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This is the D'var Torah on Parsha Vayera that I gave this morning at Shacharit Services at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem.  I am a First Year Rabbinical Student, as well as an Ensign in the US Navy's Chalplain Candidate Officer Program.  It has been my life's goal for over 12 years now, since I was Honorably Discharged from the US Marine Corps, to become a Chaplain for all servicemembers of all faiths or none, and a Rabbi for my fellow Jewish travelers in uniform.

Last year, I presented the D'var Torah on the same Parsha here on DailyKos, which was also one of my application essays for school.  I must have been on to something, since they actually let me in (or maybe it was the ridiculous sums of money to the International Jewish Conspiracy I made... I don't know).

This year, now that I'm a full fledged Rabbinical student, I've had the advantage to learn a great many things that I didn't know before: Mishna, Gamara, Talmud, writings people like the Ramban, etc.  I've used this newfound knowledge to take another look at the Akkedah, the tale of the binding of Issac, in a new light, wondering if my views would be different.  

They were, to some extent.  I still have a problem with the story, and what it seems to represent to more fundamentalist-natured people of not only my own faith, but Christianity and Islam.

I present my new D'var Torah below:

Where do we get our sense of morality?  And where do we get the courage and fortitude to act out that morality in the face of great adversity, when the loud voices inside our head are telling us to just go with the flow, do as we're told, and not question.  Where do we get the strength to listen to the kol demamah dakkah, the quickly diminishing voice telling us to stay our hand, plant our feet, look straight into the face of power, and say, “No.”  What part of those voices is reason?  What part of those voices is emotion?  

I wonder what voices were present inside Abraham's head in the moment that he heard:

Please take your son, your only son, the one you love, Issac and go away to the land of Moriah and bring him up there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains, of which I will tell you.

What voices were present inside his head three days later, as he stood up on that mountain in Moriah, with Isaac, bound upon the wooden altar. This is the Abraham who, when confronted with the genocide of Sodom and Gomorrah at G-d's hand, bargained with G-d on behalf of a people he did not know for the sake of innocents he was convinced existed.  This is the Abraham who would not cast out Haggar and his other son, Ishmael, until G-d has assured him of their safety.  This is the Abraham who lied to King Avimelech because he did not trust G-d to keep him safe, until G-d told him unequivocally not to worry.  This is the Abraham who laughed in the face of G-d when he was informed that he would have a son with Sara as he approached a century of existence.  The same Abraham who stood on that mountain ready to bring down the knife on that very son because G-d commanded him to.

Our sages have done some pretty admittedly spectacular efforts to make both Abraham and G-d come out with as positive a spin as possible.  Rashi's commentary suggests that G-d never included the actual sacrifice in his instructions; that instead, G-d's intent was for Abraham to simply bring up to the mountain.  The implication is that Abraham may have misheard G-d.  But if this is the case, what else did he hear incorrectly?

The word G-d uses to tell Abraham to sacrifice his son is no command at all.  G-d uses the word “Na,” a word used hundreds times in the Torah as a request.  And not just any request, mind you, commentator after commentator emphasizes that this word means an entreaty; an earnest or humble request.  This is the only time in the whole Torah that this word is attributed to G-d: this implies to me that G-d is giving Abraham the ability to say, “no.”

Except that Abraham does not.  Does he hear this as a request?  If he does, does he recognize his ability to deny it?  Does he freely volunteer to do it, or does he, as we use to say in the Marine Corps, treat it as if he is being voluntold.  

Abraham seems not to question what G-d has asked of him, he doesn't even say yes.  He just goes and does, with haste, without question.  Mishnaic commentary offered in the name of Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar states that Abraham's act of saddling his own donkey, rather than having his servants to it, is illustrative of him being overcome with great emotion.  Rabbi Simeon states that great love and great hatred can cause people to act outside the social order of things, implying that Abraham takes this particular action himself out of a powerful love of enacting G-d's will.

Now, I think Rabbi Simeon brings up a very good point about strong emotion, but stops far short for my tastes, confining this observation to a little bit of manual labor rather than killing his son as a human sacrifice.  I can accept that is was Abraham's strong emotions toward G-d were overshadowing his clear judgment and his already proven precedent of questioning, doubting, and bargaining with G-d; but I do not think great love is the emotion guiding Abraham forward and silencing his internal and external dissent. In the last moment when it appears that Abraham will do the deed and kill his son, an Angel swoops down to stay his hand, proclaiming:

"Do not stretch forth your hand to the lad, nor do the slightest thing to him, for now I know that you are a God fearing man, and you did not withhold your son, your only one, from Me."

