Devar Torah Toldot: Rivkah and a Critical Modern Orthodoxy

What I’d like to do this week is do another broad, sweeping character analysis, which seems to be the kind of devar torah I gravitate towards. This week, I’d like to look at the respective character traits of Yitzchak and Rivkah, and how they differ. We are conveniently provided with a focal point of their divergent personalities: Their attitude towards each of their children.

וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת־עֵשָׂו כִּי־צַיִד בְּפִיו וְרִבְקָה אֹהֶבֶת אֶת־יַעֲקֹב

And Yitzchak loved Esav, because he put game in his mouth, and Rivkah loved Yaakov

Now, what I’d like to investigate is what about Yitzchak leads him to prefer Esav, and what about Rivkah leads her to prefer Yaakov? What aspects of Yitzchak’s background and personality incline him more towards the אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד אִישׁ שָׂדֶה, the hunter and outdoorsman that is Esav, and what aspects of Rivkah’s background and personality lead her to prefer the אִישׁ תָּם יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים that is Yaakov? What factors are responsible for such a sharp divergence in parental attitudes?

Let us start by looking at Yitzchak and his background. Yitzchak, is raised by Avraham and Sarah, both righteous people. He has a, for lack of a better term, sheltered upbringing. As the miraculous child and presumed heir to the mission of Avraham he is the apple of his parents eye, doted on and treated with the utmost protection of caution, albeit with one notable divinely requested exception. Possible bad influences, like Yishmael, are banished at the first sign of trouble. He is not allowed to leave the land of Israel, and Avraham has to send a servant to go find him a wife, which cannot be from the surrounding Canaanites, who Avraham deems too immoral and corrupt to be an acceptable option for his precious son. Yitzchak grows up protected and sheltered from the dangerous and immoral world outside.
It thus may be natural that he would come to idealize the outside world he has no access to. And as he grows older, blind and homebound, he may imagine that the world outside the bubble he was raised in may not be so bad after all, being as he never really has seen it, romanticizing the unknown and forbidden.

But his son Esav, an אִישׁ שָׂדֶה, a man of the outdoors, occupies that space that Yitzchak has never seen, and he knows how to trap, how to take the wild and untamed outdoors and capture it and bring it back to his father, to provide him a tantalizing taste of what Yitzchak never had access to, to put צַיִד בְּפִיו. Before giving, or attempting to give, Esav a bracha, he instructs him specifically to צֵא הַשָּׂדֶה, go out into that tantalizingly mysterious world I have no access to, and וְהָבִיאָה לִּי וְאֹכֵלָה, bring it back to me and I’ll eat it, and have a taste of it. Yaakov can’t provide that, he is just the same old, a אִישׁ תָּם יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים, content to stay within the same walls Yitzchak wishes he could see beyond. Yaakov presents no tantalizing possibility, no romantic idealization of the unknown, just the same world Yitzchak has already knows.

Rivkah, on the other hand, does not have that same sheltered background, growing up not around the virtuous Avraham and Sarah, but the duplicitous and immoral Lavan and Betuel. Rashi on 25:20 sees the passuk’s repetition of her Aramean origins as an implicit praise for Rivkah, who emerged righteous despite her background. She has had to live in direct tension between her own morality and that of her surroundings, between her own ideals and the context she lived in, and she has emerged victorious, and did so without sealing herself from the world like Yitzchak did, because that option was completely unavailable to her. She resisted negative influences through the sheer power of her will and the conviction that she was right.

As such, Rivkah bears no romantic illusions about the world outside the Abrahamic family. She knows it too well, knows its violence, its deceit, its immorality all too well to idealize it. She properly recognizes Esav for what he is; not an exciting ambassador from the paradise outside the walls but a violent and impulsive hothead, with a nihilistic philosophy and a willingness to use violence to impose his will on others, who has absorbed the very aspects of the outside world Rivkah has fought against all her life. Instead, she properly recognizes the value of Yaakov, whose continuation in ideals and methods of his forebears she can more correctly recognize as preferable to the ideals of the outside world.

It is often said that what separates the Haredi world from Modern Orthodoxy is its suspicion of the outside culture. In one sense, that is certainly true. The Haredi world separates itself from the outside world and builds up walls around itself, to protect itself against the threats posed by modernity to religion while Modern Orthodoxy engages with the outside world and doesn’t separate itself from it, actively embracing the challenge to as fully observant Jews in modernity. But in a different sense, I submit to you, it shouldn’t be. Our engagement and familiarity with modernity should not result in an uncritical acceptance of it. Just the opposite, in fact. I can understand if you live in a Haredi enclave, where the secular world is a forbidden but tantalizing possibility, that you would idealize it, like Yitzchak idealizes Esav.

But if you’re a Modern Orthodox person? If you, like, Rivkah, are intimately familiar with the world outside Judaism, if you have actively engaged with it and lived within it? We’re the ones that should know better, to be able to look at modernity not with the wide eyes of an outsider romanticizing the unknown but with the eyes of an insider with a sense of critical distance. We’re the ones, who, while on one hand, can appreciate the good and admirable aspects of the surrounding culture, its proficiency in science, its commitment to use its gained knowledge for the betterment of humanity, its commitment to truth, its tolerance and kindness, can also take a step back and see the unsavory and less admirable aspects as well. We are the ones in position to see society’s greed, its materialism, its selfishness, its disregard and often utter contempt for the less fortunate, its nihilistic debasement and commoditization of the human being, its glorification of violence and war and power, and to distance ourselves from those trends. We should be the ones to truly appreciate the value of Shabbos, a momentary rest from greed and materialism spent in more important pursuits than the one for capital. We should be the ones to truly appreciate halakha, which demands much from humanity because it believes in humanity. We should be the ones to appreciate the learning of Torah and the values it represents, of moral education as a means of the improvement of society instead of violence and war, its overriding concern for the less fortunate, its commitment to the possibility of a better world. And we should be led to those realizations not because we have shut out the outside world, but because we have looked at it, carefully, critically, and unblinkingly, and preferred some of our values to some of theirs, the אִישׁ תָּם יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים to the אִישׁ שָׂדֶה.

Parshat Toldot: A Crackpot Theory on the Avot Keeping the Torah (from 2013)

This is a long one, fair warning. It’s a theory I’ve been playing with for some time and now trying to commit to writing. I’m not absolutely positive about it, and it’s a shot in the dark of sorts, but I thought I’d lay out what I’ve got. Hopefully I’m onto something.

Remember this video?

I remember when I first saw it, laughing at the all-too familiar scenario of a yeshiva bachur trying to give over an incredibly problematic dvar torah was relayed by the clipped voices of cartoon bears. “The avos kept the Torah before har sinai? What a dumb idea!” I probably thought. This video seemed to shoot it down and smash it to pieces, rendering it absurd and useless. No reasonable person would ever take the idea that the avos kept the torah before Har Sinai seriously! I mean, come on, look at all the difficulties it raises!
Let’s put it back together, shall we?

The fact is, a lot of reasonable people take the basic idea of the avot’s religious observance seriously enough to not dismiss it out of hand. They redefine “keep”, “Torah”, and “before Har Sinai”, but they do not simply throw it out. I don’t think there is anyone that thinks that the Avot did not adhere to some kind of religious law. Are we supposed to believe that Chazal were idiots, that Rashi never bothered to think about what he was writing, that Avraham ben HaRambam was irrational, that Ibn Ezra took midrashim too seriously, that Rashbam didn’t care about peshat? That would be silly. The idea is part of Jewish tradition, and was clearly seen as something to be grappled with. Why is that so?

So first of all, just philosophically, its a larger question  than might be readily apparent. At the most basic level, If you believe that all of what we do as Jews is fulfilling God’s will, than it becomes problematic to say that the avot did not do the same exact things, and any claim to the contrary needs to be theologically justified. But besides that, other issues are touched on: If the Avot didn’t have Torah, does that mean murder was allowed? Can’t be, right? But then what’s the exact difference between murder and marrying two sisters? So let’s say you answer the former is rational, and the latter isn’t. Does that then mean that there are irrational mitzvot with no reasons behind them? And then it becomes a big nafka mina for the concept of ta’amei hamitzvot. Maybe murder is one of the sheva mitzvot? But so is arayos? And then it becomes a discussion about what the sheva mitzvot are. Maybe the latter was moral before matan torah. But why should morality be changed by revelation? A lot of issues get touched on here.

