his dream, bargaining that if God will give him stuff, he will believe in God.
Then Jacob spends the archetypical long, dark night of the soul. Alone at night, he wrestles with a man. Again, the text is intentionally ambiguous. Is the man really a man, an angel (either good or bad, and maybe even Esau's evil spirit), God, or even Jacob himself? Commentators have chosen all of these interpretations and more, but then most commentators have also described the struggle as more violent than a literal reading of the story seems to support.
Jacob wrestles all night. We know that. We also know that when he saw that he could not prevail against him, he touched the socket of his thigh. Again, the pronouns are ambiguous. However, we have no reason to believe that this is a life or death struggle. One of the beings called he says Let me go for dawn is coming up. One demands a blessing to release the other. The man then asks Jacob his name and changes it to Israel for you have fought with God and with man and have prevailed. (Gen.32:29) To me, this suggests a possibility that Jacob struggled simultaneously against God and a man. That man could have been Jacob.
Jacob asks his opponents name, which the man refuses to answer. Nevertheless, he blesses Jacob. Who blessed Jacob? Why don't we take Jacob at his word? Jacob names the spot Face of God (Peniel) and states, I have seen God face to face and my life has been saved. So Jacob believed he had wrestled with God. I do, too. I also believe that both contestants prevailed.
Jacob was desperately uncertain of his relationship with his brother, himself, and God, so he struggled all night to figure out these relationships. His struggle was with both God and himself. Perhaps these can be called his conscience. When they wrestled, the man asked Jacob, Who are you? - a question reminiscent of Gods query of Adam and Eve, Where are you? and of Cain, Where is your brother?. Did Jacob know who he was? He had lied to his father, saying he was Esau. After a night of wrestling, he knew he was Jacob, but the struggle transformed him. His name was changed to Israel, creating us, a people who must wrestle with God and ourselves to determine our blessing, the meaning of our covenant.
Some commentators object that Jacob could not actually have wrestled God. They are concerned, first, with the corporeal image of God. But we don't have to take it quite so literally. To borrow Steinsaltz's comment on descriptions of angels: any such description must tend to be anthropomorphic because they are ways of representing an abstract formless spiritual reality in the vocabulary of human language. (The Thirteen Petaled Rose, Adin Steinsaltz, pp. 13-14) Second, they are troubled that Jacob defeats the man because the man only won by crippling Jacob. If it were God, how could Jacob have come so close to defeating Him? But this issue presents an interesting issue of translation. According to Fox and some others, the man did not strike Jacob on the thigh but only touched him. (See, e.g., Genesis, Robert Alter, p. 8, n. 6.) To me this sounds suspiciously like a little joke: I could have beaten you with my little finger. The point is clear: God could have destroyed Jacob at any time. He didn't.
And what about the line, "Let me go for dawn is breaking? The traditional interpretation is that demons lose their power in the light, so the man was some sort of angel or demon that could become powerless. But let's turn it around. If Jacob was wrestling God, it had to be in the dark because Jacob would have died if he had seen God's face in the light. So, rather than pleading, this is a warning. Jacob got his blessing, not by pinning his opponent. He earned the blessing by proving that the blessing was worth his life (in contrast to Esau's indifference to it) and by the struggle with himself and God to understand his relationship to God. After receiving the blessing, Jacob asks his opponent's name. Does he hope to control God with His name, or merely end his own confusion? The response is similar to a similar request from Moses, when God answered Moses: I will be what I will be. (Exo. 3:14). No name can contain God's attributes or essence.
Jacob now has God's blessing in two distinct manners: first, he was chosen (before birth) to receive the blessing and carry on the covenant and, second, he earned it by his struggle at Peniel. His guile did not win him the blessing. He still may not have understood the blessing, but at least he had learned that it does not relate to inheritance of property. Where the day before Jacob sent a gift to propitiate Esau, I believe that he now goes a step further to show he is worthy of Gods blessing. I believe that Jacob actually returned Esau's birthright. The substantial gift of property is restitution for the taking of Esau's right to property. In addition, Jacob approaches Esau, calling him my lord and prostrating himself seven times before Esau. The bowing restores Esau's seniority.
