A Random Walk With Rashi: Adrift Without Punctuation

semicolon?To catch up on our Rashi study group.  Abraham and Isaac have been approaching the moment of Isaac’s impending sacrifice.  Isaac has just uttered what appear to be the first and only words recorded between them, inquiring as to what or where the sacrificial lamb may be.  Cleary Isaac seems unaware of his fate, and Abraham is not inclined to spell things out – wishful thinking perhaps, or maybe delaying the inevitable bad news until the last possible moment.   All this coming just a few verses after the first time that the concept of love between two people is conveyed in Torah (Genesis 22:2) – by G-d and with regard to Abraham and his son (‘your son, your only son, the one you love’).

Genesis 22:8

And Abraham said, “G-d will see the lamb for himself for the offering, my son.” And the two of them went together.

This is one of those verses where we not only remind ourselves of the hidden but profound impact that this, or any other translation of the original Hebrew can have on our understanding, but we also need to remind ourselves that the original Torah, as written and handed down by G-d, lacked any semblance of punctuation or formatting.  These were instead added considerably later, by the Masoretes between the 7th and 11th centuries CE.

Yet the manner in which every sentence, and this sentence in particular, might be read or understood –  based on the tiniest punctuation change – can be the difference between life and … squirrel.

So we continue our quest to understand this single verse through the lens of Rashi (1040-1105), who himself lived during, or within scant years after the Masoretic ink was dry.  Reminds me a bit of the movie scene in which a roomful of cryptographers is painstakingly decoding a recovered message, with a courier then rushing their results out to Rashi, in another room, who is hurriedly trying to explain what it all means.

It seems that without the Masoretes we would have no Rashi, and without Rashi we could not begin to know the Masoretic Torah.   Remindful itself of Pirke Avot, 3:17 – without bread, there is no Torah, without Torah there is no bread.   Meaning, as George Bush would say, you have to have bread … and Torah.

See for yourself.  Assuming that we could even agree on where today’s verse 22:8 should actually begin and end, see what different meanings it might take on, depending on the punctuation you might superimpose, were you a Masorete with the fate of the world waiting off stage.

It’s a bit like the game in which magnetic backed words might be turned into an array of sentences on your refrigerator door – only before magnets, and before refrigerators, and for that matter, before sentences.

And as literally as I can make it, the words you are given include:

said Abraham G-d will see the lamb the burnt my son walked the two together

Got it?  Now try some variations on the theme:

Gd will see the lamb for himself for the offering, my son (per Rashi – the offering will be lamb, but if no lamb is found, it will be Isaac)

Gd will see the lamb for himself for the offering: my son.  (It’s Isaac)

– or perhaps even –

Gd will see the lamb.  For himself, for the offering, my son …  (i.e., Isaac as the martyr, doing so willingly)

And there could be more.  Yet you can’t blame the poor Masoretes.   Although variations on the word used for ‘see’ is the leitmotif of this entire parsha Vayeira, its occurrence here (yer’eh lo) seems intentionally confusing – alternatively meaning ‘will see for himself’ or ‘has seen’.  The lack of the vov that would normally precede the word yereh makes it ambiguous text at best.

And whether provided by an overworked, underpaid Masorete – or worse, by their Punctuation Committee – whatever we read today is going to reflect somebody’s spin on things, yet has the potential to change the meaning entirely.

Still, this is perhaps the most dramatic moment of our scene, and one of those rare times when the conversation will certainly stay in the mind of Abraham and the generations to follow (we hope), and there resonate forever.

So, what is Rashi’s take on all this?


That is to say, He will see and select for Himself the lamb.  And if there is no lamb “for the offering, my son”, i.e., my son will be the offering.  And even though Isaac understood that he was going to be slaughtered, it says again , “And the two of them went together,” which implies with an equal heart, i.e., with the same enthusiasm.

Rashi reflects on the fact that there is a difference, and in turn, an important impact on meaning, depending on whether one decides that there is either a comma or a colon after the word “offering”.

Yet Rashi doesn’t provide alternatives, it seems he has his mind made up, suggesting that Abraham is hoping that Isaac will be “plan b”.   They have faith that G-d will provide them with a sacrifice, but if need be, Isaac will have to be it.

But Rashi has also read ahead, and knows the outcome.  So is he trying to preserve the tension, while making Abraham look good – given how we might feel about a forefather that would indeed be willing to sacrifice his son with no hesitation, and in fact, with enthusiasm.

As we slowly near the end of Chapter 22 (24 verses), when we end Parsha Vayeira, we will again do what we did on the leading edge of this parsha (beginning with Chapter 18) – by reading the entire parsha in overview – this time looking to combine 12th century commentary from France, with 8th century midrash from Bagdad, and 10th century punctuation from Tiberias – weaving it all together with what will by then be 21st century midrash from Minneapolis.  You will be able to find it at TCJewfolk – but it could just as easily be words on your fridge.

(Photo: hellocatfood)