So let’s start with the key source, a passuk in our parsha:

Bereishis 26:5
עֵקֶב אֲשֶׁר־שָׁמַע אַבְרָהָם בְּקֹלִי וַיִּשְׁמֹר מִשְׁמַרְתִּי מִצְוֹתַי חֻקּוֹתַי וְתוֹרֹתָי:

There are a number of issues: Number one, why the repeated terms? Number two, what mitzvos, chukim, and torah exists before the actual torah? The idea that there was some type of Torah before Har Sinai does not come from nothing, it is actually in the pesukim, and the commentaries must try and figure out what is being referred to here. Each will give an answer that keeps within their own perspective on the philosophical issues being touched upon. Let us start with first, most straightforward explanation, that of Rashbam:


חוקותי ותורותי – לפי עיקר פשוטו כל המצוות הניכרות כגון גזל ועריות וחימוד ודינין והכנסת אורחים, כולם היו נוהגין קודם מתן תורה אלא שנתחדשו ונתפרש[ו] לישראל וכרתו ברית לקיימן.

Rashbam sees the rules referred to here as the basic, rational rules that society needs to function, which includes civil law (theft, courts) and moral strictures (hospitality, sexual morality). In other words, the avot were not lawless anarchists. Those rules were in place before matan torah, but are not dependent on revelation, and then are “renewed and explained” at Matan Torah. This understands the civil and moral law of the Torah as rational and not dependent on revelation, as opposed to ritual law, which is. This seems to be a reasonable reading, but it is not without issues. For one, most of civil law does not pertain to individuals, and the Avot could not have realistically followed the details of dinei nezikin with their neighbors who did not have these laws. They could not have set up courts without having a political entity. Making the claim that the Avot then followed the civil law and morality of their times would solve that issue, but raises its own philosophical questions, and more immediately peshat questions. Why are all the terms possessive, implying they are from God, not from the surrounding society? And why is it impressive that Avraham was a decent citizen?

Next we’ll look at the Ibn Ezra on our passuk:


והחוקים הם חוקות השם שילך האדם אחרי מעשיו כאשר אפרש בפסוק שעטנז (ויקרא יט, יט), ואלה החוקות נטועות בלב, והתורה שמל עצמו, ובניו ועבדיו,ובפסוק והתורה והמצוה (שמות כד, יב) אבארם היטיב

Ibn Ezra sees “Torah” as commands like circumcision, and “chukim” as things that are “implanted in the heart”, and that category seems to be the one that describes what kind of mitzvot Avraham followed. Ibn Ezra then promises that he will explain it by Shatnez. So let’s look at that Ibn Ezra

Ibn Ezra on Vayikra 19:19
וטעם להזכיר אחר אלה המצות בהמתך לא תרביע כלאים – להזהיר אחר היותך קדוש, שלא תעשה חמס לבן אדם כמוך, גם לא תעשה לבהמה לשנות מעשה השם, על כן כתוב את חקתי תשמרו לשמור כל מין שלא יתערב מין עם מין. כלאים שני מינים. ועוד אפרש מלת כלאים, וטעם השדה והבגד להיות לזכרון, כי יש מצות רבות לזכר כחג המצות, וסוכות, וציצית, ושופר, ומזוזה, ותפילין. ופה ארמוז לך סוד, דע כי השלם שלם מאד, על כן כתוב באברהם וישמור משמרתי מצותי חקותי ותורתי

Kilayim and Shatnez, to the Ibn Ezra, are mitzvot that are about being kind to nature and not wanting to mess around with God’s creation, and meant to remind of you of that command.  Just like the mitzvot of Pesach, Sukkot, Tzitzis, Shofar, Mezuzah and Tefillin, are meant to remind you of things. And then it’s a secret, which would then explain the passuk we care about, if we understood it. Thanks a lot, Ibn Ezra. Thankfully, he has a more helpful comment elsewhere.

Ibn Ezra Shemot, 20:2
והדרך הראשון: מצוות שהם נטועות מהשם בלב כל אנשי דעת והם רבים ואין בעשרת הדברים רק השבת לבדה שאינה בכלל שקול הדעת, על כן כל משכיל בכל עם ולשון מודים בהם כי הם נטועים בשקול הדעת. ועליהם אין להוסיף ולא לגרוע. והם ששמר אברהם עם מצוות האחרות נוספות. והשם לא נתן התורה רק לאנשי הדעת. ומי שאין לו דעת אין לו תורה.

This is where he brings it all together. The type of mitzvot that Avraham chiefly performed (which we’ve previously seen are chukim) were the mitzvot that are implanted in man’s heart by way of his reason, which all of humanity agrees upon. That includes 9 out of the 10 commandments, and apparently, kilayim. The Ibn Ezra seems to have an idea which is a slight expansion upon Rashbam’s, in that the Avot kept the commandments that are universal and not dependent upon revelation, but Rashbam limits it to civil law and moral strictures that are immediately obvious as societally necessary. Ibn Ezra includes shatnez and kilayim, trying to fit them under the umbrella of moral strictures, which he is forced to do once he’s defined chukim as rational commandments by the pasuk describing Avraham’s observance. He also includes all of the 10 commandments, which includes the more theological first two commandments. Both of these expand upon the Rashbam’s definition. This may be indicative of Ibn Ezra’s medieval rationalist bias, as he sees many beliefs and mitzvot as rationally self-evident, and thus, any rationally self-evident mitzvot would have had to have been observed by an intelligent person like Avraham.

I think Ibn Ezra is onto something, but I don’t think his idea works as currently iterated. His definition of “chukim” are things that are universally self-evident, but includes things like monotheism, which was definitely not universally self-evident in the times of the avot. And I find it hard to buy the notion that the moral justification of the rules of kilayim is so ironclad its universally self-evident. Additionally, the notion of universally self-evident mitzvot doesn’t work quite well with the possesive “chukotai”. There still is a particularistic element of these words that is being neglected.

But of course, its not the Rashbam or the Ibn Ezra that raises the most problems. It’s the Gemara and its corresponding Rashi in our passuk that causes the most problems. With that, we come to Rav in Yoma 28b:


אמר רב: קיים אברהם אבינו כל התורה כולה, שנאמר יעקב אשר שמע אברהם בקלי וגו’. אמר ליה רב שימי בר חייא לרב: ואימא שבע מצות! – האאיכא נמי מילה. – ואימא שבע מצות ומילה! – אמר ליה: אם כן מצותי ותורתי למה לי? אמר (רב) +מסורת הש”ס: [רבא]+ ואיתימא רב אשי: קיים אברהם אבינו אפילו עירובי תבשילין, שנאמר תורתי – אחת תורה שבכתב ואחת תורה שבעל פה.
Rab said: Our father Abraham kept the whole Torah, as it is said: Because that Abraham hearkened to My voice [kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws].21 R. Shimi b. Hiyya said to Rab: Say, perhaps, that this refers to the seven laws?— Surely there was also that of circumcision! Then say that it refers to the seven laws and circumcision [and not to the whole Torah]? — If that were so, why does Scripture say: ‘My commandments and My laws’? Raba or R. Ashi said: Abraham, our father, kept even the law concerning the ‘erub of the dishes,’ as it is said: ‘My Torahs’: one being the written Torah, the other the oral Torah.

So first things first, Chazal were not idiots. Rav did not come to this position to corrupt the text to fit some preconcieved or sinister aims. He is actually trying to solve the textual difficulties of our passuk, as well as the larger question of the nature of the avot’s religious observance. And there is a reasoned debate here: Maybe its only sheva mitzvos? But then what about circumcision, which Avraham was definitely commanded to do? Ok, then sheva mitzvos plus circumcision. Ah, but then what do you do with the extra terms, mitzvotai v’toratai? (I think what the gemara is doing is asking the question we’ve stated, ie, the possesive form and necessarily particularistic connontation of that) Must be that it refers to the written and oral Torah. Thus, Avraham kept the written and oral Torah, “even eruv tavshilin”, which is more than just the sheva mitzvos bnei noach, and is more than the sheva mitzvot bnei noach and circumcision.

Rashi based on this gemara, explains each term used in the passuk individually.

