A Random Walk With Rashi: The Akedah? It’s About Isaac

As of my last summary, our Rashi study group was finishing Genesis Chapter 21 and just about to start the binding of Isaac (the “Akedah”) of Genesis Chapter 22.

Over that time we have covered four short verses. Relatively nothing in the greater scheme of things. But in Rashi terms, a veritable lifetime.

Our study group, and particularly this summary of it, can feel at times like changing focal powers on a microscope – the more verses we go through in a single sitting (lower power resolution), the more we can see of the story unfolding, but the less detail we can even attempt to glean from Rashi. The fewer verses (higher power), the more we are able to focus all the way down to a single verse, or word, or at times even letter or punctuation (tales of the “missing vov”).

It reminds me also of my favorite Woody Allen line, about the time he took a speed reading class in which they read all of War and Peace in a single sitting. “It’s about Russia,” he recalled.

This is a good time to switch between lenses, and do a bit of both. Several weeks back, we caught our breath and summarized the jumping off point that is Chapter 21, in order to then break with our tradition of studying one verse per week, by reading ahead through the entirety of Chapter 22. Try it yourself, as a bit of a warm-up exercise. I’ll wait.

You back? Ok, now we can drill down to the handful of verses that bridge those two Chapters.

Chapter 21 and 22 are key to our tradition, as witness the fact that they are the Chapters that are traditionally read by those who celebrate two days of Rosh Hashanah — corresponding respectively to G-d’s promise to Abraham, in the form of his son Isaac and the generations beyond, and immediately on its heels (we Jews have a thing for heels), G-d’s seeming to pull the rug out from beneath him, by calling for the sacrifice of that very promise (i.e., Isaac).

Those who know, know that Chapter 21 began with the birth and weaning of Isaac, and in turn, the banishment of Ishmael, up to and including a peace treaty with Abimelech, whereupon Abraham plants a tree and plotzes. It all seems like a long time ago, both in Abraham’s life and our own. But Abraham certainly seems to have deserved the right to kick back and relax a bit.

Genesis 21:34
And Abraham sojourned in the land of the Philistines many days.

With regard to this verse, and in a way collecting his own breath before the Chapter to come, Rashi picked up on only the phrase MANY DAYS — using it to dive into a very long connection of various dots, all in an attempt to figure out what ‘many’ might mean. Based on various sources, and through a few fits and starts, he determined how long Abraham must have stayed in each of the places he has been, finally concluding that Abraham stayed for 26 years in this ‘place of the Philistines’, the word ‘many’ in this case meaning that this was one year longer than he had previously stayed in Hebron.

And so we begin.

Genesis 22:1
And it happened after these words that G-d tested Abraham and He said to him, “Abraham,” and he said “Here I am.”

Rashi picks up on just two verses here, but they are biblical biggies — AFTER THESE WORDS and the all time best seller, HERE I AM. With regard to the former, you can only wonder, as we did, what were “these words” that the text might be referring to. Was it the previous verse, or perhaps the previous chapter, or more? According to Rashi, “these words” were the words of Satan, who according to our sources seems to have taunted G-d into testing Abraham by having him sacrifice Isaac. In essence, Satan recalled how, at the banquet for Isaac’s weaning, Abraham did not offer a sacrifice to G-d amidst the celebration. Satan suggests that if he, Satan, had asked for a sacrifice Abraham would not have refused. He’s a little devil, that Satan.

And as for HERE I AM (or more commonly, “hineni”), we see again how Abraham is continually willing to respond to G-d’s call, and step up to the challenge, without hiding or hesitation. Much more on that to come.

Genesis 22:2
And He said, “Please take your son, your only one, whom you love — Isaac — go up to the land of Moriah, and bring him up there as an offering upon one of the mountains which I shall tell you”

Where to begin? Rashi himself has questions galore.

PLEASE TAKE — Why please? According to Rashi, the word is used as a request, on a path toward saying essentially ‘please do this for me, so that others do not think that the other trials were not substantial’. According to Rabbi, the word is used to give pause and permit Abraham to give weight to what is about to be a profound command.

YOUR SON — We all wondered about this: Abraham, Rashi, and us included. Abraham is being asked to take his son, singular, though he is not told which son. Rashi recalls a curious Midrashic dialogue, that renders the text itself reminiscent of an old Newhart shtick, in which we hear only one side of a telephone conversation. In this case, we learn that the entire conversation presumably went along the lines of:

Please take your son.

Which son? I have two.

Your only one.

This is the only son of that mother, and he is the only son of his mother.

The one you love.

I love them both.


That answers that. According to Rashi, G-d stutter stepped his way into the conversation in order to, again, make the commandment more precious to Abraham, permitting each and every step along the way to resonate and build within Abraham.

THE LAND OF MORIAH — Typical man. Abraham heads off toward the region of Moriah, but without clear instructions as to which mountain he should climb. And to this day, there is no consensus as to just where that place may have been, or whether it still exists.

AND BRING HIM UP THERE — It’s a shame we can’t dwell on this verse, or Rashi’s thoughts on it, with the attention it deserves. But we will be coming back to it again, since it will take some sinking in for us as well. Briefly, Rashi notes that G-d did not say flat out ‘sacrifice him’, but rather ‘take him up’. Again, why beat around the bush? Especially when the Hebrew phrase is itself commonly used as a euphemism for sacrifice.

But of even more concern, what if anything can be done to prevent our G-d from coming across as inconsistent, or worse cruel, having just made a promise that he now seems inclined to break.

We can’t have that concern, and nor can Rashi, who explains that what appear to be merely redundant phrases (“go up” and “bring him up”) instead teach us that the real reason he was told to take him up, was because he would then be told to bring him back down again. Abraham’s intent and willingness to oblige were all that mattered it seems, and enough for Abraham to pass this final test. He didn’t need to consummate the matter. Thankfully, for us.

Genesis 22:3
So Abraham arose early in the morning and he saddled his donkey; he took his two young men with him and Isaac, his son; he split wood for the offering, and stood up and went to the place of which G-d had spoken to him.

In very short order we have gone from Abraham sojourning in the land, to G-d calling him out, to a flurry of verbs and fast paced action.

SO ABRAHAM AROSE EARLY — According to Rashi, this tells us that Abraham moved promptly to perform the commandment, as we are all taught to do.

AND HE SADDLED — He himself saddled the donkey, and did not command his slaves to do so, as you might expect, because people deviate from their normal behavior when acting out of love. This too, adds to the gravity of the moment in the mind of Abraham.

HIS TWO YOUNG MEN — Rashi concludes that the two (though not so young) men were Ishmael and Eliezer, for a man of Abraham’s stature is not permitted to embark on a journey without two men accompanying him, “for if one needs to tend to his bodily functions, and will therefore distance himself,” the other will remain with Abraham. We move on.

So in the course of several weeks, but just a few verses, the scene has shifted from laid back to fast paced action, with an appearance by G-d in between, and all on a path toward losing the very thing Abraham has lived his long life to achieve.

As we twist the lens back from the lower power, and back again to a higher one, we will dwell on these few words for a peek at a mountain somewhere in Moriah for many weeks to come.

Here’s hoping you can zoom back in with us.

(Photo: FreeFoto)