Notice what the Angel acknowledges in Abraham: not love, not faith, not trust, but fear.  Abraham had suppressed the voice in his head, the kol demamah dakkah telling him G-d gave him a choice, telling him he could question, or bargain, or outright refuse, telling him that killing his son just might be wrong, because he was acting out of fear.  Why does he feel this way?  Having witnessed the utter destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the cursing of Avimelech, the sending away of Ishmael and Haggar, maybe Abraham's faith at this point was predicated on fearing a G-d that could visit upon him despair and destruction, rather than loving G-d who had provided him so much.  Is this really something that we can call, “faith?”

And so, I think that this was a trial that Abraham failed.  He failed because what once was love and trust of G-d had converted to fear of punishment.  He failed, because he rushed to the edge of a moral precipice, traveling 3 days with no contemplation, lied to his son about his mission, and was prepared to step off that precipice with nary a dissenting thought in his head.  All because of fear.

Even if I believe that Abraham has failed in this trial personally, I believe he succeeded for us all, because we can see him as a human, flaws and all.  He is not some perfect mythological figure who can do no wrong, he is a man whose failings can be an example to provide us with direction, here and now.  Have faith in G-d, but do not let it become blinded by unbridled passion, such as love, hate, or fear.  Make sure that what that faith tells you to do is still moral and sound.  For history is filled with a great many evils done in the name of a higher power, where the one who commits the evil believes he is acting soundly and justly.  And know that there is always room for questioning, and room to say no, because there is no Angel of the Lord standing by to swoop down and stay our hands at the last moment as with Abraham.  Know instead, that the metaphorical angel is your right to evaluate the situation, listen to the kol demamah dakkah, and say, no.

Originally posted to LivingOxymoron on Thu Oct 17, 2013 at 11:29 AM PDT.

Also republished by Elders of Zion, Street Prophets , and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  It sounds like you have worked your own way to (9+ / 0-)

    an interpretation I ran across in some feminist theology. Their perspective was that it was indeed a test, but a test that Abraham failed as he should have pleaded with God as he did for Sodom. And the takeaway lesson is that God can do great things even with those fallible humans who fail at the point of testing.

    Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? . . . and respect the dignity of every human being.

    by Wee Mama on Thu Oct 17, 2013 at 11:40:14 AM PDT

    •  I've run across the idea before (8+ / 0-)

      I've had an inkling of it myself for years, but it would come up in various liberal Jewish circles during the High Holy Days discussion groups, usually in the form of, "a friend of a friend heard a D'var."

      This year, though, I was able to go to the classic texts and pull out some more backup to what I've felt for years.  I didn't just arrive at it, but what I've learned help solidity and articulate it.

      "If you don't stick to your values when tested, they're not values! They're hobbies" - Jon Stewart

      by LivingOxymoron on Thu Oct 17, 2013 at 11:57:14 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thank you for your insight. I never really (7+ / 0-)

    understood the story of Abraham and his son. It never made sense to me that a god would require the sacrifice of a son or that a father could be so ready to make it, much less the last minute reprieve.

    I was taught (Christian) that it represented a forgiving god and a faithful, trusting servant.

    This explanation, that a fearful Abraham failed the test makes so much more sense to me. I was never able to reconcile the loving with the fearsome god. Which is probably why I now vacillate between agnostic and atheist.

    •  There's books and books written on this (7+ / 0-)

      Trying to reconcile the story.  There's writings that suggest that the "your son, your only son, the one you love, Isaac" is presenting one side of a back-and-forth argument, where Abraham is trying to stall or argue.  There's writings that suggest that this was a test for Isaac, who had boasted that he was so devout that if the Lord asked him to give up his life, he would happily do so.  There's writings to suggest that this was done as an example to others of the lengths the Hebrews would go for their faith and their people to dissuade others from attacking.  Still others say that this was a plot of jealous Angels, or of HaSatan, the Adversary (who occupies an interesting role in Jewish lore, different from the Devil of Christianity), to either prove to G-d that man wasn't worthy of divine attention, or to prove to G-d that they were.

      I just never found anything that I liked, so, like those ancient Rabbis, I interpreted and came up with my own idea.

      "If you don't stick to your values when tested, they're not values! They're hobbies" - Jon Stewart

      by LivingOxymoron on Thu Oct 17, 2013 at 12:14:59 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I also never came across an interpretation (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        LivingOxymoron, mayim, mettle fatigue

        that made any kind of emotional sense. I could see Abraham as beaten down, and kind of stooping more and more as he approached Moriah. He is running on automatic pilot.

        And in a way, he did sacrifice Isaac up on the mountain - he sacrificed his relationship to his beloved son.

        I wrote Abraham's reflections several years ago, which I thought you might like.

        Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be ... almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die. - Jonathan Safran Foer

        by ramara on Thu Oct 17, 2013 at 10:37:16 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  thnx for the link to your thoughtful 2011 posting. (0+ / 0-)

          reading it reminded me of a recurrent sense that there's more to the change of abraham's name than is usually discussed: it's not only change TO something radically, unprecedentedly new, but a change FROM what was.  what does that mean for a man born, raised, and grown to maturity never imagining anything different even existed?  a man whose name, as originally spelled, seems to mean "high father", as if he was designated to inherit the mantle of authority for his father's clan.    

          any man may perhaps become a father with authority over his marriages and begotten family in the eyes of the culture, but "high father" states preeminence over all the group greater than all other fathers in it.  Authority and power OVER...

          in the name is 'father of nations', pre-eminence of power and authority is gone as the descriptor.  a concept of OTHER PEOPLE has replaced it.    "power and authority OVER" is replaced with "responsibility FOR".

          the earth-shaking significance of his role in our canon is evidence that there was no concept before not only for a leader explcitly tasked in terms of what he owes to a g-d he didn't know before existed,BUT ALSO in terms of what he owes to all around and after him.

          before, everyone around him and all they had was subordinate to him and owed him service and support.  now he owes service and support to all of THEM.

          the planet has shifted under his feet.  he has no experience or training for this, no technical manual, no constitution, no applicable body of pre-existing common law.  his wife who was called "my princess" --signifying that her value was in WHOSE princess she was-- becomes, simply, "princess" in and of herself, as if, even being no signatory to her husband's covenant with g-d, she now has unprecedented tasks and choices too, as if "all of them" really is aimed to become "ALL of them."

          how expert could abraham be at tasks that didn't even exist before?  there was no way he could have imagined the struggles, confusions, trials, errors of judgment, bitter disappointments, painful losses, heartache, broken spirits he was in for, embarking on a radically new untested confusing challenge that never in known history existed before or was even thought of.

          ...the consequences that 2010/2011 poem illuminates.

          looked at objectively, he was set up to fail.

          as were all after him, because no culture can change on the instant unless their memory is erased, which, even if that were possible, would make survival impossible - they'd still need what skills they had inherited from the millenia before.  as we're taught again with the exodus, translating those those skills surviveably was the most they could realistically hope for... but couldn't begin to guess...  yet forged ahead with a new compass but no map, backlooping, repetitive, circuitous, and trap-riddled, yet on average across 2 or 3 millenia they little by little failed a little less, and a little less.

          generation after generation, the willingness to commit continued, perhaps at some point in realization that it needs doing and  it's worth doing.  a concept of responsibility in which we keep raising the bar higher, so we'll always be failing.  unless we realize as perhaps avram did, that staying preeminently in place is stagnation, and as "nasty, brutish, and short" as life in those times was, and even as much a triump as simply surviving in stagnation was, becoming avraham to literally walk away forward into the unknown, was a challenge that had to be met for the sake of all around him and all after him.   he set our first steps on the path of the idea that better is possible and simply worth leaving worse behind.

          sorry this went on so long again.  it was twice longer a couple of hours ago...

      •  acknowledg'g ramara's "running on autopilot" (0+ / 0-)

        which i see i absorbed without noticing in reading to quickly, and mixed with related thoughts in the "& wants them to discover what they might do when" comment.

  •  I guess the classic explanation (6+ / 0-)

    Is this was the way the ancient Hebrews came up with the prohibition of child sacrifice, or any human sacrifice.  Child sacrifice is specifically banned in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but the theory is there had to be a story to illustrate the point, not just a "thou shalt not".  In Second Kings 21:6, we learned that King Manasseh of Judea had his own son sacrificed, and he is condemned by the author of Second Kings as an evil and murderous king.

    "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals, now we know that it is bad economics." Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jan. 20, 1937

    by Navy Vet Terp on Thu Oct 17, 2013 at 12:28:00 PM PDT

    •  I have seen the notion (5+ / 0-)

      that this was a way to illustrate to Abraham -- and to his descendants -- the prohibition against child sacrifice, done in such a way as to make it clear that it was not because the worshippers of the One God were unwilling to make that sacrifice but because the One God didn't want them to.

      Depending on how one looks at it, this is true regardless of whether it was a story made up by the ancient Hebrews or a narrative enacted by God for Abraham's benefit.

    •  I realize that daughters (4+ / 0-)

      are not as highly regarded as sons, but there also is Jephtha, who was not saved from carrying out his pledge to kill his daughter.

      Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be ... almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die. - Jonathan Safran Foer

      by ramara on Thu Oct 17, 2013 at 10:39:55 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  unfortunatelyconsistent with how women & girls are (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        routinely regarded and treated in the canon, despite the exceptions we sometimes find (which sometimes are more apparent than actual).

        a doctoral-scholar friend whose focus is on cross-cultural patterns of the position and role of women in foundational literatures and in those societies in the present day has said misogyny to one degree or another is one of the commonest themes globally, if with sometimes surprising advances that emerge from unusual conditions and societal pressures rather than from the extremely recent phenomenon of intentional movements for change/liberation.  if i understood her correctly.

      •  There is at least one opinion (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        mayim, ramara, Eowyn9, Mortifyd

        that holds that Jephthah's daughter was allowed to go into seclusion for life instead of being sacrificed.  I have never been sure how much credence to give that, especially as it rather closely parallels the (anachronistic) notion of the convent.

        (Side note: you have to wonder what Jephthah would have done if, say, a favorite horse or dog had come out to meet him instead.  It's not like horses or dogs are kosher for sacrifice.)

        •  historically, women were probably the workhorses (0+ / 0-)

          in those cultures, they may not have seriously domesticated dogs yet, and someone recently showed me how "milk" as in "land of milk & honey" is actually goat or sheep milk.  plus even given climate change back then, egypt may have been the only culture using oxen as draft animals.  the only unkosher animal they may have had was perhaps dromedaries, which are no real use except for long distance travel.  as horrifying as it is, jepthah's daughter was, in effect, his favorite dog, and that;s what let him gamble with her life.  and what let the sacrifice be made of it.

          •  I don't know about current historical views (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            mettle fatigue, mayim

            but if one takes the Bible's word for it (and if one assumes that we have the translations correct), they had domesticated camels, horses, dogs, and donkeys.

            There are in fact specific commandments with regard to donkeys, including one about not hitching an ox and a donkey together to plow -- and one about how one must redeem a firstborn donkey, since it cannot be sacrificed.  There are also any number of common blemishes that would render even a kosher animal unfit for sacrifice.

            Point is, it was an idiotic vow to make; there are a dozen ways he could have wound up with an animal prohibited for sacrifice even without the outcome of winding up with a human being.

            •  exactly: how could "whomever" is included with (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Batya the Toon

              "whatever" in jephthah's vow, since his only child was a daughter.    and since that means there was a wife or concubine in the picture at some point.   the latter if still alive was being wagered as well, right along with whatever other human and animal chattel were at his home.  i suggest that HOW such a vow could even be thought of, is that it's entirely within the cultural mindset of the era[s] in which the story originated and was sustained.  Tanakh onward (and contemporaneous materials) are replete with the chattelizing of other human beings, especially females, and that's of course because human chattel was a fully embraced concept until very recent history and female humans implicitly chattel aside from unusual exceptions related to power of various kinds (e.g., Q of Sheba royalty power, Deborah prophecy power)

              perhaps i shouldn't have tangented into how common in which cultures contemporaneous with the origin era[s]/sustaining era[s] of the Jepththah story were which animals (at what stages of human-engineered domestication i.e., breeding for desired traits) to gauge the odds in the story of human lives being risked by jephthah:

              "Whatever/whoever emerges and comes out of the doors of my house to meet God’s, and I shall sacrifice him/her/it as a burnt offering."
                   Then he puts the blame on her:
              " 'Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low' !" but... 'I have given my word to God, and I cannot go back on it.' (Judges 11:35)."
                     "brought me very low" suggests she represented considerable value.  the value simply is unlikely to have been anything remotely resembling what we hope a father today might feel for/regard his daughter: wagering the life of a daughter in exchange for personal gain is less commnn now than it used to be.

              admittedly all of my responding re:jephthah is a tangent - i simply find tangents to often being very illuminating of the central ideas under discussion, and i welcome them when other discussants contribute those reflections.

              •  I'm a fan of tangents myself. :D (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                mettle fatigue

                I looked up the original Hebrew of Jephthah's vow, just to see if there's any whoever/whatever indicated in the language itself.  It reads as follows:

                וְהָיָה הַיּוֹצֵא אֲשֶׁר יֵצֵא מִדַּלְתֵי בֵיתִי לִקְרָאתִי בְּשׁוּבִי בְשָׁלוֹם מִבְּנֵי עַמּוֹן וְהָיָה לַיהֹוָה וְהַעֲלִיתִהוּ עוֹלָה
                This can be rendered, more or less:  "And it shall be, the forth-comer that shall come forth from my door of my house, upon my safe return from the sons of Amon, it shall be for God, and I will offer it up as an offering."

                I will say again: dumb, dumb vow.  But he's clearly not thinking about the women of his household at all, as evidenced by the fact that he uses the masculine-neuter verb form (rendered above as "it.")  The idea that a human being might be the first thing to come forth doesn't occur to him.  (Dumb.)