שמע אברהם בקולי – כשנסיתי אותו:
וישמר משמרתי – גזרות להרחקה על אזהרות שבתורה, כגון שניות לעריות ושבות לשבת:
מצותי – דברים שאילו לא נכתבו ראויין הם להצטוות כגון גזל ושפיכות דמים:
חקותי – דברים שיצר הרע ואומות העולם משיבין עליהם כגון אכילת חזיר ולבישת שעטנז שאין טעם בדבר אלא גזירת המלך וחקותיו על עבדיו:
ותורתי – להביא תורה שבעל פה, הלכה למשה מסיני

Thus, Avraham is praised for keeping all aspects of Torah, comprising direct commands, decrees, rational commandments and irrational commandments, and Oral Torah.

Now, such a position seems very difficult, and is the kind of position that would attract the ire of our cartoon bear friend.  How could they have kept the written torah when a lot of mitzvot are based on Yetziat Mitzrayim and other historical events that happen after them? What about all the stories, their own stories, did they know those too? And Oral Torah? They were following takanot issued in response to realities thousands of years in the future? Not to mention the idea, stated by Rashi with no apparent irony, that Avraham was keeping halachot moshe m’sinai before either Moshe or Sinai.  Yet, I don’t think it’s realistic or honest to pretend that Chazal and Rashi didn’t realize any of these issues. At some point, they would have to deal with these questions somehow.

The questions raised above all stem from pretty much two assumptions: That the Torah originates all the laws contained within it, and that the stated reasons, often historical, for the laws in the Torah, are the definitive and only reasons for those mitzvot. By way of example, (which we will use through the rest of this piece) Pesach did not exist before Yetziat Mitzrayim, because we keep Pesach to remember Yetziat Mitzrayim, and thus, when Rashi quotes a Medrash saying that the Yitzchak ate a Korban Pesach, it is problematic. And it so follows that claiming that the Avot kept the whole Torah is absurd and ridiculous.

My contention is that Chazal did not necessarily hold of those assumptions. The fact that they even broached the notion of the Avot keeping the whole torah before Har Sinai shows that they do not make either assumption. They do not assume that mitzvot only existed after Har Sinai, and they do not assume that the reasons for the mitzvot are defined exclusively by those given in the Torah. The Torah was followed in full before Har Sinai, but for different reasons than what we know. Consequently, somehow, Pesach was observed by the avot, but without the historical reasons we are told of by the Torah, because those reasons are not exclusive.

I think such a notion of pre-Sinaitic Torah is not only defensible, it fits better with what we know of the Torah’s historical context.  In the past couple hundred years, we’ve learned a lot about the Ancient Near East and the context of the Torah, and we’ve seen a lot of ideas and laws that are in the Torah that seem to be highly similar to the cultures of their times. This raises a lot of issues as to the divinity and uniqueness of the Torah. If Pesach seems to be patterned after a neighboring springtime agricultural festival, then the notion that God commanded it seems to be weakened. This is the concern that Rav Kook addresses in Eder HaYakar, and what he says is sneakily radical:


“וכן כשבאה האשורולוגיא לעולם, ונקפה את הלבבות, בדמיונים שמצאה, לפי השערותיה הפורחות-באויר, בין תורתנו הקדושה לדברים שבכתבי-היתדות בדעות במוסר ובמעשים. האם הנקיפה הזאת יש לה מוסד שכלי אפילו במעט, וכי אין זה דבר מפורסם שהיה בין הראשונים יודעי דעת אלהים, נביאים, וגדולי הרוח, מתושלח, חנוך, שם ועבר וכיו”ב, וכי אפשר הוא שלא פעלו כלום על בני דורם אף-על-פי שלא הוכרה פעולתם כפעולתו הגדולה של “איתן האזרחי” אברהם אבינו ע”ה, ואיך אפשר שלא יהיה שום רושם כלל בדורותם מהשפעותיהם, והלא הם מוכרחים להיות דומים לעניני תורה. ובענין דימוי המעשים הלא כבר מימות הרמב”ם, ולפניו בדברי חז”ל, מפורסם הדבר שהנבואה מתנהגת עם טבעו של אדם, כי טבעו ונטייתו היא צריכה להתעלות עפ”י ההדרכה האלהית, ש”לא נתנו המצוות אלא לצרף בהן את הבריות” . ע”כ כל הדברים שמצד החנוך שקודם למתן תורה מצאו מקום באומה דבעולם, אם רק היה להם יסוד מוסרי, והיה אפשר להעלותם למעלה מוסרית נצחית ומתפתחת, השאירתם התורה האלהית. ובהשקפה יותר בהירה הוא היסוד הנאמן לההכרה התרברתית הטובה הנמצאת בעמק טבע האדם, באופן ש”זה ספר תולדות אדם” הוא כלל כל התורה כולה, ושהוא עוד כלל יותר גדול מהכלל של ,.ואהבת לרעך כמוך” שכדברי רבי עקיבא .
And similarly, when Assyriology appeared, striking doubts into people’s hearts with the similarities that it found, according to its ethereal conjectures, between our holy Torah and the contents of cuneiform inscriptions, in terms of moral principles and practices.
Do these doubts have even the slightest rational basis? Is it not well known that among the ancients there were people who recognized God, prophets, and spiritual giants, such as Metushelach, Chanokh, Shem and Ever, and the like? Is it possible that they had no influence on their generations? Even if their achievements do not compare with those of Avraham Avinu, how could their influence possibly have left no impression whatsoever upon their generations? Surely [their teachings] must have resembled those of the Torah.
As for the similarity in practices, already in the days of the Rambam and even earlier, in the words of Chazal, it was well-known that prophecy operates in tandem with man’s nature. Man’s natural inclinations must be raised through Divine guidance, for “the mitzvot were given solely for the purpose of refining mankind.” Therefore, those elements of education that preceded the giving of the Torah which had found a place in the nation and the world, so long as they had a moral foundation and could be elevated to an eternal moral height, were left intact in the Divinely-given Torah.
Looking at the matter more broadly, this is the basis of the positive cultural consciousness that is found in the deepest recesses of human nature, such that “This is the book of the generations of man” embraces the entire Torah. It is a principle even greater than the principle of “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” as stated by R. Akiva.
All of this should be taken into consideration by every discerning individual. Then there would be no room whatsoever for fraudulent heresy to spread in the world and to be reinforced through such events.”

Let’s unpack Rav Kook’s statement here. Denying the similarities between cuneiform texts and the Torah is not strictly necessary, because such similarities can be ascribed to the influence of pre-Abrahamic prophets, who are thus responsible for the “positive cultural consciousness” that is universal in human nature. Rav Kook is noticing that religion is a universal human phenomenon, accounting for that fact with the notion of pre-Abrahamic prophets, and that consequently there are positive religious impulses that are inherent in the human condition. Thus, the similarity of Near Eastern Culture on the Torah is not treif. On the contrary, those ideas and practices of that culture which had a moral foundation was left in the Torah, building upon the universal religious consciousness and raising it to new heights. So if we find that Pesach seems to be based on a neighboring pagan holiday, it is not proof of the non-divinity of the Torah, but merely the incorporation of a genuine religious impulse into the Torah.

We see a possible precedent for this idea in a medrash on Avodah Zara 8b. The gemara there talks about an 8 day Roman Holiday called “Saturnura”, and offers this fascinating origin story


ת”ר: לפי שראה אדם הראשון יום שמתמעט והולך, אמר: אוי לי, שמא בשביל שסרחתי עולם חשוך בעדי וחוזר לתוהו ובוהו, וזו היא מיתה שנקנסה עלי מן השמים, עמד וישב ח’ ימים בתענית[ובתפלה], כיון שראה תקופת טבת וראה יום שמאריך והולך, אמר: מנהגו של עולם הוא, הלך ועשה שמונה ימים טובים, לשנה האחרת עשאן לאלו ולאלו ימיםטובים, הוא קבעם לשם שמים, והם קבעום לשם עבודת כוכבים.
When Adam HaRishon saw the day getting gradually shorter, he said, “Woe is me, perhaps because I have transgressed [with the Tree of Knowledge], the world around me is being darkened and returned to its state of chaos and confusion; this then is the mode of death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!’ So he began keeping an eight days’ fast. But as he observed the winter equinox and noted the day getting increasingly longer he said, ‘This is the natural way of the world’, and he took it upon himself to keep an eight days’ yom tov. In the following year he appointed both (the eight days preceding and following the winter solstice – the shortest day of the year) as yomim tovim (plural). Now, he designated them for the sake of Heaven, but they [the idolaters] designated them for the sake of idolatry.