Instead of assuming, as many have, that Jacob's servility is merely to ward off an attack, lets assume that one of the things Jacob recognized while wrestling with God and his conscience was that he needed Gods blessing. He did not need Esau's birthright or paternal blessing. Jacob, in fact, acts out a reversal of Isaac's blessing: the younger serves the older. Esau recognizes this for what it is; he runs to meet Jacob and embraces him, although many translations have both embracing each other. With just a touch of irony, Esau tells Jacob to keep what is Jacob's -- but Esau does accept the gifts and the bows, presumably those things that rightfully were Esau's. Esau has gotten all he was ever interested in, his birthright and his father's blessing. And Jacob - Jacob urges Esau to accept the gifts because Jacob has (depending on the translation) enough or everything. He has the blessing from God, which he had learned is what he always had sought.
Esau, then, has reason to forgive Jacob. They embrace, they weep, and Jacob says that looking at Esau was like looking into the face of God. I am fascinated by this remark. Most commentators have decided that this is merely excessively fulsome praise in keeping with Jacob's servility to Esau. But if it is merely extravagant praise, it at least borders on blasphemy. Robert Alter relates it to the themes of Jacob's wrestling scene (including hoping to survive looking at Esau's face like he survived seeing God's face wrestling) (Genesis, Alter, p. 186, n. 10), but I believe that it goes back to the first story of Jacob and Esau wrestling - in the womb. In both cases, Jacob wrestles in the dark to grab a birthright or a blessing. Jacob could not win either struggle in those terms. He had been chosen in the womb to be born second; paradoxically, if he had won the struggle, he would have no longer been chosen for the blessing. When he wrestled with God, he clearly could not defeat God; one touch crippled him. When wrestling with himself and his conscience, Jacob could only win by surrendering to Esau Esau's property and lesser blessings. Jacob did not need to bargain with or deceive either Esau or God to get the blessing. He merely had to face the consequences of his own actions.
Jacob looked at Esau in the same way that he looked into the face of God during his wrestling match -- praying to survive but in the dark about Esau's or God's intentions in the past or for the future and filled with uncertainty, shame, guilt, fear, jealousy, and love. Jacob's whole history (and ours) was bound up in God and Esau - in his lifelong struggle with God for a blessing and with Esau for his birthright - as was his whole future, by genes and family to Esau and to God by his life and by creation of a nation from his progeny.
But Esau got what he wanted and forgave Jacob. Instead of Esau killing Jacob upon Isaac's death, the two sons (with Esau named first, showing that he had regained his birthright), although living apart from each other, together bury Isaac when he died old and satisfied in days. (Gen. 35:29) Their continuing bond is stressed by the immediately following chapter, which is entirely the genealogy of Esau. Esau was not chosen for God's blessing, and his family did not become Israel, but he and Jacob remained tied. They are brothers.
So Jacob learned from the experience, but he did not become a different person. He doesn't quite trust Esau and lies to ensure that Esau would go away and leave Jacob and his family. Similarly, he doesn't quite trust God's blessing, with the covenant to make him a great nation. But there is one major change in Jacob that I am at a loss to explain. After Jacob wrestles at Peniel, or possibly after he and Esau embrace (Rashi points out that wrestling means the same as embracing), Jacob never wrestles again. Jacob, the one who always had a plan and the will and guile to bring it to fruition, becomes passive. When Jacob's daughter, Dinah, is raped, Jacob hears but does nothing. When his sons plan and carry out their revenge on the rapist and his town, although Jacob later berates them, he does nothing at the time to remonstrate with them or to stop them.
