November 6, 2009
Thoughts on one third of Vayera
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been immersing myself in the last third of this parasha. I’m chanting it tomorrow morning at Tiferet Shalom, and it’s been a litle over a year since I’ve had the opportunity to do that anywhere. I’d forgotten how much I love leyning Torah – i love copying the pages out of my tikkun so I can mark them up with pen and highlighter; I love the process of learning each aliyah backwards, so that the chanting gets smoother, easier, and more familiar as I get closer to the end; I love transitioning from the half of the page containing vowels and trop markings and my own highlights and notations to the half of the page that looks like the writing on a Torah scroll, needing to rely on my own memory and sense of musical patterns to read each aliyah fluently and fluidly.
I’ve been doing most of this learning on my bus commutes, and it’s made them go much faster (I even missed my stop once, I was so immersed in the portion).
I found out this week that I might also have to lead discussion and give some commentary in between each aliyah – our rabbi’s wife has just had a baby! – and discussion at Tiferet Shalom is always in Hebrew, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to post an English-language draft of my thoughts here.
(The English Bible text comes from Mechon Mamre.)
1 And the LORD remembered Sarah as He had said, and the LORD did unto Sarah as He had spoken. 2 And Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. 3 And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bore to him, Isaac. 4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him.
The first part of this aliyah is all about Sarah – God remembered Sarah, Sarah conceived and bore a child. It’s really clear that this son of Abraham’s, who Abraham is naming, is Sarah’s child. So why do we need that extra clause, “whom Sarah bore to him”? Because it is a reminder that Abraham already has a son, the child of Hagar, and in just a few verses this is something we will need to remember.
And Abraham was a hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born unto him. 6 And Sarah said: ‘God hath made laughter for me; every one that heareth will laugh on account of me.’ 7 And she said: ‘Who would have said unto Abraham, that Sarah should give children suck? for I have borne him a son in his old age.’ 8 And the child grew, and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9 And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne unto Abraham, making sport. 10 Wherefore she said unto Abraham: ‘Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac.’ 11 And the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight on account of his son. 12 And God said unto Abraham: ‘Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah saith unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall seed be called to thee. 13 And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed.’
I am always surprised, reading this chapter, that Ishmael’s name is never mentioned. It’s as if even God and Abraham’s narrative voices have been swayed to Sarah’s perspective, seeing ‘the bondwoman’s son’ or ‘the lad’ and not granting Ishmael his own identity.
This year, I am really struck by God’s reassurance to Abraham that Ishmael and Hagar will be okay, that they will be ‘a nation’ because of their tie to Abraham. God wants something specific from Isaac, or he is not getting involved in the tangled Sarah-Abraham-Hagar dynamic, but either way he wants Abraham to know that his firstborn son is not going to die in the desert.
14 And Abraham arose up early in the morning, and took bread and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away; and she departed, and strayed in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. 15 And the water in the bottle was spent, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs. 16 And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bow-shot; for she said: ‘Let me not look upon the death of the child.’ And she sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her: ‘What aileth thee, Hagar? fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is. 18 Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him fast by thy hand; for I will make him a great nation.’ 19 And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink. 20 And God was with the lad, and he grew; and he dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer. 21 And he dwelt in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt.
There is so much to talk about here, but what I am most struck by is Hagar. She is in an untenable situation – in a desert with her son and no water – and she gives up. Or, she almost gives up. Truly giving up would, I think, have looked more like silence, more like numb acceptance. Instead, she lifts her voice (to who?) and weeps. She may believe that she has no hope, but she doesn’t go gently. She rages, or at least reacts. Even though the text is clear that it is Ishmael’s voice God has heard, I like to think that Hagar gets some of that credit, too.