This is an incredibly radical and important medrash. Chazal, by putting Adam HaRishon as the main character, are ascribing the idea of an 8 day winter festival to a universal human religious impulse, inherent in the human condition. Because of Adam’s experience, there is a human need to have an 8 day winter festival, which was at first designated for the sake of heaven, but then taken over by idolatry.  It’s intriguing, how mythic, even pagan, this story sounds, with Adam attempting to deal with the natural cycle, chaos, and his own mortality  with repeated ritual. Even more exciting, this impulse seems to manifest itself in Judaism in the form of Channukah, which is given historical reasons that happen much, much later than this story, obviously. That impulse later found itself a historical manifestation, but that impulse was there the whole time.

So now we can present a possible notion of what it meant for the avot to keep the whole Torah, the Written and Oral. Not only did they keep civil law, or moral strictures, they kept the ritual mitzvot in line with universal religious impulses, ahead of the reasons given in the Torah for them. They kept Pesach, ate matzos, brought korban pesach not in line with the historical reasons given in the Torah, but in line with the inherent human need to consecrate the spring with a ritual festival. Heck, they might have even kept Channukah, based on the Gemara we cited above. They did not have just the civil or moral part of Judaism, they had a fully formed religious system. Maybe that system had different reasons to it. Maybe it looked somewhat different, or had a different focus, less about history and more about Maybe in that iteration of the system marrying two sisters is okay, while in a later iterations it was not. But it was a full, autonomous system.

This is not to say, however, that they were indistinguishable from their Ancient Near East neighbors. The text itself is clear that they viewed themselves as qualitatively different. Our passuk is clear that the laws spoken of do not come exlusively from their surrounding culture, from reason, or from universal religious feeling, but from God. So perhaps, even though their system perhaps seemed more pagan than ours does, there was always something that distinguished the Abrahamite family from its neighbors, something essentially incommensurable with its surrounding society. They had fundamentally different conceptions of theology, law, and morality. This Yosef Ibn Kaspi’s understanding of the notion, laid out in “Tirat Kesef” on Lech Lecha

ואשיב ואומר כי ידוע שמנהג הארץ  ההיא לקחת  איש אחד נשים  רבות, עם  שגם תורתנו התירה זה לעמנו,  ולכן היה מהפלגת קדושת  אברהם,  אע״פ שגדלה תשוקתו לבנים שלא נזדווג רק לאשתו  הנכבדת,  אשר הוא נעזר ממנה לכל עת צורך,  גם לא לשפחותיו הנמצאות אתו  בבית,  ומה טוב מה שאמרו פלוסופי  חכמינו קיים אברהם  כל התורה כלה  (יומא כ״ח), ודי במה שזכרנו  מופת  שהחמיר על עצמו אף במקום שהתירה אותו התורה העתידה להמסר לכלל עם ישורון. והנה ביאר כי אברהם לא בקש זה משרה, אבל שמע לקולה כאשר בקשה זה מאתו, ובכלל זה שלום הבית  ג״כ שהוא עיקר גדול לכל מבקש שלמות .


And I will further say that it is known that the custom of that land was for one man to take many wives, besides that our Torah permits this to our nation. And therefore it was of the great holiness of Avraham that, despite the greatness of his desire for children, he only paired with his honored wife, from whom he received aid at any time of necessity, and not from his maidservants who were found with him in the house.
And how good was that which the philosophers of our Sages said, that Avraham kept the entire Torah (Yoma 28b). And it is sufficient in that which we have mentioned, the exemplar that he was strict upon himself even in a place that which was permitted by the Torah which was to be transmitted over to the populace of the nation of Yeshurun. And behold, it explains that Avraham did not request this of Sarah, but rather that he hearkened to her voice when she requested this of him, and encompassed with this is the peace of the household {shalom habayit}, which is as well an important fundamental to anyone who desires completeness.”

Avraham differed from his society in subtle ways, in the way he ran his household and treated his wife, and that’s what Ibn Kaspi thinks the gemara meant. Avraham’s religion was fundamentally different than his surroundings. Rav Kook has a similar explaination for the Gemara’s choice of Eruv Tavshilin as the primary example of the extent of Avraham’s observance. An Eruv Tavshilin allows one to cook on Yom Tov for Shabbos, and involves differing levels of kedusha, and the ability to distinguish between them. Thus, explains Rav Kook the avot were able to distinguish not just between holy and mundane, but between differing levels of holiness. To tie into my idea, the avot were able to distinguish between their religion and their neighbors’ religion. Even if they may have seemed superficially similar, they labored under fundamentally different assumptions. That’s my theory, and I hope someone thinks it makes sense.

Devar Torah Chayei Sarah: Eliezer, Slave To Avraham

For this week’s dvar torah, I would like to draw a rather broad character analysis of Eliezer, Avraham’s servant, who features in much of the narrative of this week’s parsha, being sent by Avraham to find a wife for Yitzchak. Despite the sheer amount of text dedicated to the stuff he does and says, including an entire repetition of a story that seems just wholly unnecessary, we know very little about him personally. In fact, our parsha doesn’t even mention his name, and we only know it from back in Lech Lecha. There, God promises Avraham that he will protect him and give him great reward, and Avraham responds (15:2)  וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָם אֲדֹנָי יֱקֹוִק מַה־תִּתֶּן־לִי וְאָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ עֲרִירִי וּבֶן־מֶשֶׁק בֵּיתִי הוּא דַּמֶּשֶׂק אֱלִיעֶזֶר, what can you give me, I’m infertile and all I got is this Dameshek Eliezer. Now, peshat is, that this Eliezer is from Damascus, but Rashi, after noting the peshat, quotes a midrashic comment that may double as valid literary analysis, that Eliezer is a portmanteau word for דולה ומשקה, drawing water and giving people to drink, because Eliezer was דולה ומשקה מתורת רבו לאחרים, he drew from the Torah of his master and gave it to people to drink.

I once had a rebbe in high school who gave us a mussar shmuess about how we see from this Rashi how great of virtue it is to give over one’s rebbe’s Torah to others, to serve as a tool of spreading the Torah of one’s teacher. I pointed out to him, young firebrand that I was, that the passuk does not seem to see this quality of  דולה ומשקה as a positive quality. Avraham is saying to God, I’m infertile, and all I have to succeed me is this darn דולה ומשקה, Eliezer. If anything, it would seem that Avraham takes issue with this exact character trait of Eliezer. Now, why would this be? What’s wrong with spreading Torah of your rebbe? Spreading Torah is good! Having a teacher and role model to look up to in a rebbe is also good! What could possibly be the problem.
(It’s worth mentioning I switched out of this particular rebbe’s shiur the next week. It was a somewhat mutual decision)

To answer this question, I think we need to build a broader picture of Eliezer’s character from the subtle clues provided to us in the story in our parsha. One thing I like to pay attention to when going through the parshiyot of Bereishit is the way the characters in the story refer to God, this monotheistic divinity who just came to them in this polytheistic culture, and I’ve written about this previously. If you pay attention to the way Eliezer refers to God throughout our parsha, it is, without exception, either יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵי אֲדֹנִי אַבְרָהָם, YHVH the god of my master Avraham, or with reference to his master close by. Eliezer never calls him “My God”, and even in his requests of God, only asks for God to עֲשֵׂה־חֶסֶד עִם אֲדֹנִי אַבְרָהָם. He has no personal relationship with God or personal connection to God, God is only the divinity worshiped by his one and true master, his superior.  It is thus entirely appropriate that in this narrative, he has no name, because his identity and autonomy have been entirely abdicated. He is not an individual personality, he is merely a tool of Avraham’s.

I think this kind of personality has two main bad consequences, which can be summed up by the title we saw given to him, that of דַּמֶּשֶׂק אֱלִיעֶזֶר.

First off, he is דַּמֶּשֶׂק, he is דולה ומשקה, he devoutly gives over the Torah of his master perfectly verbatim. But without a personal connection to God, as long as God remains merely אֱלֹהֵי אֲדֹנִי אַבְרָהָם, that is all he will be. He is no well digger, like Avraham or Yitzchak, he is a water drawer. He is not an innovator, he is a repeater. In what seems to be a rather sly character illustration, much of the space occupied by Eliezer in the text has him repeating things, from the most obvious example, his 15 passuk long repetition of his encounter with Rivkah, to more subtle examples, like his repetition of Avraham’s oath in 24:9. Lacking the confidence borne of a personal connection with God and a personal stake in the religion, he cautiously sticks to the repetition of what has happened previously. He cannot boldly respond and innovate in the face of new problems and new ideas. It shall only suffice to repeat.