                It's worth pointing out, also, that when he sees her he tears his clothes -- a symbol of mourning, which was not done for merely a monetary loss.

                I'm not saying that human chattel wasn't a thing in the Tanakh, because obviously it was, but I don't think this is really an example of it.

                •  i see yr point, but confused why he'd tear his (0+ / 0-)

                  clothes in mourning on seeing his daughter be first to come forth unless he knew that his vow included humans.   does the hebrew of this text's era offer a gender-neutral word he might have used instead?

                  altho' then the consequence of his vow wouldn't come as such a shocker.  hm...

                  the property that "it" will come out of seems to be "house" rather than, e.g., "my farm" or "my domain".  can it be interpreted as something like those?  if not, the odds were awfully high that a human really would be what comes out first & has to be offered up.

                  unless people kept enough animals in the house in that specific culture that animals indoors would outnumber people indoors.  if not, the odds were never real good that a human wouldn't come out first.

        's as if there's a very intentionally written homily here rather like an aesop fable, "don't make sweeping promises to pay up if you don't want to be held to your promises."

                  i guess i'm maintaining that when he made that vow he always did know in some part of his mind, (i would agree it's the stupid part) that he was gambling with his daughter's life among other human lives, but with the odds on it being a human who didn't matter to him all that much, such as a slave.  if his warrior prowess was enough to get him asked to lead, despite his fatherless birth, the assumption may be expected that he did own slaves from successful warrioring.

                  and i guess i'm also maintaining that clothes-tearing & etc have been mentioned enough in other parshas not limited to grief for a beloved person but also other rages of negative emotion, so he could easily be distraught as much for having been brought low personally by how dumb he looks for his reckless vow, and by costing himself whatever advantages he might have hoped to gain by marrying his daughter into a family worth allying with or giving her in concubinage.  it's one of the things daughters are useful for in most of human history (sisters too -abraham/avram tells egypt that sarah/sarai is his sister for the sake of advantages to be gotten from egypt such as being allowed to live, not admitting she's his wife, and when he does finall admit it she's sent back and they're both booted outa egypt).  so monetary value as just a commodity to sell isn't the only form of value of a daughter or sister (another value is doing 'women's work' labor as specific to the given culture: carrying water in jars on the head from the well miles away, and getting in harness next to the donkey or ox to pull the plow, we still see in africa and asia today - her value in utilitarian terms depends on what's the economic level of the male relative who owns her.

                  thanks for finding and pasting the hebrew in, complete with nikudot.  i can't read much without nikudot.  must admit i was astonished that the word for house was actually used, so i'm interested if it turns out that means 'demesne' or homestead as well, which would change fundamentally what jephthah was betting.

                  much appreciation for continuing this side-trip, the unplanned scenery is always so fascinating!

                  •  Language stuff first ... (1+ / 0-)
                    Recommended by:
                    mettle fatigue

                    * The word for "house" can indeed also mean "household", which would include all of his possessions such as flocks and herds.  And, yes, servants and slaves.

                    * There is no strictly gender-neutral pronoun in Hebrew of any era.  The masculine is used if gender is unspecified -- which, since all nouns are also gendered, can only happen in "whatsoever" situations like this, where the noun itself is unspecified.

                    * Hebrew without nikudot is a pain and a half.

                    The problem I have with the notion that Jephthah was consciously gambling with the human lives of his household isn't so much that I don't think he would have held those lives so lightly -- it's that he promised to sacrifice whatever came forth, and humans do not make valid sacrifices.  It would be sort of like saying "Whatever comes forth to meet me will be betrothed to someone of my friend's household," when the house contains many living beings who could not make a valid betrothal (e.g. animals, married couples, non-Israelite servants/slaves, his own wife).

                    I've always felt this story was exactly that kind of cautionary-tale homily: don't make open-ended vows if you don't want something this terrible to happen to you.