Even his beloved Rachel suffers from this change. God tells Jacob to go to Bethel and remain there. Jacob goes but immediately moves his whole family on, which apparently contributed to Rachel's death during childbirth - and only the midwife, not Jacob, is with her when she dies. Immediately after her death, Jacob's son Ruben sleeps with Jacob's concubine; Jacob is silent. And in the Joseph stories, Jacob remains passive, not even bothering to look for Joseph's body when the sons suggest that animals killed his favorite son. And when Jacob is reunited with Joseph after many years, Joseph embraces Jacob; Jacob does not embrace Joseph.
I cannot now explain why Jacob quit wrestling. It becomes even more remarkable because it is clear that this portion presents wrestling with God as our model for working out and understanding our relationship with God, in other words, our blessing, the covenant. Sometimes the wrestling requires arguing with God; sometimes it requires facing our own misdeeds. Sometimes it ends with us embracing our brothers and sisters. But we all wrestle in the dark; that is the only way that we can look into the face of God.
Judy E. Gross, D'var Torah for October 27, 1995
Everybody knows the story of Noah. It is a beautiful story. The wickedness of man was so great that God decided to destroy the whole world. But in his mercy, God saves the righteous man, Noah, his family, and representatives of every kind of animal on earth. Not only does God tell Noah how to build the ark to save life, after all the people and animals are on the ark and the deluge has begun, God closes up the ark to make sure they are safe. The ark floats upon the water until the Flood had lasted its ordained period. Then the breath of God -- the same breath that created the world and brought life to Adam -- separated the Flood waters and dried the land. And we cannot forget the animals; you know, the animals coming onto the ark, fourteen of each kind of the clean animals and two of each kind of the unclean animals.
We generally do not read the story of Noah carefully. I always am amazed that people think that two of each kind of animal got onto the ark as stated in Genesis 6:19-20, and seldom or never note the contradictory instruction in Genesis 7:2. That is not the only inconsistency in the rather short story of Noah. It is not clear how long the flood lasted, why Noah sent out a dove to look for land when a raven was flying around with the same task, or even whether Ham was his middle or youngest son. These are only some of the problems within one translation; the problems multiply with different translations or if one wonders where the dove got the olive twig if, except for occupants of the ark, every living thing on earth had been destroyed. Nevertheless, I believe we can answer our most basic questions about life by studying the stories carefully and paying attention to the contradictions.
By the way, these contradictions aren't things I just noticed. People have argued about them literally for millennia. Until about the past hundred years, people, accepting that God dictated the Torah to Moses, ingeniously explained away the contradictions. More recently, the predominant theory has been that there are at least two stories of Noah, written at very different times, intertwined in the various redactions of the Torah. Although the same process applied to all parts of the Bible, the inconsistencies seem more glaring in Noah than in most other stories. Both Plaut's Commentary on the Torah (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp.62-63) and Richard Elliot Friedman's wonderful book Who Wrote the Bible? are good sources to study the separate stories of Noah.
So, why were the contradictions allowed to remain in the Torah? Perhaps the redactors did not want to delete any part of two separate sacred traditions, although other sections of the Torah seem to be abbreviated versions of other ancient sacred traditions. Moreover, some sacred traditions of the ancient Jews were lost or otherwise entirely omitted from the Biblical cannon. And, one might ask, what does the fact that there are multiple stories of Noah have to do with Reform Judaism? My answer is that both the contradictions and the actual substance of the Noah story offer important insights about the source of authority in Judaism.
Arguments about how to interpret the stories of Noah and other parts of the Torah continue because there is no final, authoritative Jewish interpretation of any of the stories; in fact, Jewish tradition explicitly permits and encourages multiple interpretations. Even at the time that the Bible was being canonized (about 100 C.E.), Rabbi Akiba stated that there are seventy ways to interpret Torah. The rabbis recognized that over time, people would discover new meanings of the Torah, so no one person could claim the definitive interpretation of sacred texts. Even a limited study of Talmud makes this lack of final authority obvious, with numerous disputes about Torah and points of law appearing on every page, representing hundreds of years of controversy. Some of the best known sections of Talmud are the disputes between Hillel and Shammai, who took opposite sides of every point under discussion. Both are revered as great teachers, and their argument was recorded so that later students would learn both positions. Apparently, both were right, for the Talmud summarizes their arguments: "These, too, are the words of the Living God." ( quoted in Where Are We?: The Inner Life of America's Jews by Leonard J. Fein, Harper and Row, 1988). I do not mean to imply that the Talmudic rabbis thought all interpretations of Torah were equally authoritative, but they believed that everyone had the obligation to study Torah and try to understand its precepts.