That is not to say, though, that such conservatism does not breed its own sort of innovation. Eliezer does seem to bring up new ideas, and innovate new, perhaps even bold, practices. In 24:5, He asks Avraham what he should do if the girl doesn’t want to come back with him. And in 24:12-13, he boldly asks God for a test to prove to him which girl is right for Yitzchak. But what motivates these actions, these innovative practices and solutions? In both cases, fear and insecurity, that one could argue was entirely misplaced. Avraham is asking him to go get him a girl for his son from his family back home. This should have been simple enough. But Eliezer doesn’t trust that things will be okay. God only concerns himself with my master Avraham, not such humble people like me. He needs to know, what if she doesn’t want to come? He needs his hand held, he needs reassurance, and Avraham tells him, don’t worry God will be with you. And if Avraham says it’ll be all right, it’ll be all right. But then he gets to the well, and then he is totally overcome by insecurity. How will I know I’ve picked the right girl? How can I tell? He doesn’t trust his own ability to make these decisions, and Avraham isn’t around to make the decisions for him. He wants clarity and certainty and he can’t get that without an authority. He doesn’t know what to do. So there, he says to God, send me a sign. Send me some signal which tells me that I am making an unambiguously correct decision. Take the decision making out of my hands, let you tell me what to do. (true, it does work, but that didn’t stop Chazal from noting that Eliezer’s request was inappropriate, in the same category as Yiftach, in Taanit 4a). It is thus somewhat fitting that what name Avraham’s servant does have is, his only identity, is, taken literally, a cry for help.

I’m gonna be blunt: I look out in the Orthodox world and I see a lot of Dameshek Eliezer’s. I see a Jewish Education system which has failed to provide its students with the sense that they have a chelek in Torah, that they have what to contribute to the tapestry of Jewish tradition. I see a strong tendency in the community that encourages the rote repetition of what came before and is profoundly uncomfortable at the prospect of anything bold and creative that responds to the complex issues and problems of today. I see a lot of people who are afraid of striking out new territory, afraid of being called a heretic by the right, or being called backwards and regressive by the left, a community whose ideological battles have made the expression of creative religious ideas a dangerous proposition, a community where I need to be concerned about a guy like R. Avrohom Gordimer taking a quote of mine out of context in his latest roundup of “look at the stuff these kofrim are saying” and get me kicked out of RIETS, where I went for a reason, suffice it to say.

It doesn’t have to be this way. When Avraham said he didn’t want his successor to be this Dameshek Eliezer, he got his wish. He got a Yitzchak, a fellow well digger (see perek 26), unsatisfied with merely being דולה ומשקה who merits for God to be called by his name in the first bracha of Shmone Esrei, because God was not merely his father’s God, but his God too, and us Jews, who sang זֶה אֵלִי וְאַנְוֵהוּ at the sea (Shemot 15:2), come from that ancestry. Let us not be slaves to repetition, let us overcome fear and insecurity, and let’s be bold in reclaiming our chelek in Torah.

Devar Torah Chayei Sarah: Being Intelligently Good

So, I think there’s a nice idea in this week’s parsha that’s worth expounding upon. We all know about the whole story of Rivka and Eliezer (identified Midrashically) at the well. Let’s look closely at the story, and see what we can pick up from it. As Eliezer approaches the well, he says:

 הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי נִצָּב, עַל-עֵין הַמָּיִם; וּבְנוֹת אַנְשֵׁי הָעִיר, יֹצְאֹת לִשְׁאֹב מָיִם.וְהָיָה הַנַּעֲרָ, אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיהָ הַטִּי-נָא כַדֵּךְ וְאֶשְׁתֶּה, וְאָמְרָה שְׁתֵה, וְגַם-גְּמַלֶּיךָ אַשְׁקֶה–אֹתָהּ הֹכַחְתָּ, לְעַבְדְּךָ לְיִצְחָק, וּבָהּ אֵדַע, כִּי-עָשִׂיתָ חֶסֶד עִם-אֲדֹנִי

So, let’s break down what is happening. Eliezer takes note of his location (by the fountain of water), and the situation (girls coming out to draw water). He then says, the girl to which I saw, “please, can I have a drink”, who then responds “have some water, and I’ll take care of your camels too”, will be The One (in “How I Met Your Mother” terms).

So, number one, what is significant about the setting that Eliezer describes, his location and the situation, and what is its relation to the test? Number two, notice, he does not say, the girl who comes over to me and offers. He says, the girl who I go over to and she responds with the desired response. That seems odd. Wouldn’t a better test be just to see who comes over to you and offers you water? Finally, what is this test supposed to prove? It doesn’t seem to be aimed at finding merely a “nice” person, otherwise, seeing who offers you would be sufficient. There seems to be something more here.

Let us now look at what actually occurs:

וַיְהִי-הוּא, טֶרֶם כִּלָּה לְדַבֵּר, וְהִנֵּה רִבְקָה יֹצֵאת אֲשֶׁר יֻלְּדָה לִבְתוּאֵל בֶּן-מִלְכָּה, אֵשֶׁת נָחוֹר אֲחִי אַבְרָהָם; וְכַדָּהּ, עַל-שִׁכְמָהּ.  וְהַנַּעֲרָ, טֹבַת מַרְאֶה מְאֹד–בְּתוּלָה, וְאִישׁ לֹא יְדָעָהּ; וַתֵּרֶד הָעַיְנָה, וַתְּמַלֵּא כַדָּהּ וַתָּעַל.   וַיָּרָץ הָעֶבֶד, לִקְרָאתָהּ; וַיֹּאמֶר, הַגְמִיאִינִי נָא מְעַט-מַיִם מִכַּדֵּךְ. וַתֹּאמֶר, שְׁתֵה אֲדֹנִי; וַתְּמַהֵר, וַתֹּרֶד כַּדָּהּ עַל-יָדָהּ–וַתַּשְׁקֵהוּ.   וַתְּכַל, לְהַשְׁקֹתוֹ; וַתֹּאמֶר, גַּם לִגְמַלֶּיךָ אֶשְׁאָב, עַד אִם-כִּלּוּ, לִשְׁתֹּת. וַתְּמַהֵר, וַתְּעַר כַּדָּהּ אֶל-הַשֹּׁקֶת, וַתָּרָץ עוֹד אֶל-הַבְּאֵר, לִשְׁאֹב; וַתִּשְׁאַב, לְכָל-גְּמַלָּיו.

So, let’s go through the process here:
1. Rivkah arrives (and she’s from Avraham’s family!), her jug on her shoulder, (and daaaamn (and available!))
2. She fills her jug, and walks up
3. Eliezer runs up to meet her
4. Eliezer asks for some water
5. She gives him water, and quickly takes the jug off her shoulder and lets him drink.
6. He finishes drinking.
7. She says, “I’ll give your camels too”
8. She runs back and forth to the well to do so.

Some observations: True to the statement of his test, Eliezer goes over to her, not the other way around. Why? The cynical, somewhat textually based answer is, “because she was mighty fine”. But being good-looking was not a requirement of this test. He did not say “any good looking girl I go over to…”. He said any girl, and part of the test seems to be that Eliezer is going over to her, rather than the other way around. Also, Rivkah does not pass the test in the exact manner that Eliezer wanted. She does not say “Drink, and I’ll give your camels to”. She says “drink”, lets him drink, he finishes, and then she says “I’ll give your camels too”. Yet, it seems to have been good enough, so what she did do must have fulfilled what Eliezer meant the test to evaluate. So, what is this test meant to evaluate, and what about Rivkah’s actions fulfill those?