                    •  (thnx 4 language help) the key is a contradiction (1+ / 0-)
                      Recommended by:
                      Batya the Toon

                      in logic: if it's true for one point in the story, it must be true for all points or the logic doesn't stand.

                      so, let's say he knew in the back of his mind that human life could not be a valid killed/burnt sacrifice, consistent with later commentary saying he just made her go celibate for life (or solitary confinement for life - a wikiped source says she was shut up in the tabernacle in solitary confinement.  that seems kind of absurd since she'd be awfully expensive to kept confined, fed, slops carried out, menstruation dealt in a tabernacle f'heavens sakes?) but in any case forced to pay with HER body for the fulfillment of HIS vow. that's still means
                      [1] she WAS included in the vow,
                      [2] therefore all the human lives under his control were included (GOK what he'dhave forced from her mother or from a slave...)

                      and it follows that him blaming her for bringing him low & tearing his garments was a rage of mourning for HIS OWN loss of the disposability of her virginity/marriageability.  

                      some commentary says he could have redeemed her from any form of being given to g-d simply by the regulation 10 or 20 shekels, drachma, or whathaveyou.  but there's no mention of him even considering that., so he wasn't willing to go out of pocket to return the situation back to before he made that vow.  he'd just won major battle winning himself chieftanship of the Gileadites that he'd bargained with them for, so it's not like he had no resources.

                      the story is said to end "the daughters of Israel went four days each year to lament about the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite' (Judges 11:40)."

                      Four days is a lot of lamenting merely over the misfortunate of having no children to take care of her in her old age.  (have no g'kids to do the same for her father might've been his reason for being distraught but he could always remarry or reconcubine in order to beget a son or at least try, so him being deprived of g'kids for that or sustenance-of-name purposes doesn't wash).  it may have been a pretty awful future but not worth 4 days of all the daughters of israel to lament about.

                      so... all in all, and given how spotty is observance of so much of what law exists at the time, the superficial lesson does seem to be, as we agree, "don't make stupid open-ended vows", and the broader meaning is, as i guess i do say every time a dvar illustrates women being treated as chattel, that that's what all the existing evidence of history says is what women were in most of the world up 'thru quite modern times, (granted with complexities in some cases), and their central value was in what they could do for the man owning them, be it sex for him or for the king in whose country they're guests, pulling a plow alongside a donkey, being married off to advantageous allies, being given in marriage or concubinage to settle a debt, or sold outright.  or tied to a stake on the top of a hill for enemies to be distracted into shooting full of arrows or trying to rape her whilst his own army sneaks around to flank the enemy & wipe them out.

                      in studying the materials NOW, we pretty much HAVE to rationalize and commentarize the canon to a fairtheewell if we're to claim our canon demands us to be better human beings than we generally are being at any given moment in our history, and that's exactly what jews have done for over 2,000 years but we also had other driving needs/reasons/goals for constant reinterpretation... let's discuss those sometime too!  


      •  And he is roundly criticized for that! (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Navy Vet Terp, mettle fatigue

        As is Pinchas, the High Priest at the time, for not intervening to stop the sacrifice. The rabbinic tradition is often quick to criticized the prominent figures in Jewish history -- but not always. (More in the next comment.)

        To be fair there is also a rabbinic opinion that the daughter was not killed but lived apart from the world, never marrying, and never having children.

        •  The consensus of rabbinic opinion (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Navy Vet Terp, mettle fatigue

          praises Avraham Avinu for being zealous to carry out God's commandments -- even one as inexplicable as this. He is seen as a model for us to follow.

          This is of course rather difficult! There is a midrash that says that the Avot -- Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov -- observed the entire Torah. This despite Avraham serving a milk and meat meal to his guests at the beginning of this parsha and the even more significant issue of Yaakov Avinu marrying two sisters. Why, the Torah forbids child sacrifice!

          There are commentaries that do allegorize difficult passages in the Torah, such as that of the talking snake. I haven't seen one here, though.

  •  I wonder if there is a hidden third (6+ / 0-)

    person as part of this story.  Because God can see into our hearts / mind / soul it seems to me that He doesn't need "proof" of our faith through overt actions: He knew Abraham's strengths and weaknesses; He knows our deepest darkness sins as well as celestial aspirations .  I am wondering if these actions of Abraham were to teach something to the son or to others that were aware of what was happening at the time.  Or to crystallize some thoughts / doubts that were going through Abraham's head - it was a way to reconcile some conflict by acting it out (?).

    I am not putting this very well - obviously there is a lesson to learn, that is why it is in scripture.  But I am wondering if there is a more to it than "blind" faith, or a slipping of faith or a way to illustrate the banning of child sacrifice (although all of these are very good lessons and credible and highly thoughtful interpretations)

    •  The beautiful thing to me about Judaism and Torah (5+ / 0-)

      At least to me... It transcends time and space.  It is a constant, in that the scrolls contain the same words as they have for thousands of years, yet each new generation sees new context to put into them, and take away from them.  

      I don't think you're giving yourself enough credit... you're making perfect sense to me.

      "If you don't stick to your values when tested, they're not values! They're hobbies" - Jon Stewart

      by LivingOxymoron on Thu Oct 17, 2013 at 01:47:26 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  A way to reconcile some conflict by acting it out (6+ / 0-)

      strikes me as a very good way to look at it.