To me, this is the essence of Reform Judaism: we, each of us for ourselves, must study Torah - and Talmud and other historical texts, to answer for ourselves the big questions -- What is the meaning of life, what is true, right, and good, and what is our relationship with and obligations to ourselves, the Jewish community, the world, and God? But the Torah is an ancient, complicated book containing contradictions and ambiguities. We cannot just skim the stories and find Truth. Moreover, we can't just turn to a pope, the Talmud, or a rule book, or halaka, or our rabbi to tell us what to do; we must each think and decide for ourselves. This does not mean that we are free to ignore the questions or the answers that we honestly derive - and it doesn't count to just look up a quote to justify whatever action we already intended to take. The Bible is not Bartlett's. Nor are we free to ignore tradition; it would be extremely foolish to dump thousands of years of wisdom. It is equally foolish to ignore our own rabbis, modern scholars, or our own experience. We should use all available resources to find Jewish answers to our questions.
Let's get back to Noah. To me, the lessons of the story do not depend upon its truth - it really doesn't matter whether the whole world was submerged when the windows of heaven opened or whether one flood in Mesopotamia inspired the story. It doesn't matter that the story reworked the themes of the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic. Given the obvious contradictions in the text, I don't even think that it was necessarily important to the writers or redactors that it be true. What makes the story important is that it gives us a Jewish way to think about God and the questions of existence.
We learn that human beings have free will, both to do wrong and merit destruction or to do right, to act to save life and to be responsible for their own salvation. God chose Noah to survive because Noah was good, but it is important to note that Noah was otherwise an ordinary person; he was not a god, a king, or even a hero. God told Noah to build an ark, how to make it, and what to put on it, but God did not build the ark for Noah or gather the food needed for survival. The ark Noah built could not be controlled by its occupants, so their survival did not depend solely upon their efforts. Their efforts would have been in vain without God's instructions or for that matter, if the Flood had outlasted their food. But nothing would have survived the Flood if Noah had not acted. Ordinary people must choose to act -- when they do, their behavior can change the world.
Another lesson is the one that God Himself learned: it is wrong to destroy the earth. God regretted His action and in at least one version of the story, promised never to destroy it again (the other version merely promises that it won't be a flood the next time). In fact, in the next story after the Flood, the Tower of Babel, all people sin, but the punishment is a confusion of languages, not death. We, like God, can learn from our mistakes and do better next time. Note that God apparently sides with the Endangered Species Act; at least a pair of all animals, clean or unclean, ugly or pretty, useful or not, snail darter or spotted owl, were on the ark. (Well, not snail darters; fish were apparently not on the ark). We have an obligation to prevent extinction of any form of life.
The Noah stories also make clear that no-one is or can be perfect. Noah is righteous in his generation and walked with God -- and Noah walked off the ark, planted a vineyard, and got drunk. Then, while Noah was in a drunken stupor, his son, Ham, uncovered Noah's nakedness (the meaning of which has occupied many a rabbinic mind). When Noah discovered Ham's sin, he cursed not Ham , but Ham's son. Rabinnic authorities considered both of these actions to be Noah's sins. But even before these sins, God concluded that the "devisings of man's mind are evil from his youth" (Gen. 8:21). There was no point in destroying all people to root out evil; man and woman are made in God's image, but they are not God. Sometime people will exercise free will to do wrong. Moreover, we are not free to rely on Cohens or Levis for holiness -- or descendants of famous rabbis either. Noah arguably was as close to perfect as people get, but his son, Ham, sinned. Perfection is not genetically assured.