22 And it came to pass at that time, that Abimelech and Phicol the captain of his host spoke unto Abraham, saying: ‘God is with thee in all that thou doest. 23 Now therefore swear unto me here by God that thou wilt not deal falsely with me, nor with my son, nor with my son’s son; but according to the kindness that I have done unto thee, thou shalt do unto me, and to the land wherein thou hast sojourned.’ 24 And Abraham said: ‘I will swear.’ 25 And Abraham reproved Abimelech because of the well of water, which Abimelech’s servants had violently taken away. 26 And Abimelech said: ‘I know not who hath done this thing; neither didst thou tell me, neither yet heard I of it, but to-day.’ 27 And Abraham took sheep and oxen, and gave them unto Abimelech; and they two made a covenant. 28 And Abraham set seven ewe-lambs of the flock by themselves. 29 And Abimelech said unto Abraham: ‘What mean these seven ewe-lambs which thou hast set by themselves?’ 30 And he said: ‘Verily, these seven ewe-lambs shalt thou take of my hand, that it may be a witness unto me, that I have digged this well.’ 31 Wherefore that place was called Beer-sheba; because there they swore both of them. 32 So they made a covenant at Beer-sheba; and Abimelech rose up, and Phicol the captain of his host, and they returned into the land of the Philistines. 33 And Abraham planted a tamarisk-tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God. 34 And Abraham sojourned in the land of the Philistines many days.
And here we have a political interlude in our family drama. Also a place-name explanation – How Be’er Sheva Got It’s Name. (The place-name explanations in Tanakh always make me think of Kipling. I read the Just So Stories at an impressionable age.)
The other thing this interlude does is establish Abraham’s right to the land through treaty and trade. To me, this makes his return to Be’er Sheva at the end of the Akedah all the more meaningful – he is going back to a place in which he has established a home.
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.’ 2 And He said: ‘Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.’ 3 And Abraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son; and he cleaved the wood for the burnt-offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him. 4 On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. 5 And Abraham said unto his young men: ‘Abide ye here with the ass, and I and the lad will go yonder; and we will worship, and come back to you.’ 6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife; and they went both of them together. 7 And Isaac spoke unto Abraham his father, and said: ‘My father.’ And he said: ‘Here am I, my son.’ And he said: ‘Behold the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ 8 And Abraham said: ‘God will provide Himself the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So they went both of them together.
Questions this passage inspires in me on this reading:
-What, exactly, is the ‘test’ that God is giving Abraham?
-What did the two servants think as they watched father and son go off together?
-When Abraham said ‘God will provide the lamb,’ did he think in that moment that he was lying or telling the truth?
-Different readings of this passage place Isaac at ages anywhere from child to adult. How does Isaac’s age change our understanding of what’s going on here?
-What does it mean that Abraham makes Isaac carry the wood, while Abraham keeps for himself the fire and the knife?
9 And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built the altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. 10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. 11 And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said: ‘Abraham, Abraham.’ And he said: ‘Here am I.’ 12 And he said: ‘Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him; for now I know that thou art a God-fearing man, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me.’ 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt-offering in the stead of his son. 14 And Abraham called the name of that place Adonai-jireh; as it is said to this day: ‘In the mount where the LORD is seen.’ 15 And the angel of the LORD called unto Abraham a second time out of heaven, 16 and said: ‘By Myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, 17 that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; 18 and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast hearkened to My voice.’ 19 So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beer-sheba.
The moment of the actual binding always horrifies me, and I think it’s supposed to. It is an awful thing to imagine. It is an awful thing think that God could have asked this of anyone, and perhaps even more awful that Abraham was willing to do it. Reading this hurts, every time, and mae it’s good that it does.
Leyning this passage is fascinating. The trop at the beginning is difficult and awkward and almost sad, and then after the intervention by the angel it smooths out, follows easier patterns, and just sounds happier.
20 And it came to pass after these things, that it was told Abraham, saying: ‘Behold, Milcah, she also hath borne children unto thy brother Nahor: 21 Uz his first-born, and Buz his brother, and Kemuel the father of Aram; 22 and Chesed, and Hazo, and Pildash, and Jidlaph, and Bethuel.’ 23 And Bethuel begot Rebekah; these eight did Milcah bear to Nahor, Abraham’s brother. 24 And his concubine, whose name was Reumah, she also bore Tebah, and Gaham, and Tahash, and Maacah.
Continuity. Whatever happened between Abraham and Isaac, here we have confirmation that the family line continues. And because Isaac didn’t die, we get to smile when we see Rebekah’s name here, knowing the drama will continue for another generation.