      It's been said by many commentators that every time God "tests" people, it's not because He wants to know what they'll do; it's because He wants them to know what they'll do.

      •  Which, of course, plays havoc with free will ;) (3+ / 0-)

        ...but I know what you mean, and totally agree (my own experience as a piano teacher with "testing" students is very similar!)

        "We are stardust, we are golden, and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." (Joni Mitchell)

        by Eowyn9 on Thu Oct 17, 2013 at 08:42:12 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  & wants them to *discover* what they might do when (5+ / 0-)

        in a state of horrified agonized shock, on auto-pilot staggering for days through the motions, incapable of clear thought, desperately relying on hope that what they've come to trust will before too late come to their aid.

        i've heard war veterans describe it like that, looking back on days and weeks in combat zones; also the just-bereaved, lurching 'thru the motions of shiva, unconsciously waiting for/thinking it will make sense at some point, it can't be what it is, keep moving, keep moving, don't fall.

        i always thought it was a pretty horrific way for abraham to be taught that g-d can be trusted - that's was said to be one of the lessons of this.

        another lesson in this: self-discovery of what we might do if the situation is so bad we can't think clearly.  because the are times in life when the greatest challenges to make good choices are clouded with incapacitation.  in the concentration camps of ww2, people caught permanently in that shock were called 'musselmans'[sp?].

        another:  abraham being too eager to please god had not yet learned to listen carefully, and only grasped what he thought he was told, didn't question it in conflictedly trying to meet the demand and figure it out at the same time, too engrossed in his own objectives to recognize that the fact that the the situation made no sense was the key ...
        so he had to learn the hard way that what we seem to be required to do may be the voice of our desperate desire to be considered worthy in the eyes of Whom it matters to us most, even in the worst, hardest task of all --because surely the worst produces the best proof of worthiness-- when in actuality what should be most desired is to listen for the true message: not the desire to be considered worthy, but the determination to DO what IS worthy.

        the most important lessons can be the ones hardest to learn and the most unclear or mistaken at first.

        •  Oh now I LIKE that last notion. (6+ / 0-)

          That Abraham was so eager to do God's will that it didn't occur to him to stop and figure out that what he'd been told couldn't possibly be what God actually wanted.

          (I have more to say on this but running out the door -- will comment again later today!)

        •  Further comment as promised (5+ / 0-)

          I have heard an interpretation that is essentially this one turned inside out: that the purpose of this test was to give Abraham the chance to prove that he would obey God's word even against his own better judgment.

          And the reason God had to command him to do something that would in fact have been an abomination to God ... was that Abraham's own judgment was so closely aligned with God's that any true commandment would have seemed intuitively to Abraham like a good idea.  So the only way to give him an opportunity to ignore his own opinions in favor of God's command was to give him an inherently faulty command.

          This assumes that obeying God against his better judgment was the right thing to do, and was in fact the entire point of the exercise.

          •  yes, the tension between the choices has to (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            produce instructive and cautionary conclusions of all kinds.  

            the interpretation you just added was what i was taught as a child in hebrewschool, and the way we were taught never even hinted that there was any other way to understand what we were taught except precisely what the teacher said.  only after i realized that all early schooling is unilateral, if only to just get youngsters processed 'thru, and began to have complex discussion with my father about it all, did i begin to see that jewish religion and consequently jewish thinking is multifacted and complex.

            but at the time that particular story frightened me deeply, in its denial of self seeming to reinforce that the abuse i was being put through was allowed because the abuser was in authority over me, and --even worse-- that this made it NOT abuse and me totally at fault for even having bruises and injuries, even feeling physical and psychological pain.  it all seemed to justify that i had no right to anything but silence and acceptance, and the hope that "trying" to be a good girl would eventually result in my being good (being punished must have meant i was not good, i dimly assumed) and when i was good enough i wouldn't suffer anymore.

            what's extremely humanly compelling in abraham's dilemma as i NOW see it is that if we take the events are as having literally happened, multiple motives and incentives would have been tearing abraham in all directions, and the those that happened to combine in a particular choice direction were what determined his actions.  no single drive, because there are too many too powerful for any one to prevail over all the others.  humans are complex.  there's little we do for a single isolated reason, even tho' the polarization basic to western thought (good/evil, right/wrong) forces that artificial either/or, guilty/innocent that leads to the notion that anything that happens must happen for only one reason/from only one cause, only one can be "true".

            in medicine, a serious example of 1-for-1 thinking is the decades of women being told that calcium alone makes strong bones and a responsible sensible woman therefore has high calcium intake - producing a wide age-cohort with disrupted function of heart and G.I. tract, and less sturdy bone due to inadequate Vit D & Vit K proportional to the calcium intake.  & probably more nutrients, some we may not yet know exist.

            in law & related inquiry, the impact is, "what was your reason" for doing whatever's being judged, rather than "what were your reasonS".  as westerners for centuries, we are inevitably influenced that way.  as jews, more complexly and multidimensionally.  much of torah seems to me NOW to teach (even if unintentionally) what it didn't in my childhood & youth: the evanescence and narrow "good" of rigid unilateral triumph.

            it's a relief to the child part of me to know abraham's story explained in so many ways.