So I think about it this way: The well, at the moment Eliezer talks about his test, is empty. The girls are about to come down to get water for their families, presumably for dinner, as evidenced by the fact that Rivkah is carrying a single jug with her. They are not getting water for their animals, it seems, and their mind is not on that task at all. What Eliezer wants is for the girl in question not just to be nice on an emotional whim, to give a guy something to drink when he asks for some, or even to notice the tired looking guy and give him some water. He wants the girl to critically evaluate how best to be nice to this individual, to stop and consider, “hey, wait a second, if he’s tired, that means his camels are tired too, maybe I should also help him out with that”. He wants someone who’s not just “nice” and reacts purely emotional to someone in need, but who has put work into being nice, who is able to take themselves out of their present mindset to do so, and has put real thought about the most effective way to do so.

So Eliezer goes over to this girl, as she’s coming up from the well, carrying her one jug of water, and asks for some water. Her first reaction, being as she’s a nice person, is to immediately and hurriedly take her jug off her shoulder and let him drink. But as he’s drinking, she stops, and she thinks, “but, wait, he has camels too. Those probably need water.”. But she only has one jug. Rather than interrupt him, and in her zeal to go do another good deed, rob him of quenching his thirst fully, she lets him finish before she tells him “and I will give your camels water as well”. Not only has she passed the test, she did it in a way that actually outperformed Eliezer’s expectations.

I think there’s an important lesson here. We tend to think about doing the right thing as a purely a matter of knowing there is a right thing to do, and doing it. I see someone in need, and I react by addressing it. I know there is a mitzvah to do x, and I do it. But there needs to be a critical evaluation of what exactly you are accomplishing, and how it will end up effecting other people.

Probably my favorite “gadol story” is a story told about R’ Yisrael Salanter, who once stayed with a student at the home of a wealthy person. When it came time for Netillat Yadayim, the student washed with the maximum amount of water possible, fulfilling the halakhic requirement as best as possible, and watched incredulously as R’ Salanter washed with the tiniest amount of water. So, naturally he asked R’ Salanter why he did so. R’ Salanter responded “I know that this house is on a hill. And that they get their water from a watercarrier, who carries it from a well. If I wash with the most possible water, I am causing unnecessary hardship for the watercarrier, who has to trudge up a steep hill because I decided I want to wash with the most water.”

What’s remarkable about the story is that netillat yadayim is not an unnecessary luxury, it is a mitzvah and it is definitely a good thing to wash according to the most machmir definition. But R’ Salanter stopped and critically evaluated how doing this good thing would effect other people, and determined that it would be better if he washed with a little water instead. This is an idea I see far too little of in the Jewish world, and my experiences in YU have been rife with people who never stopped and thought “maybe this good thing that I am doing will have negative consequences for others”. Yes, kumzitses are wonderful, and the fact you have been imbued with such spontaneous religiosity is great, but it is 2 am, and you are in a college dorm, and there are people trying to sleep. Yes, saying a long shmoneh esrei is great, but there are just 10 people in this minyan, all of whom are waiting for you, some of whom have class 5 minutes ago. Yes, learning b’chavruta on skype is a wonderful thing, but you are in the library, and other people are trying to study. Lots of these little things where people don’t realize that their quest to do the right thing has not been regulated by any intelligence. You can’t just do good things, or have good intentions, when your actions end up being stupid and possibly wrong. You have to critically evaluate whether the good things you are doing are actually doing good.

Devar Torah Vayera: Let’s say Yitzchak died at the Akedah (from 2013)

So, let’s start this off with an innocuous looking Ibn Ezra on the parsha. This Ibn Ezra deals with a problem in the text of the story of the Akeidah. After the Akeidah is over, the passuk (22:19) says:

וַיָּשָׁב אַבְרָהָם אֶל־נְעָרָיו וַיָּקֻמוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ יַחְדָּו אֶל־בְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּשֶׁב אַבְרָהָם בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע:

An obvious question presents itself. Where’s Yitzchak? Answers are given. Rashi, quoting the Medrash, says he immediately went to Yeshivas Shem V’Ever.  Radak says that it didn’t need to mention Yitzchak, because the main character and focus of the story is Avraham. Ibn Ezra says something slightly similar:

וישב אברהם ולא הזכיר יצחק, כי הוא ברשותו.

That’s fairly innocuous, and rather similar to the Radak. Which is why this dvar torah is not about the answer the Ibn Ezra gives. Its about the one he rejects.

והאומר ששחטו ועזבו, ואח”כ חיה אמר הפך הכתוב

Wait, what?!! Is there really an understanding of Akeidat Yitzchak where Yitzchak is actually killed, that Ibn Ezra felt the need to reject? But that would be crazy! That would be insane! How is that possible?
As it turns out, there really is such an understanding. And it is crazy. But it exists. And once you’ve heard it, its impossible to dismiss. You remember where you heard it, and who told it to you, possibly because you never forgive them. But the idea that Yitzchak was killed at the Akeida is an idea that exists in a couple of midrashim, and a coherent understanding of the story can be constructed on that basis. Of course, it raises a lot of questions.

But we see Yitzchak alive later in Chumash!
Well, obviously we know that, and whoever came up with this peshat knows that too. Which is why Yitzchak is in Gan Eden for two years, and then returns. And why 2 years are missing from Rashi’s count of Yitzchak’s life…..

Didn’t God tell Avraham not to do it?
Well, no. Look closely at the pesukim. In passuk 12, it’s not God who tells him not to slaughter Yitzchak. It’s an angel. Why should he listen to an angel when he’s carrying out the direct word of God? In fact, this angel is no mere angel….Clearly, this angel is Satan! And the last part of the test is to ignore Satan!

Why are you doing this to me?
Because I’m a horrible person who wants to rob you of your innocence. Plus, its pretty cool.

So, what I’m not going to do is to justify this understanding of the story point by point. If that is what you want, I recommend Rav Scott Kahn’s comprehensive shiur on the subject. You’re just going to have to take my word for it that this is a coherent and internally consistent peshat of the story of Akeidas Yitzchak.

What I instead would like to do is to discuss why this peshat even exists. It’s clearly not the simplest meaning of the text, and I find it hard to believe that the proverbial “guy at Har Sinai” would have understood the story in this manner. Quite a few elements don’t work within the biblical milieu, and the idea of a messenger of God being an unreliable tempter is problematic for other places in Chumash. The resurrection of Yitzchak after two years would seem to be a noteworthy enough event to have been put in the Torah rather being left out. And yet, the peshat exists, and it works, and there seems to be some elements in the text that actually work better in that peshat. The best explanation for Avraham coming down alone for the Akeidah is given by this story, so much so that Ibn Ezra has to specifically reject it. It’s definitely not “Peshat”, but it is “a peshat”, a defensible peshat, and a valid reading. Why should this be so? Why would the Torah include the possibility of reading the Akeidah in such a jarringly aberrant fashion.

The truth is, its very hard to point to one interpretation of the Akeidah as “Peshat”, because the Torah gives us so little information to go on. It gives us a very bare description of events, with occasional dialogue. We know nothing of the character’s emotions, how they felt, or what they were thinking, or of their philosophies and theologies. We have no idea what God hopes to accomplish by testing Avraham. We have no idea how Avraham approaches his task? Was he angry? Sad? Or even happy and excited to do God’s will? How aware was Yitzchak of what was going on? Did he believe his father about the sheep that God will provide? How did Yitzchak view his father, and how did he react to being bound on an altar? When he is told not to slaughter Yitzchak, how does he react? Is he relieved? Angry? Angry about what? Being lied to? Or not having the ability to follow through?  And again, what’s Yitzchak’s opinion on all this?

None of these questions have answers that are readily apparent in the text. I think this is because those answers are too important to be static. The Akeidah is a supremely important religious event, the pinnacle of the career of the founding father of Monotheism. Too much literary exposition ties it down to one character in one specific era. The story needs to be malleable, able to be adapted as the centerpiece of a religious message for every age, aimed towards every person. The Torah accomplishes this by writing in a style that provides the greatest latitude of interpretation for future generations, where each commentator must combine the sparse clues that the text provides with their own intuitions, colored by their own way of viewing the world, to produce their explanation.

This is not to say that all interpretations are merely mirrors of the interpreter. They are bound by a text, which says certain things, and they have to justify it within that text. As such, as much as interpretations of the Akeidah differ, a common theme can be seen to emerge. The confrontation between Man and God, and the difficulty of squaring God’s infinite demands with Man’s finite limitations, and what Man must sacrifice for God. The nature of those demands and that sacrifice, however is always seen through the lens of interpretation. For some, God’s demands placed upon the family and one’s emotional attachments, the command to sacrifice a son, is the most salient element. For others, the demands placed upon one’s moral sense are of the utmost importance. For others, the demands placed one’s understanding of God, how to reconcile his contradicting words, seems the most challenging.

