A Random Walk With Rashi: You Run the Numbers

Last week we covered three full verses (Genesis 21:3-5), on the subject of Isaac’s long awaited birth, and through it all …. (tambril roll) …. not a peep from Rashi.  Did that stop us from filling up an entire hour?   Does the Pope wear a seatbelt?   The answer is no, and it seems, no again.

We began with a discussion of the name itself – Isaac.

Back when G-d first mentioned that Abraham’s son would be named Isaac (Genesis  17:19), Rashi did indeed have comments, including to tell us that the name meant: “Literally, ‘he will laugh’.  G-d commanded Abraham to call him [Isaac] by this name because of his laughter.  There are those who say he called [him] Yitzchak because of the ten trials to which G-d subjected Abraham, and the ninety years of Sarah’s age when she gave birth to Isaac, and the eight days of Isaac’s age when he was circumcised, and the hundred years of Abraham’s age when Isaac was born.”

Rashi’s comments were based on gematria, which according to the authority that is Wikipedia, is “a system of assigning numerical value to a word or phrase, in the belief that words or phrases with identical numerical values bear some relation to each other, or bear some relation to the number itself as it may apply to a person’s age, the calendar year, or the like…. The best-known example of Gematria is the Hebrew word Chai (“life”), which is composed of two letters which add up to 18. This has made 18 a “lucky number” among Jews, and gifts in multiples of 18 are very common among Jews.”

Leave it to us Jews.

Rest assured, the names, ages, and every imaginable letter, number or factoid associated with our foreparents and story have provided considerable fodder for gematrians past and present – a mere snippet of which could fill a summary of this sort, and perhaps someday will.

But we will focus for now on the name itself, which means, essentially, laughter.  No joke.  Then again, the same root forms the Hebrew word that is used to describe instances in which folks ‘fooled around’ in Torah (m’zachek). You’d think Rabbi is simply being discrete in this regard, since we can imagine what that means when used to describe how Abraham and Sarah fooled around, but it is also used later, to describe the ‘horseplay’ or ‘mocking’ that occurred between Ishmael and Isaac (Genesis 21:9), leading to the banishment of the former.

As we have seen in recent news events, its seems that horseplay of that type can be a euphemism for far more sinister things, perhaps again calling for banishment of sorts.   One of those thoughts that, years from now, will likely not have anywhere near the impact it does today.  And yet another example of how so many of Rashi’s own thoughts might have played out differently, in the context, and to the scholars of his time.


Genesis 21:3: Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him – whom Sarah had borne him – Isaac.


So we are back to being all about Abraham, with Sarah returning to her supporting role in the picture.  We are reminded of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, where Fred still remains the better known and remembered of the two (and you can forget about his first partner, Adele), even though Ginger did everything that he did, only backwards and in heels.

Also in this verse, as with Hagar and Ishmael before him, it is Abraham who now ‘names’ Isaac, though again, he had been previously told by G-d what the son’s name would be.  In other words, this verse does not come anywhere close to invoking the subject that we would then spend our next 10 minutes talking about – the power of naming things, and the impact of having a name.  As with gematria, an interesting, but different summary entirely. Suffice it to say that neither the ability to name, or the name one is given, are to be taken lightly in our lives or liturgy.


Genesis 21:4: Abraham circumcised his son Isaac at the age of eight days as G-d had commanded him.


It was not so long ago (Genesis Chapter 17 in fact) that Abraham himself was circumcised at the age of 99, together with Ishmael who was then 13.  In turn, Isaac is the first in our lineage that is subject to the commandment that we all be circumcised at 8 days.  Or at least, those who can, can.

Here again, the Hebrew word “vayamal” is based upon a root word comes into play in so many related ways, including as the words mohel and (brit) milah, and even for the term for ‘circumcise your heart’, which is used in a figurative sense, to refer to an opening of the heart, in places such as Jeremiah (4:4) and Deuteronomy (30:6).

And yet again, the dates and ages that are provided in our text simply beg for deeper meaning and discussion. The tradition of having a second (or for some first) bar or bat mitzvah at the age of 83, for instance, represents the age of 70 plus 13 (the age of bar/bat mitzvah).  Why 70?  We got you there too.  The age of 70 represents one’s fullness of years, as we learn, for instance, from Psalm 90:10:  “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”

The number 70 also represents …. Oh, forget about it.   Talk about a random walk.

Back to our next non-Rashi verse.   See, we’re doing fine without him.


Genesis 21:5 And Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.


Here, too, Rashi seems to have already answered whatever questions he may have, when he first told us that the scene in which Abraham was visited by the angels (one year ago, Torah time), occurred on Pesach.   Rashi determined that by connecting several dots at the time, including the fact that Sarah cooked what appears to have been unleavened bread for the guests, who couldn’t eat.  Works for me.

So we are certainly beginning to see a pattern developing with our three Rashi-less verses – rather than simply taking a day off, or working the vineyards, perhaps he was just trying to drive home the fact that, by this point, the text is so clear, and the topic so overpowering, that even he, Rashi, sees nothing lacking in the text at this point. Nothing he could provide would explain it any better, and in fact, might simply detract from its plain meaning.

And why not?  We have finally reach this moment together, the fulfillment of G-d’s promise of a son to Abraham and Sarah – at the ages of 100 and 90, and after all their trials and tzores.

What could possibly top this?  At this point, the only thing that could be any more staggering, would be if Abraham now were to … nah, he wouldn’t.

Would he?

(Photo: leandroid)