Perhaps the most important lesson from Noah is that although we each must interpret the stories and find our own answers, not all possible answers are equally correct. Truth, good, and justice are not relative. God judged the world and Noah according to God's standard, not according to the thoughts or intentions of the peoples of the earth. Even God in the Bible is subject to these same standards. When Abraham later asks "Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?" (Gen. 18:25), we know the answer is "Yes." We each must find our own path to that truth. We Jews have the incredible gift of Torah to use as our map of those paths. Please note, however, that reading that map requires analysis of right and wrong. Merely because something is reported in the Bible does not make it right. The most obvious example involves Noah's failure to act, which revealed man's evil nature to God. The Zohar, written in the thirteenth century, beautifully explains Noah's sin:
When Noah came out of the ark
he opened his eyes and saw the whole world completely destroyed.
He began crying for the world and said
"Master of the world!
If you destroyed your world because of human sin or human fools,
then why did You create them? One or the other you should do:
either do not create the human being
or do not destroy the world!"
[Noah continues:]"You are called Compassionate!
You should have shown compassion for Your creatures!"
The Blessed Holy One answered him, "Foolish shepherd!
Now you say this, but not when I spoke to you tenderly [about making
an ark to save your family]....
I lingered with you and spoke to you at length
so that you would ask for mercy for the world!
But as soon as you heard that you would be safe in the ark,
the evil of the world did not touch your heart.
You built the ark and saved yourself.
Now that the world has been destroyed
you open your mouth to utter questions and pleas?"
The Zohar points out that Abraham argued with God to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if just ten innocent people could be found; Moses pledged his life for the people of Israel to save them after they built the golden calf. The Zohar continues:
So all the righteous heroes shielded their generations....
The Blessed Holy One lingered with him and spoke many words to him;
perhaps, he would ask for mercy for his generation.
But he did not care and did not ask for mercy.
He just built the ark
and the whole world was destroyed.
(Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment, translated by Daniel Matt)
Like Jacob who became Israel, we must struggle with God and with Torah. One more quote, this one from Hillel: "Now, go and study."
Judy E. Gross 17 February 1995
I am the third person from my Torah study group to present a d'var on this week's Torah portion on the story of the golden calf (Exodus 32). Each of us has interpreted the story differently, and, in fact, I find that every time I read the story, I read it differently.
You know the story and may even have seen the movie -- Moses goes up Mount Sinai to receive the law from God. He is gone for forty days and nights. During his absence, the Israelites ask Aaron to make a god for them. Aaron makes a graven image, a golden calf. Because the people worship the image, God wants to destroy the people, but Moses beseeches Him to spare them. Moses then goes down, throws the stone tablets to the ground, destroys the calf, and commands the Levites to kill many of the Israelites. Moses again ascends the mountain and brings back new stone tablets of the Law.
We are left with the question, why did the Israelites, as Psalm 106 says, exchange their glory for "the likeness of an ox that eats grass" (Ps.106:20)? What does this story mean? The answer is that the story means many different things and is accessible on many different levels. And we each focus on different meanings at different times.
Sometimes when I read the story of the golden calf, I am incredulous at the Hebrews' "what have you done for me lately" attitude toward God, who, after all, just three months before brought them out of Egypt, parted the Sea of Reeds, and led them to safety with a pillar of fire and a pillar of smoke. Frequently, when I read it, I am repulsed by Aaron's making a graven image, denying his actions, and not being punished. Always, I am shocked that Moses had the temerity to break the stone tablets of the Law, written by the finger of God. Usually, I am disgusted that Moses convinces God not to destroy the people by telling Him that the Egyptians would ridicule Him for bringing the people out only to destroy them -- although if I did a d'var on this same portion next year, I probably would focus on that same interaction between God and Moses deciding the Israelites' fate as a deft sketch of an enraged father and an anxious, frightened mother arguing about the appropriate punishment for a disobedient child.
