A Random Walk With Rashi: Biblical Horseplay

We reached one of those awkward stages last week, finishing up Genesis 21:8 (nailed it, actually), and having time to begin verse 21:9, but not quite enough time to do it justice.  It is difficult enough to transition between two or more verses in a single week, even when they fall within the same or similar scenes, but all the more so where, as here, there is a definite disconnect between the two, and adding into that an apparent passage of time between them.  Yet, as we know, we are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist.  And so we begin.

Genesis 21:8

The child grew and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day Isaac was weaned.

We wonder, first, if this is the only instance of weaning in Torah, or whether there were others. It seems the latter is true, particularly if you consider the broader Tanakh.  

In Exodus, after Pharaoh’s daughter finds Moses in the river, she takes compassion on him. At the suggestion of Moses’ sister Miriam, Moses’ own mother, Jochebed, is hired to nurse Moses until he was weaned (Ex. 2:7-10).  In so doing, it is said that Jochebed instilled in Moses a knowledge of his heritage and a love of his people that would stay with him during and following his decades in Egypt. 

So too, in Samuel 1:23 after G-d “remembered” Hannah, she then gave birth to Samuel, upon which his father Elkanah told Hannah to “Stay here until you have weaned him; only may the LORD make good his word. So the woman stayed at home and nursed her son until she had weaned him.”  

There seem to be interesting lessons we could learn by comparing the role weaning plays in these various stories.  But as we slowly wean ourselves from this verse, our attention falls once more on Rashi’s final comments with regard to the phrase:

A GREAT FEAST.  It was great in the sense that the great people of the generation were there; Shem and Eber and Abimelech.

Rather than revisit our previous discussion (my previous column), we turned our attention instead to the one, the only … Aviva Zornberg, for her insights into the meaning of laughter, and its relationship to food and feasts.  From her book entitled “The Beginning of Desire”, within which we read from the section entitled “Feasting and Laughter”. 

As usual, Zornberg eloquently and deftly weaves together various teachings and corresponding thoughts, based on these few verses.  She notes, early on, that according to Midrash, Satan identified this feast as great in comparison to “all the feasts that [Abraham] made”, which suggests to Zornberg that “feasting represents a certain dimension of Abraham’s mode of relating to his world”.  Not surprising, since we have seen before the importance that hospitality plays in his life.  

We recall the detail in which we were told of the meal served to the three angels who visited Abraham at his tent in the plains of Mamre.  Curiously, it would seem that at least one present day inheritor of this virtue, and lesson, has been Chabad, considering the impressive extent and manner in which they open their doors to Jews visiting around the world.

Zornberg goes on to confirm Rashi’s words, to the effect that this feast was also “great’ in terms of the guests that were there, most notably Abimelech, who is high on the guest list, in spite of him being “in the view of leitznei ba-dor – the cynics of the time – the obvious biological father of Isaac.  Any sophisticated observer can deduce the truth of a situation in which an elderly, sterile couple produce a child shortly after the wife is kidnapped by a lustful king”.   Makes some sense, and it has had us curious at times, but in turn, does not explain why Sarah will indeed be able to give birth, and Abraham will go on to produce several more children with at least one more wife (Keturah, though query whether she may have actually been Hagar, come full circle).  Then again (my own d’var echar), why else would Abimelech and Sarah have been so concerned with quelling gossip over recent scenes, if there hadn’t been some kernel of truth to gossip itself?

Zornberg goes on to consider the role of laughter, equating it with food and feasting, in a manner we have covered in previous postings, where both were compared to the unspoken bond of communication that can exist between twins, or in turn, between two people sharing a good laugh, or a good meal. 

Finally, with a few minutes left, we turned our attention to the next verse.

Genesis 21:9:  Sarah saw the son of Hagar, the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, mocking. 

