To continue from last time. Abraham has trekked for three days with Isaac, and his two servants (presumably Ishmael and Eliezer), to the point where he has just been shown the mountain they should climb. Funny how that sentence can attempt to summarize the story to this point, and the entirety of my previous post, yet does neither any justice at all.
But continue we must.
And Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here by yourselves with the donkey, while I and the lad will go up to here; we will worship and we will return to you”.
As far as we know, these words are spoken by Abraham immediately after seeing the mountain that would become his destination point, shrouded in a cloud, and presumably somewhat off in the distance. So we wonder whether Abraham was planning to leave the servants where they stood, and move on ahead without them, or to progress with them to the mountain itself and leave them at a base camp of sorts.
This is particularly confusing given the immediacy of his words, coupled with the odd phrase “go up to here”. Was it near or far, here or there?
Were we to rely on most other English translations, the question would never even arise, since they tend to translate the phrase, variously, as ‘we will go yonder’, ‘we will go over there’, ‘will go up to there’, and my favorite, ‘we will go with speed as far as yonder’. All evidence, yet again, of the fact that translation is its own, and perhaps most powerful, form of commentary – placing the original meaning of the words themselves in a cloud of sorts.
Fortunately, and hopefully, the translation we have is closer to the original Hebrew (or Aramaic), but even then they can never precisely convey the original thought.
In spite, or perhaps because of that, we need to resolve it. Lets ask Rashi, shall we?
UP TO HERE [in Hebrew ‘odd koh’]
That is to say, a short way, to the place which lies before us.
Sounds clear to us. But this is one of those not too uncommon situations where the pshat, or straightreading interpretation, just doesn’t quite cut it. So Rashi feels it necessary to add a bit of drash.
And an Aggadic Midrash interprets [the Hebrew term] as follows: I will see where it is that the Omnipresent said to me, “So shall your offspring be”.
In other words, Rashi is not content to conclude that ‘here’ simply means a ‘short distance’. There must be something more that this odd phrase is intended to teach us. Rashi reaches out to Midrash for the answer, and in turn back to Genesis 15:5, where the same word “koh” appears again, in order to provide a meaning that is far richer, and more beautiful.
To recall, Genesis 15:5 is the verse immediately after Abram (he hadn’t yet become Abraham) had complained to G-d about the lack of an heir, and was looking for some sign that an heir would ever come to be. Whereupon, G-d took him outside the tent, told him to gaze toward the Heavens, try if he could to count the stars, and concluded that “so (koh) shall your offspring be!”.
By coupling these verses together, through the simple word koh, both Midrash and Rashi help us conclude that Abraham was not looking to Moriah so much as a place for sacrifice, but as the place to find answers, where G-d might finally reveal himself. According to Bereishit Rabbah, ‘up to here’ is understood to mean ‘up to the place that will shed light on what G-d spoke using the word ‘koh’”.
Before leaving Genesis 15:5, it is a bit curious to read in the very next verse that Abraham “trusted in Hashem, and He reckoned it to him as righteousnousness”. Rashi, of course, has trouble with this phrase as well, and explained that Abraham pressed on, asking G-d ‘by what sign’ would he know that his offspring would merit this blessing, whereupon G-d responded “through the merit of the sacrificial offerings.”
Not being bothered by the facts (namely, that Rashi and G-d were referring to different, more immediate sacrifices) we fast forward to today, where it seems that Abraham is telling his servants, and Isaac, that they are not going to a place of sacrifice, but rather to a place where this promise from G-d would somehow be revealed.
Stepping back, we recall that Rashi was among the very first Torah commentators, needing to invent ways in which he could permit others to read and understand Torah in a cleaner, quicker and standardized way. By and large, this meant him opting for the literal or pshat. But later commentators would blame Rashi for relying too much on drash at times like this. Reminiscent of the common expression that ‘my pshat is pshat, your pshat is drash’.
Witness Rashi’s other comment regarding this verse. Is it phsat, or drash?
AND WE WILL RETURN
He [unknowingly] prophesized that both of them would return.
In other words, Rashi wonders how Abraham can possibly say that “we” will return, when all he knows at this point is that he is to “take up” Isaac as if to sacrifice him. Rashi’s answer may be a bit self serving, since Rashi himself previously interpreted the phrase “take up” as a continuum, with Abraham then taking Isaac right back down again. Rashi knew that by having read ahead, and now needs to be consistent. But how does Abraham know that – how do we explain Abraham’s words?
Are they simply a white lie, meant to lessen concern on the part of the two lads (or perhaps witnesses), and even Isaac himself? We’ve been told before that a white lie is permissible under certain circumstances. Consider the classic “yes dear, that outfit looks wonderful”, when its intention is to keep peace in the household.
Or, is he simply challenging G-d by these very words, as if to call G-d’s bluff? To the point where, as some authors have concluded, this is going to be about Abraham testing G-d, rather that other way around?
Or has Abraham simply read ahead also, and already knows that they will indeed both return?
And how does Rashi attribute this to prophesy, especially when the word “unknowingly” has been added by the editors themselves, based solely a reference to “Imrei Shefer”. As it turns out, the Preface to our Saperstein Edition of Rashi provides that “[t]his volume is far more than a translation. In addition to an accurate rendering of Rashi’s text, we add whatever words are necessary to clarify the flow of the commentary and explain Rashi’s point …”. They have done that before, and in fact routinely, but rarely it seems do they edit in a manner that would affect, if not almost negate, the very word they are trying to clarify.
We are already one or more degrees of separation from the original Hebrew of the Torah and Rashi’s original words. Who are they to add yet another degree of commentary? It is one thing, and sensible, to conclude that Abraham himself prophesized the outcome. But to suggest that he did so unknowingly, as if speaking in tongues, seems to put a whole different, and unnecessary spin on it. OK, I’m done
But perhaps we are all correct. Abraham and Isaac went up, Abraham would sacrifice Isaac, and they would both come back again. Putting it that way, stranger things have happened.
We will conclude this week with Leon Kass, in The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, where he tells us that “[Abraham] understands that the affair is primarily about himself, Isaac, and G-d, and about their interrelationship; in speaking to his lads, Abraham turns his trial into a project for both himself and Isaac (“we will go, we will worship, we will return”) ….. Are father and son also together – one – in mind, heart and purpose? The answer to this question is immediately provided in the momentous conversation between Isaac and Abraham, the only one between them recorded in the Bible…”
This week, we will hear what Isaac says.
(Photo: OSU Special Collections & Archives)