We are finally caught up to our current verse, or at least, as caught up as we will ever be. To recall the beginning of this Chapter 22 (the Akedah), Abraham has been summoned by G-d to take his son Isaac and “bring him up” to the mountain that he will be shown. With special wood and two servants in tow (all presaging the story of Christ), the seemingly silent Abraham and unquestioning Isaac head off for the land of Moriah, not knowing just yet precisely why, or which mountain they are to climb.
As we ended our previous summary, many questions remained, including of all things – why two servants? We are told by Rashi that one would remain with Abraham, in the event the other ever needed to relieve himself. In a curious twist, I was reminded this past week (must have been Romney, rather than Rashi) that Mormon missionaries travel in pairs – referred to as “companionship” – presumably under direction to never leave each other’s sight. I wondered if that might somehow trace itself back to Abraham.
Not as far as I can tell, but alas, it does seem to trace itself back a ways.
According to Mormon teachings, G-d has commanded missionaries, in Doctrine & Covenants 42:6, that “Ye shall go forth in the power of my Spirit, preaching my gospel, two by two.” Apparently, the thought is that missionaries will be more powerful in their teaching if they work together (according to the authority that is mormonmission.prep.com). As it says in 2 Corinthians 13:1 “In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.”
We are left, though, to wonder whether having two servants was necessary, as much or more, in order to pay witness to what was going to unfold. Which sounds far more profound, and is the best segue I have into our next verse.
On the third day, Abraham raised his eyes and he saw the place from afar.
Putting aside Rashi (and thankfully, Romney as well), we began as usual by asking what is bothering us about this verse? And in turn, what are to learn from it?
First we wondered why, what, and how? Why three days? What does it mean for Abraham to raise his eyes? And how did he know which mountain he must climb, particularly from afar? This ought to take us an hour, easy.
With regard to three days, one wonders if that correlates with distance, or just dawdling. Did Abraham take a straight-line path that required three days travel (a distance that seems much farther than our calculations would seem to require), or perhaps did he wander aimlessly, and a bit deliriously? Or maybe, just maybe, he was circumambulating – the ritual of circling a holy site – as in seven times around the altar on Sukkot.
And where in the world was Sarah during all this, and what did she know? She seems to have had an amazing ability to pop into the scene at various key points in the past – could she possibly be unaware or silent now, of all times? Our options do range anywhere from her being totally unaware, at the one (though highly doubtful) extreme, to her being not only aware, but overcome by grief at the other. You decide. My guess is smack dab in the middle – that she is very much a strong, silent, and ever present player in this scene.
All we know for sure is that three days is there for a reason, particularly because there is little else about the trip that we are told.
We might gain insight from other occurrences of that particular period of time.
In Exodus 15:22, for instance, Moses brought Israel from the Red sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur for three days, and found no water. By contrast, might it be that Abraham was in such a state that he packed wood, but no provisions, and was at the point of turning back himself?
And in Numbers 10:33 we are told that “they departed from the mount of the LORD three days’ journey: and the ark of the covenant of the LORD went before them in the three days’ journey, to search out a resting place for them.” Not sure I want to go there – three days for Isaac’s resting place?
Each occurrence is there for a reason, but any connection between them all is cloudy at this point.
But enough about us. What’s troubling Rashi?
ON THE THIRD DAY
Why did G-d hold off from showing [the mountain] to [Abraham] immediately? So that they should not say G-d bewildered and confused Abraham unexpectedly, and addled his mind, but if Abraham had time to consult his heart, i.e., to ponder the matter, he would not have done it.
We learn from Rashi that the three-day journey was intended to provide Abraham with ample time to let it all sink in, and avoid making a rash decision.
This jives with the JPS Commentary:
“[i]n biblical consciousness three days constitutes a significant period of time particularly in connection with travel. The long interval is crucial to the trial of faith, for Abraham’s immediate assent to G-d’s request may have been impulsive and emotional and without proper consideration.”
By contrast, our Plaut Torah Commentary pays considerably more attention to this passage, including a long quote from Eric Auerbach (1892-1957), a scholar and author (Mimesis). Auerbach studied the ways in which the reality that is represented in the literature of various periods tends to be intimately bound up with the social and intellectual conventions of the time in which they were written.
Auerbach compares, for instance, Torah itself with contemporaneous writings of Greek (Homeric) literature.
He described how Greek literature would externalize the action, at a definite time and in a definite place, and connect it all together into a “perpetual foreground” with thoughts and feeling completely expressed, events taking place in leisurely fashion and with very little of suspense.
As we see in our current verses, Torah instead provides only the bare minimum amount of information needed for the purpose of the narrative, with everything else being left in obscurity. Only decisive points of the narrative are emphasized, though what lies between is nonexistent. “Time and place are undefined and call for interpretation” – sounds like Twilight Zone – “thoughts and feeling remain unexpressed, are only suggested by the silence and the fragmentary speeches; the whole, permeated with the most unrelieved suspense and directed toward a single goal (and to that extent far more of a unity), remains mysterious and “fraught with background.”
All right, we’re out of Auerbach. But I do like “fraught with background”.
But wait, there’s more. Rashi also wondered how Abraham knew which place to go to, which mountain to climb.
HE SAW THE PLACE
He saw a cloud affixed to the mountain.
We learn from this (and the Midrash he relies upon) that Abraham knew the mountain as being the one that was covered in clouds. And why not? Clouds seem to have a broad and diverse role in our texts.
According to Gesenius’ Lexicon, the Hebrew word that is used here (anan) refers not only to a cloud, as a covering and veiling over the heaven (Ezekiel 30:3), but at times also to a morning cloud, as an image of something transient (“when your goodness is like morning clouds, like dew so early gone” Hos. 6:4).
Alternatively, the same word can be use to describe a very large army (“[y]ou shall advance, coming like a storm: you shall be like a cloud covering the earth ….”
Ezekiel 30:18, 38:9)
But perhaps even more compelling, we were reminded in a recent Shabbat sermon that the now famous Israeli “pillar of defense” is actually in Hebrew ‘amud anan’, or more literally, a “pillar of cloud”.
This very term appears in Exodus 13:21, where “G-d went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, that they might travel day and night.”
So it’s time for a test. Is our G-d, and the G-d of our fathers (at this particular moment):
a. a veil over the heavens
b. a pillar of protection and guidance
c. as powerful as a large army
d. as transient as the morning fog
e. all of the above
Whatever your answer may be, Abraham found the cloud to be the sign he needed, guiding him to the place he was intended to be, in order to prove himself one final time.
Perhaps guiding Abraham into the same cloud (anan) that today protects Israel from Qassam rockets.
Coincidence? I think not.