Yet, all of these have a solution that is part of the story in front of us. In the end, everything ends up okay. You will not have to actually sacrifice your son, God will change his mind at the last second. Of course God doesn’t demand child sacrifice, don’t be silly. God only said to bring him up the mountain, he didn’t mean actually slaughter him, that would be crazy, and all the previous promises made to you still apply. The story contains both the problem and the solution to the problem.

But when Yitzchak actually dies?
Imagine Avraham, watching the miraculous son of his old age is consumed by the raging fire, reducing the promise of an heir to his religious revolution to a few glowing embers and a pile of ash. And as the last remnants of the great nation he was promised fade to the black charcoal, his life’s dreams following the last wisps of smoke into the mountain air,  what kind of thoughts went through Avraham’s head? He has no idea that Yitzchak will be revived in two year’s time, and that information is not volunteered; as far as he knows, everything has ended here at the summit Har Moriah. How did Avraham view a God who miraculously gave him a son, only to cruelly demand it back? Where was the justice from the Eternal judge?  What of the promises of a great nation that would follow in his footsteps? What would happen to the monotheistic vision with no heir to perpetuate it? Why would God so dramatically and painfully contradict himself?

Would we have answers to any of these questions? Do we, even now? Could we? What is all of our theological and philosophical speculation, our cleverest metaphysics and most pious theodicies, what is anything next to a small pile of ashes that was once the body of Avraham’s son, the receptacle of his hopes and dreams? What could have possibly given Avraham comfort at that moment?  No answers are given, because no answers can be.

And that is what God demands of Avraham in this version of the Akeidah; the most horrific reading of the story sees God demand the most terrifying demand of them all: To live without an answer, to carry on without a solution, to continue believing despite the inescapable finality of the problem, with no happy ending to escape to. Yitzchak is dead, that is all Avraham knows, and that is left is the cold pile of ashes left on the altar. There is nowhere for Avraham to run from that image, no comfort he can give himself. He has nothing left except the promises God has given him before, which now seem as cold and empty as the place where Yitzchak previously was bound.

But can it be that God changed his mind? Can it be that he lied to Avraham about his son being the ancestor of a great nation? How could the executor of Justice not execute justice?  Avraham is caught between two contradictory elements, his faith in God and the promises of a glorious nation to follow him, and the reality he sees in front of him, and there is no escaping the thick brush of contradictions and questions he finds himself in. And Avraham lifts up his eyes, and through the smoky haze, sees a ram caught in the thicket, its two opposing horns stuck in the thorns, paralyzing it in place. It is that ram, representing his conflicted, torn, yet unwavering faith, that Avraham offers to God, in place of his son. All he has left is a vague, absurd hope that “God will see” (22:14), and the silent, wordless acceptance of a reiterated promise (22:16-18). Does Avraham believe God? How can he not? But that promise seems incongruous in light of what’s just happened, as if it was made by a God far removed from the present reality. No matter. Avraham descends the mountain and returns to his home, unchanged, unwavering, yet very much alone.

Parshat Lech Lecha: The Blessing of Theological Optimism

My shiur rebbe, R. Daniel Feldman, gives a parsha shiur every Thursday on the fourth aliyah of the week’s parsha, for a reason that strikes me as a very astute observation: 95% of all divrei Torah are on, if not the first passuk of the parsha, the first aliyah. This week I was struck by the truth of this observation, and resolved to do a dvar torah on an aliya other than rishon. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any good ideas about any other aliyot. So now I am giving a devar torah on rishon. So sue me. Anyway, let’s take a look at the first couple of pesukim, in which I think we can point out something rather interesting.

(א) וַיֹּאמֶר יְקֹוָק אֶל־אַבְרָם לֶךְ־לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ:

(ב) וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ וֶהְיֵה בְּרָכָה:

(ג) וַאֲבָרֲכָה מְבָרְכֶיךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ אָאֹר וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה

Now, take note of how many times the root B.R.Kh (bless) appears. It’s a bunch of times. God seems to be stressing the quality of bracha as it relates to Avraham, or Avram, at this point. This is particularly interesting considering the opposite idea, that of “A.R.R,” a curse has characterized the story of Bereishis up until this point. Adam is cursed, Chava is cursed, the snake is cursed, the ground is cursed, Kayin is cursed, the people who would kill Kayin are cursed, the generation of the flood aren’t cursed but they’re wiped out so we’ll count it, and God says he won’t curse the land anymore, but right before Noach curses Cham and Canaan. So lots of curses, no blessings, until Avram, who will be the conduit of blessing to all the families of the earth. So what’s special about Avram?

What I’d like to suggest is that these two categories of Bracha and Me’areh, of blessing and curse, represent two ways of seeing God and the world, and that the generations before Avraham related to God as a “Curser,” and it was Avraham who began to recognize God as a source of blessing. What do I mean by this? One can see God, his creations, and his demands as a curse, as the demands of a capricious and irrational ruler who commands only by virtue of his power. Such a God does not desire the good of mankind, and in fact is seen to actively plot against it. Such a God merely wants his will submitted to, so that his subjects can be put in their place. Such a God’s creations are themselves curses, endless frustrations at which we endlessly toil, which can at any moment be used to kill us, should we get too unruly. Such a God’s only demand is submission and sacrifice, and even then its no guarantee.

This view of God could obviously engender rebellion against such a cruel taskmaster. When God rejects Kayin’s offering, he rebels, killing his brother and defiantly asking God if he’s responsible for his brother’s welfare. When God gets angry and punishes Kayin, his response is to complain about the extent of his punishment, essentially, “come on man, that’s totally unfair.” Kayin, seeing God as a capricious and unfair ruler, with unrealistic expectations and draconian demands, decides to rebel, and throws off the yoke of obedience to a God he sees as immoral.

But not all who have this theology rebel. Some stay frum. Very frum. True, God curses us, and our life, and our world. True, God’s commands are curses, demands that make our life harder and strain our intellectual and moral senses. But it doesn’t matter. God demands obedience and unquestioning devotion and submission. God’s commands must be obeyed for no other reason than that God commanded it, and it is not for us to question why or how. We must remain passive and submissive in the face of the divine command, and accept it wordlessly, for God is not good or moral or just, God is just a curse, a powerful force that compels us against our will. Noach is emblematic of such an attitude. His very name means passivity and throughout the story of Noach and his ark, it is striking that Noach says not a single word. He does not plead with God to save his generation, he does not attempt to understand, he just accepts the divine word for what it is. God repeats himself in the story, over and over, going at length as to what he’s about to do, the dimensions and the animals and over and over, as if he is trying to get Noach to realize, hey, I’m about to wipe everyone out, don’t you want to think about it? But Noach does not. Not that he doesn’t have thoughts. He is obviously distraught at the end of the story. But does he turn to God to express himself? No. He does not think he has the ability to. But there is no one to turn to. So he seeks to blind himself to the world, drinking himself into a stupor, shutting himself from anything that highlights the contrast between his feelings and the divine command. And in the end, in an act of imitatio dei, he curses his son and grandson.

The issue of course, with this view of God as a curse, is that it is wrong. And this is where Avram comes in. Avram’s relationship with God is one of bracha, of blessing. Avram sees God as the source of blessing in this world, as a God who wants the best for his creations. God’s demands may be, due to the infinity and omnipotence of God, beyond human comprehension at a given point in time, but they are not merely the demands of a tyrannical dictator. Thus, Avraham is willing to trust in God’s judgement without knowing exactly why he is doing so. He is willing follow God’s command to pick himself up, leave his home and everything he’s ever known, and move to wherever God shows him. He is willing to trust God’s assurance that he will have many children and inherit the land, despite all evidence to the contrary.(15:2) וְהֶאֱמִן בַּיקֹוָק וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ צְדָקָה.

