To recap. Our Rashi study group has essentially just begun Genesis Chapter 22, the Akedah, or binding of Isaac. It is perhaps the most primitive yet powerful scene in all of Torah. Having been studying Rashi together for nearly 20 years, at a verse per week, it is certainly the most overwhelming scene we have encountered to date – and we’ve been through a lot.
So we plan to take our time, and let this scene unfold with all the insight and impact we can muster.
In our current scene, Abraham, Isaac, and their two servants, seem to have just arrived at the site they were instructed to go – to the base of Mount Moriah, where Isaac is presumably to be sacrificed by his father. After several failed attempts by G-d to establish a suitable people on earth, and several years of Abraham being put to the test, it seems that is all about to evaporate in a single moment, and act.
But first, we have a few more actions without words. Is the suspense actually building? Or might it be just the opposite (see my new theory below).
And Abraham took the wood for the offering, and placed it on Isaac, his son. He took in his hand the fire and the knife, and the two of them went together.
We wondered about everything. What did it mean, and what was entailed, in the thought of Isaac bearing the wood? A quick Google image search will pop up many different works of art over time, several of which bear an uncanny resemblance to Christ lugging the cross on his shoulders. Certainly our story was itself relied upon and recast into the story of Christ – similarities that it seems artists have touted for centuries.
And what about “the” knife and “the” fire in this verse, as if there were clear antecedent basis for them both, to the point where we would know just what they mean. But there isn’t, and we don’t. One odd connection comes to mind, namely, my previous post that included reference to ‘amud anon’ – the pillar of cloud that recently protected Israel from incoming rockets, and that originally arose in the course of Exodus, where G-d protected the Israelites by means of both a pillar of cloud, by day, and a pillar of fire by night. With the cloud up ahead of Abraham at this moment (identifying the mountain he is to climb), and the fire in his hand, is there an analogy here to Exodus ?
Not according to Rashi. He does have two concerns, though, including a first comment regarding the unusual word THE KNIFE ( ma’achelet). Rashi tells us that “the knife is called ma’achelet because it ‘eats’ the flesh that it cuts, and in turn, prepares the flesh for eating.”
As you might expect, according to Strong’s Concordance, there are several occurrences of the word ma’achelet, each used in a slightly different way. So too, are there several different words that have been used to describe various forms of cutting tools. These include a ‘chereb’, to describe a cutting instrument having a destructive effect, such as a knife, sword, or other sharp implement. Other terms include the more common ‘sak-keen’ to describe a pointed or jagged knife, and a ‘tah’ar’, to describe a knife or razor, for making bare, as in shaving.
All the more reason to consider why this particular word ma’achelet, and why now?
Perhaps an answer lays within the similarity between various situations in which Abraham has proceeded to cut something, as in such disparate scenes as those involving circumcision, the covenant of the pieces, and now, the sacrifice of Isaac? Each of which could involve the symbolic ‘cutting’ of a contract with G-d.
Rashi also has concerns about the phrase AND THE TWO OF THEM, telling us that “Abraham, who was aware that he was going to slaughter his son, was going with the same eagerness and joy as Isaac, who was unaware of the matter.” The two of them went together –as if voluntary and in synch, though one knew the gruesome truth, and one did not. Or did they?
So we are left at the moment with the question of just how both can remain calm, let alone joyful, in the midst of this scene, with Abraham about to sacrifice the son that was promised to him as his legacy.
Do we chalk it up to faith? Masking itself as complacency? The true scope and drama of this scene has not yet sunk in, and perhaps never will. Even at a painstakingly slow verse per week, the sheer power of the scene is difficult to grasp. I’ve been wondering why these sporadic bits of action exist at all, (hence Auerbach’s description of them as being ‘fraught with background’), let alone what they all mean.
I might have come up with the answer, or at least a theory, last weekend, when hearing a podcast repeat of a discussion between NPR’s Krista Tippett and Esther Sternberg, who is an immunologist that has written on the subject of “Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being”. Though not directly on point (OK, not anywhere near on point, except to someone who has just dwelled on Genesis 22:6), it got me thinking.
In her discussion, revolving around modern day thoughts behind hospital design and the like, we find that scientists, architects and others are continually working to understand and implement the manner in which stress and tension can be lowered or lessened by various means, including in particular, the design and use of space.
Perhaps a case can be made for G-d being among the earliest adopters of the theories and practices that today underlay the creation of “healing places”. Rather than barking out his instructions with a crash of thunder, we can see the various ways in which G-d’s ‘salubrious’ activities can serve to heal and encourage. Particularly by this very moment, the third day since hearing what G-d would ask him to do, with the third day biblically being the most painful following an insult or injury.
The many facts we do know in this scene bear an uncanny resemblance to present day approaches, which include simply minimizing stimuli in terms of the space itself (lighting, view), as well as reliance on a network of social support (the two lads), and even the sounds and words that are used, including in our case, the silence itself.
Sternberg also discusses the manner in which a placebo can actually be a good and affirmative thing – as compared to it being ‘only’ a placebo – and often as effective as the thing it was designed to contrast. Perhaps the Akedah is G-d’s placebo effect, putting the actors calmly through the motions, while achieving the same or even better ultimate impact – to increase and reward their faith.
Today’s theories include a heavy dose of movement as a component of healing. We have wondered before just where Abraham has walked for the past three days – was it directional or random? Perhaps, it was along the path of labyrinth, which have existed since well before his time and have been associated with many aspects of our story – including in terms of preparation, invocation, going in, remaining in the center, returning, thanksgiving, and reflection.
It seems that about the only thing a labyrinth has not been compared to by others, is the first thing that came to mind for me – the “withered innards” that Sarah was said to have when she first overheard that she would give birth to Isaac. Causing her to laugh at the thought (“I did not” she would say), though eventually giving birth to a son whose very name would mean ‘laughter’.
As one final analogy, might both the Akedah and Sarah be reminiscent of the manner in which a labyrinth is said by some to symbolize ‘death and a triumphant return’ ?
I’m in a bit of a labyrinth myself. All for now. I gotta get out of here.