This time when I read the story of the golden calf, instead of focusing on the Israelites' ingratitude toward God, I focused on what the people wanted when they asked for the golden calf. The Hebrews did not want a new god in the shape of a calf. Instead, they simply wanted to understand God. The plagues, the exodus from Egypt, the manna and quail, and the gathering at Mount Sinai were all miracles and as such are not susceptible of human understanding. When the people gathered to hear the word of God, they didn't hear the commandments; they heard only thunder, lightning, and the sound of a horn. (Ex. 20:15) Moses had to translate. They begged Moses to talk to God for them, whereupon Moses ascended Mount Sinai and stayed for forty days.
Meanwhile, back at the camp, the people are truly lost. They do not have their pillar of fire or Moses. Moses had been their intermediary with God; when he was away, they had no way of understanding this new type of God, so different from the familiar deities of the Egyptians and the neighboring tribes. They ask Aaron to make them a god to go before them to replace the pillar of fire because they do not know what had become of "that man Moses" (Ex. 32:1). Aaron thinks they want an idol, but this doesn't make sense. After all, the people ask Aaron to make the god, they supply the raw materials, and they probably watch Aaron carve the thing. Surely, they could not be so credulous to believe literally that the calf is the god that brought them out of Egypt.
I believe that what they actually want is the the safety and certainty that an idol brings. Making a graven image after all is an attempt to reduce God to something manageable, to something that can be carried around or, when no longer interesting, be put in a box out of the way. People can understand an idol. The Hebrews hoped to do the same with God -- to define and understand Him. But by definition, a definition is limiting: to define God is to limit Him. Moses argued that if God destroyed the people, the Egyptians would say that God had delivered the people for evil. Moses is warning that the Egyptians might believe mistakenly that they understood God and might imagine even that God's powers were limited geographically, that God was just another tribal deity. We should take heed of that warning.
The story of the book of the Exodus is the story of the creation of a people -- and the story of those people trying to understand and define the God Who chose them. Not only are they unable to define God, the Torah also makes it clear that people will remain distant from God. If they touch the holy mountain, they will die. They literally cannot understand God. When God talks, the people hear only thunder. When Moses breaks the tablets of the law, the people lose their only chance even to study words written by God, because apparently Moses is the scrivener of the replacement tablets. (Ex. 34:28)
Moses, too, remains at a distance from God and even from the Israelites for whom he translates. When Moses asks "show me now thy ways that I may know thee" ( Exodus 33:13), God agrees to let all His goodness pass before Moses and agrees to show Moses His back, but says "none can see my face and live" (Exodus 33:19). Even that is too much: after Moses returns from talking with God, bearing the replacement tablets, Moses's face radiates beams of light, or grew horns, according to some translations, and it doesn't matter which because he is so frightening that he must cover his face from everyone but God. (Ex. 34:30)
The Torah makes it clear another way that we cannot define God. Although graven images are explicitly forbidden, the Torah describes God in many different ways. God appears to Abraham as a man (Gen. 18:2), to Jacob as a man or an angel (Gen. 32:25), to Moses from out of a burning bush (Exodus 3:4), as a cloud standing next to Moses (Ex. 34:5), as well as goodness passing before him and as a voice. He appears to the people of Israel as pillars of fire and smoke and as thunder after descending upon Mt. Sinai in fire. (Ex. 19:18) He later approaches Elijah not out of the thunder but as a still small voice. ( I Kings 19:11) He is corporeal enough to savor the smell of smoke from sacrifices. Moses states that God is not a form but only a voice (Deut. 4:12), but he goes on to say that if the people insist on making graven images, the people will be scattered and left to "serve gods, the work of men's hands, wood and stone, which neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell." (Deut. 4:28). But even Moses, who directly speaks with God, must remain uncertain: when Moses first faces God at the burning bush, Moses asks God's name, the most basic step in defining Him, God answers only " I am that I am" (Ex. 3:14).