But this faith is far from uncritical and unquestioning. In our parsha, Avram doesn’t react wordlessly to the promises God has made to him that seem unfulfilled. He asks God, (15:2) מַה־תִּתֶּן־לִי וְאָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ עֲרִירִי, and he wants to know (15:8)  בַּמָּה אֵדַע כִּי אִירָשֶׁנָּה. These are not the accusatory, rebellious questions of a Kayin, (only a Noach would make such a mistake!) These are the questions of someone who believes that God wants the best for him and humanity, a God who is the source of blessing and not curses, and he is having trouble squaring what he sees with what he has been promised, with the God he believes in and trusts in and what’s going on in his life, and he is pouring out all these doubts and his fears to God, not challenging but asking. Indeed, it is only because he has that trust in God that such questions arise! When Avram attempts to challenge God’s destruction of Sedom, his main point is that (18:25) “חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִם־רָשָׁע וְהָיָה כַצַּדִּיק כָּרָשָׁע חָלִלָה לָּךְ הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל־הָאָרֶץ לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט”, that for God, the moral and just ruler of the world, to commit such injustice. For Kayin and Noach, the question never gets off the ground. Of course God would kill a whole city, hell, he’d kill a whole planet!

Avram is the first person to have a relationship with God that was more than that of a subject fearful of punishment from an cruel and irrational leader, which sees God’s command as a curse that can either be rebelled against or accepted as fate. Avram’s relationship with God is one that sees God as a blessing, of a moral and just ruler who can be trusted, and because of that trust, inquiry about the morality of justice of God is welcomed. It is that relationship and that theology, that of trust but also a critical sense borne of that trust,  that allows Avraham to later incredulously ask God הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל־הָאָרֶץ לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט , but also to pass the ultimate test of his faith at the Akedah.

Devar Torah Lech Lecha (from 2013)

Anyway, so, I’m gonna start this devar torah on parshas Lech Lecha with two pesukim from an entirely different parsha. Bear with me. Shemot 6:2-3

(ב) וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי יְקֹוָק:

(ג) וָאֵרָא אֶל־אַבְרָהָם אֶל־יִצְחָק וְאֶל־יַעֲקֹב בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי וּשְׁמִי יְקֹוָק לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם

“Then God said to Moses, “I am YHWH. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They called me El-Shaddai. They did not know my name, YHWH.”

I told you it was relevant. Now, taken at face value, this verse is very problematic, because a cursory glance at Sefer Bereishis will show you that YHWH is a name that appears very often. Even if we eliminate all mentions of YHWH that are not in the character’s mouths, assuming that the pesukim are aimed at a Sinaitic audience, the name YHWH is spoken by both God and the Avot.

On this basis, biblical critics will claim that this passuk in Shemot is part of the “P document”, whose narrative really did not include YHWH up until this point, and the stories in Bereishit that have YHWH are part of a different document. This, of course, assumes that the “Redactor” was an idiot, who could not comprehend the fact that people might find the blatant internal contradiction problematic. So, if we are to assume a “competent Redactor”, who may be forgiven for small errors but not for relatively major ones such as this, we must assume that this contradiction somehow made sense to him, in which case the need for a Redactor of different documents disappears, or that he had to include both sources unedited because he bound by previous tradition, which essentially admits there was never really a redactor. At any rate, someone at some point had to have looked at this and said, “that makes sense”. So let’s make sense of it.

Let’s take a look again at the pasuk in question. God says he appeared (וָאֵרָא) to the Avot as El-Shaddai, as opposed to the fact that he did not make his name YHWH known to them. ( וּשְׁמִי יְקֹוָק לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם). We should first note that this is not the same as saying they did not know that the name YHWH existed. Rather, God did not make it known to them. What does that mean? The text seems to be implying is that it is somehow contrasted with appearing as El-Shaddai, in that the Avot related to God by way of him appearing to them as El-Shaddai, but did not relate to him by being knowledgeable of the name YHWH.Taken within the context of God talking to Moshe, that relationship is about to change, presumably by way of the events of the Exodus.

That being said, the question appears to be much deeper than simply one of a textual contradiction. What we’re asking after is the nature of the Avot’s Judaism. Unless one takes the tactic of Chazal and assumes that the Avot followed all the tenets of Rabbinic Judaism, which is difficult to take as peshat (www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8MG9YtaZXg), it’s relatively clear that the Judaism of the Avot differed from that of even Torah She’bichtav. Avraham serving milk and meat to his guests and Yaakov marrying two sisters are two of the more obvious examples, but more subtly, the Avot make no attempt to wipe out Avodah Zarah and they offer sacrifices whenever and wherever they want without any mediation from a priesthood. Something changes in the nature of Judaism from the Avot to Har Sinai, and that shift seems to be reflected in this passuk.

Backing up this notion, we see a vast array of names before Matan Torah that incorporate the root “el”….Yishmael and Yisrael being most prominent, but there are others. But the first name that we see that incorporates YHWH is Yehoshua, and even then, its added in by Moshe after Matan Torah (except for Yehuda, which this article I got this particular idea from says makes more sense as an abbreviation of “Yehdael”, except it doesn’t say that in the passuk, so Tzarich iyyun, I’ve wrote enough of this already, there’s probably a nice devar torah as to why Yehuda is an exception). Furthermore, the word “el” is significant in the Ancient Near East context, as, said as a proper noun, it is the name of the head of the Caananite Pantheon, even though it probably more generally meant “god” as a common noun. As opposed to YHWH, which was a God name that has no parallel in the ancient Near East, and even prompts Pharaoh to famously wonder who this YHWH he’s never heard of is. To the avot, YHWH was a chiddush. El was not.
So what I’d like to propose, and you can buy it or not buy it, but it’s at least a good attempt, is that YHWH represents God’s name and true essence as revealed through revelation, and Elohim and its variants represent God as the Avot tried to understand him within the context of the world they lived in. They used God’s name YHWH in conversation amongst themselves (e.g, Bereishit 16:5), even when addressing God (15:2), and they build altars and call upon him in that name (12:7-8). God makes promises about the future using his name YHWH.
But when it comes time to relating to their surrounding context, talking to their neighbors and doing public religious acts, they always find themselves needing to translate their concept of God into different terms, that of Elohim.  Yishmael is named with an “el”, even though the etymology given is from YHWH(16:11). Yaakov wakes up and realizes that YHWH is in the place that he slept, but still names it Bet El. Yosef rejects the advances of Potifar’s wife by saying he would be sinning to Elohim by acceding to her wiles. But more than that, the Avot and their families seemed to be constantly trying to explain to themselves what the nature of this radical new deity was. Hagar calls YHWH who appeared to her an אֵל רֳאִי, a “God of seeing”, a definition that is likely inadequate. When Avraham must explain his oath to God after the war of Sedom, he puts in “el” terms, הֲרִמֹתִי יָדִי אֶל-יְהוָה אֵל עֶלְיוֹן, קֹנֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ, “I lifted my hands to the god YHWH, who owns heaven and earth”, (14:22) ie, like a polytheist God who has a set dominion, except his dominion is everything.

Those “translations” aren’t the only time the Elohim idea is used. Perek 17, which details Avraham and Sarah’s name change and Avraham’s circumcision, pretty much exclusively uses Elohim and variants, and the Akeidah is heavily Elohim-based. How do we account for that? I’d propose that when demanding action of the Avot that had to be done in the present tense, the Avot had to make do with the best notion of God they could muster, and not sit around waiting for a more perfect understanding. They had to use the best understanding they had of God to provide the basis for the actions they were commanded to do.

Thus, we return to our initial issue, a reasonable interpretation in hand. I appeared to the Avot as El-Shaddai, an approximation of monotheism based in their pagan context. As such, the religion that they practiced was different, perhaps slightly more pagan-flavored. But now, through the Exodus and the Revelation at Sinai, you will know my true essence, the full extent of monotheistic belief, the full impact on ethics and law and society that the Avot could not have imagined.

So now for the takeaway lesson part, because let’s be honest, a devar torah that just gives a peshat is a bad dvar torah. I think, especially in the absence of a truly Torah-based society, that each generation has its own context, its own “elohim”’s, so to speak, be it Hellenism, Aristotelianism, Humanism, Modernism, Nationalism, Romanticism, etc etc, each era has its own obstacles towards a true understanding of God’s true essence. And while any theology will have its issues, and there is a great danger of distancing one’s self further from the truth in attempts to reconcile religious belief with the context of the day, that does not necessarily invalidate the endeavor. Religion must be made practical and understandable and able to be done by people who consider themselves moral and intelligent human beings, and attempts must be made to make it so. Our understanding may very well be imperfect, but inaction cannot be the alternative.