Our eyes darted laser-like to a single word in this verse, as yours likely did as well – that being the final word, mocking.  In this regard, we are all in synch with Rashi himself, who nearly 950 years ago focused in on this word, and suggested:

MOCKING – It connotes idolatry, as it says, “And they got up to sport.” Alternatively, it connotes sexual immorality, as you say, i.e., as the verse says, “to make sport of me”.  Alternatively, it connotes murder, as in the verse “Lets get the lads up and sport before us, etc.”, Ishmael is associated here with murder, because he would contend with Isaac over the inheritance they would receive at Abraham’s death and say “I am my father’s firstborn son, ….[to be continued]

Though we barely had a chance to begin unraveling this verse, as it turns out, much of what we did touch on seems to have been addressed quite nicely, in a recent sermon by Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann of Stanford University, dated December, 11, 2011 and found online as “Sport and Scandal (Genesis 21:1-10; Micah 6:6-12)”.

In the course of her sermon, on subjects that include the undue emphasis that is paid to sports in today’s world, she also expanded on our current verse, in a quite Zornberg like manner, where she provides:

“Such a blurring of lines—treating people as objects, threatening violence, even sexual abuse is hinted at in today’s Genesis text. Sarah and Abraham’s son Isaac is a young boy, newly weaned “Vaterei Sarah et ben Hagar hamitzrit asher yalda l’Abraham mitzachek.” “And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, mitzachek.”  

Some translate mitzachek as playing. Some translate it as mocking. Some see the connection between Isaac’s name—Yitzchak, meaning laughter and the word, mitzachek, to suggest the two boys laughing together. Perhaps his half-brother Ishmael and Isaac are engaged in harmless play.

But perhaps there is a darker meaning. If a young boy is harmlessly playing with his half-brother, Ishmael, why does it elicit such an abrupt and radical reaction from Sarah? ‘Cast out that slave-woman and her son!’ His mother’s harsh outburst leads several commentators to notice that words with the same three letter root as mitzachek occur in two other stories that entail sexual violence—one, when Joseph is thrown into jail after being falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife of sexual advances, and another, when Lot is threatened by a mob bent on homosexual violence.”

According to Rabbi Karlin-Neuman, “a contemporary commentator puts it this way: ‘…our ignorance of what type of play Ishmael wanted does not diminish our objective surety that he had foul play in mind…The Concordance [a listing of words and contexts] discloses that the word ‘play’ in the intensive tense in the Bible always connotes a playful teasing of a sexual or foul nature. [Furthermore] Sarah does not call [the youth] by his name, Ishmael, but by his genealogy (“son of a . . .”)”. In doing so, she evokes genealogical and racial epithets to hint at deviant sexual behavior.” 

Finally, Rabbi Karlin-Neuman picks up on a connection that was noticed by our group as well, an eerie similarity between the current verse and scene, and the story and continuing saga going on at Penn State:

“Indeed, Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State coach accused of child sexual abuse and arrested this week, described in his own words his contact with young boys as “horsing around. ” “Horsing around” like the biblical, mitzachek, conjures up that potentially imaginary line between playful and harmful. Do you remember the scene in Brokeback Mountain, where horseplay both masks and makes possible a sexual encounter?” 

To her point, the sermon goes on, bemoaning the fact that “coaches are the high priests of the religion of sport”, and invoking Ralph Waldo Emerson who “once so presciently wrote: ‘The Gods we worship write their names on our faces; be sure of that. And a man will worship something … That which dominates will determine his life and character. Therefore it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.’ “

And finally, for now, back to Sarah, and Hagar, and Ishmael.  We are about to engage in another vignette, involving the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael.  This, in turn, prior to and in anticipation of the scene we will likely spend a long, long, time dissecting – the binding of Isaac.  Peeking ahead, Abraham seems willing to follow instructions that could cause him to lose both sons, with barely a peep of protest.  For reasons we will see, I hope, on the far end he will have proven himself worthy to be the father of our people.  May it be G-d’s will, because it sure isn’t clear to me just how he plans to pull this off. 

(Photo: George Eastman House)