Yes, some of this is metaphor, some of it reworked Egyptian and Sumerian mythology, and some, no doubt, is a sign of the process of people's idea of God changing over time from an anthropomorphic image to something more ethereal. But if that were the only point, it would have been easy for one of the redactors of the Torah to edit out more primitive theories or images of God to present a final, consistent idea of God. Rather than being contradictions or historical development, to me, the point is that God is not one image or even just one voice. He is experienced differently by each person, but God is not limited by that experience. According to the Book of Exodus, He is "the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob," (Ex. 3:6) each of whom had a different relationship with God. No-one, including Moses or Aaron, can define God. As Job discovered, God requires belief, not understanding.
So, is it wrong to try to understand God? I believe that rather than seeking to understand God in a general sense, each of us must try to determine our relationship to God as individuals and as Jews, including those actions necessary to fulfill our obligations to God. But we cannot put God in a box and say, or believe, that we have defined, limited, and contained God. We cannot change a golden calf into a god, and more importantly, we cannot change God into a golden calf.
D'Var Torah Judy E. Gross, October 29, 1993
The Akidah, the binding of Isaac, Genesis, Chapter 22, is one of the most analyzed stories in the Torah. I will not explain it because I do not understand it. In fact, every time I read it, I understand it less.
The Torah says that God put Abraham to the test. But what exactly was the test? Could Abraham have passed it without agreeing to sacrifice Isaac? Why would God ask for a human sacrifice? Abraham's intentions for Isaac were clear when they set off. They took the knife, the fire, and even the wood. Why did Isaac go along? Why didn't Sarah protect Isaac as she had at other times? Why did an angel stop the sacrifice rather than God who had ordered it? Was God ashamed of Himself -- or maybe God was ashamed of Abraham? Why did Isaac not return with Abraham? What did Sarah say when Abraham returned without Isaac? One tradition is that Sarah died because she believed that Isaac had been sacrificed. However, after the Akidah, Abraham stayed in Beersheba and Sarah died in Hebron. I think that she left Abraham because he agreed to sacrifice Isaac.
New questions keep arising. But this question underlies the whole story: Vvlhy would Abraham agree to the sacrifice? If such a sacrifice were asked of me, I would never believe that God was truly making the request; I cannot believe in that kind of god.
So why might Abraham agree to sacrifice Isaac? Possibilities include:
-Maybe because Abraham had listened to God frequently, he knew God's voice, he knew that God had given the command, and once God told him to do something, he would do it unquestioningly. This is the most conventional explanation - that Abraham was exhibiting faith, and it relies on the theory that the surrounding peoples sacrificed humans, so Abraham would not have thought it incredible that God would want him to sacrifice Isaac. This does not explain why he didn't even argue with God, as he had about the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
-Maybe Abraham meant it when he told Isaac that God would supply the sheep for the sacrifice; he may not have believed that God would permit him actually to kill Isaac. He had, after all, sent Ishmael out to what should have been certain death but God had assured him that Ishmael would live and father a great nation. Maybe he believed that Isaac, too, would survive an apparently fatal encounter. However, Abraham is not really exhibiting much faith if he complied only because he did not believe that God would force him to go through with the sacrifice.
-Maybe Isaac had Down's Syndrome or was otherwise retarded. Abraham may have thought Isaac would be unable to fulfill his role in creating a great nation and that God wanted him killed because of his disability . I believe that there is evidence of Isaac's incapacity, including that he was born to a very old mother and throughout his life, he seemed unable to make decisions or to take much care of himself. A servant picked Isaac's wife for him. Rebecca, his wife, took his mother's place caring for him. Rebecca, like Sarah before her, was the one to select which of Isaac's sons (Esau or Jacob) would carry on the nation. When Sarah responded to Ishmael's playing by demanding exile for Ishmael and his mother, perhaps she was not acting in a jealous rage; perhaps she believed that Isaac would not be able to survive around his able half -brother. But again, Abraham is not exhibiting faith if after God told him that the nation would continue through Isaac, he didn't think Isaac could continue it.
-Finally, maybe Abraham just did not like Isaac. Isaac was his second son, and the Torah has many examples of a father favoring an older son while God favors a later son. Or Abraham could have remained upset over Ishmael's treatment. Or mavbe Abraham did not want to share Sarah with the son who she said brought her laughter.
Even if we accept that Abraham would make the sacrifice if God demanded it, we don't know why Abraham didn't argue with God about it. Abraham did argue with God that God should not, as a matter of justice, destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if there were any good people in them -- and God agreed. God only destroyed the cities after removing the only good people, Lot's family (Lot, Abrajam's nephew, merely was a resident alien and was not even from Sodom). Why did Abraham fail to ask if the God of justice would not do justice to Isaac (or to Sarah, for that matter)?
The question of Abraham's silence becomes even more unanswerable in light of the entire Torah portion of which the binding of Isaac is a part. In fact, in this one portion, there are four stories of humans offered as sacrifices. First, after Abraham argued with God about the fate of Sodom, the two angels that had accompanied God went to Sodom. There Lot takes them into his hqme. When the entire population of Sodom demands that the angels be turned over to them, Lot offers two sacrifices - one of his children (his two virgin daughters), but even more importantly, of himself. He, after all, goes outside his door into the crowd and argues with the crowd that they should not hurt his guests who are newcomers, innocent of any wrongs against the town. The angels reject Lot's attempted sacrifice; they pull him back into the house and blind the townspeople.
The next sacrifice is Abraham's offer of Sarah to Abimelech, king of Gerar. When Abraham arrives at Gerar, he says that Sarah is his sister and gives her to Abimelech. Abraham's motives were not good; he hoped to save himself and apparently to acquire wealth. Unlike a version of the story told in a previous chapter, God warns Abimelech that Sarah is married and that Abimelech will die unless he returns her to Abraham unharmed. Abimelech then argues with God that God should not punish Abimelech or his people, explaining that he is innocent because Abraham lied to him. Abimelech also took Abraham to task for bringing guilt upon him. God prevented Abraharn's sacrifice of Sarah.
The third sacrifice is Abraham's banishing Ishmael and his mother Hagar. Ishmael was innocent of wrongdoing, and even Hagar's earlier insolence to Sarah was not the cause of Hagar's second exile. Sarah insists on the expulsion to protect Isaac's inheritance; she in fact, wants to sacrifice Ishmael only because he is able-bodied. When Abraham complains to God, God tells Abraham that Ishmael will live and father a great nation. Hagar cries over Ishmael's impending death, and God then creates a stream to give water to Ishmael, preventing him becoming a sacrifice.
Then there is the fourth sacrifice, the Akidah. God apparently asks for the sacrifice, although He rejected the previous human sacrifices. In the other three sacrifices, someone in each case argued, complained, or cried to prevent the sacrifice. In this one, there is only silence - three days of silence during Abraham and Isaac's walk to the place to make the sacrifice.
There is a further unfathomable aspect to these four sacrifices: all involve or are followed by the most horrible crimes that can be committed by one family member against another. Lot's offer of his daughters for rape is followed by his committing incest with them. Abraham offers his wife for rape and adultery. Abraham banishes one innocent son and attempts to kill his other son. These crimes, we must remember, are committed by the same people who have exhibited incredible personal bravery: Lot standing up to the people of Sodom and Abraham begging God not to destroy Sodom.
The question remains: why would Abraham offer his son? We know Abraham was ready to do what God wanted, but maybe he was wrong about exactly what God did want. What was God's test of Abraham? Maybe the test was whether Abraham would answer when God called. I believe that Abraham showed himself worthy because whenever God called, he answered "Hinani", "Here I am" . He had faith and was ready to act, but he also was willing to face God to question and to be judged by God. When the angel stopped Abraham from killing Isaac, saying that Abraham had obeyed God's command and had not withheld his son, the angel could have been referring to God's previous command to Abraham to circumcise Isaac. This may be wishful thinking or wishful reading, but I hope that God had not demanded Isaac's death. I hope that God would have loved Abraham more if Abraham had argued for Isaac's life. And I hope that if God tests me, I will not unquestioningly obey, but will apply the principles of justice and right to that test. I believe that is what God wants. Amen.