    •  I have a friend (5+ / 0-)

      who wrote a Midrash in which Abraham becomes obsessed with the idea because of a deeply unconscious blaming of Isaac for the loss of Ishmael. His revelation is written as coming out of a trance, and being shown the complexity of his love and anger, and most of all, of his love for Isaac.

      Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be ... almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die. - Jonathan Safran Foer

      by ramara on Thu Oct 17, 2013 at 10:43:37 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Yes, love our children equally (4+ / 0-)

        A commandment that all three of the patriarchs appeared to ignore.

        "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals, now we know that it is bad economics." Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jan. 20, 1937

        by Navy Vet Terp on Fri Oct 18, 2013 at 01:52:55 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Abraham does the best job of it (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          but his children get traumatized anyway.

          Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be ... almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die. - Jonathan Safran Foer

          by ramara on Fri Oct 18, 2013 at 02:46:35 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  The rabbinic tradition is that (0+ / 0-)

            Yitzchak and Yishmael eventually reconcile. Not so Esav and Yaakov. And apparently not Yosef and his brothers.

            •  Personally (0+ / 0-)

              I never thought they fell out and needed to reconcile. The only conflict mentioned in the text is between the mothers. In my imagined scenario, they start to visit each other when Isaac is old enough and Hagar and Ishmael are near enough.

              Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be ... almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die. - Jonathan Safran Foer

              by ramara on Mon Oct 21, 2013 at 01:52:11 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

        •  I don't think there's any commandment (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Navy Vet Terp

          to love all your children equally -- it's not the law, it's just a good idea.

          But as you say, a good idea that all three of the patriarchs appeared to ignore.  And that Joseph managed, at least according to midrash.

  •  While this is a fascinating interpretation (6+ / 0-)

    I'm not sure the word "fear" is enough to hang it on, as that's a translation of yir'ah, which is closer to awe than to fear of punishment.

    Everything Abraham has seen, though, is certainly enough to suggest that he had reason to fear that God would punish him if he refused this gently-worded command.  By smiting him, as with Sodom; or by causing him to fall ill, as with Pharaoh; or even just by withdrawing from him, ceasing to speak to him.

    There's a lot of room to interpret this story as Abraham having made the wrong call, or having made the call for the wrong reasons.

    •  But awful and terrible (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      mettle fatigue

      originally meant the same thing, and awe and terror and fear were seen as very close, if not the same, feelings.

      But you can teach children with love or with fear - not both.

      Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be ... almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die. - Jonathan Safran Foer

      by ramara on Thu Oct 17, 2013 at 10:48:53 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I don't think I agree with that last. (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Eowyn9, ramara, Mortifyd

        You can certainly teach children with fear and without love, or with love and without fear, but teaching children with both love and fear is more or less how it was done for centuries.

        The only way love and fear can't possibly go together is if the fear is fear of not just punishment but of actual harm.

        •  Studies of attachment (0+ / 0-)

          say that love is stronger than fear, but intermittent love is the strongest. I suppose that's clinging to hope.

          Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be ... almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die. - Jonathan Safran Foer

          by ramara on Fri Oct 18, 2013 at 11:54:52 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  This actually should be phrased (0+ / 0-)

          Children will obey you out of fear or out of love, which is rather relevant to this story, don't you think?

          Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be ... almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die. - Jonathan Safran Foer

          by ramara on Sat Oct 19, 2013 at 06:33:37 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Again, I think "both" is absolutely possible. (0+ / 0-)

            And that's even when the fear is of actual harm rather than just discipline.

            And yes, that's definitely relevant to the story and to interpretations thereof.  But as with mettle fatigue's comment above, it's important to recognize that people can hold two (or many, many more) apparently contradictory motivations at the same time.  Obeying out of fear and out of love is possible, and there are some schools of thought that hold the combination to be the ideal attitude of a child to a parent -- or a worshipper to a deity.

  •  Beautiful and insightful -- thank you! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ramara, mettle fatigue, Navy Vet Terp

    I have never been satisfied with conventional explanations of the Abraham/Isaac sacrifice story. This is wonderful.

    I loved your use of the phrase "kol demamah dakkah" -- which I had never heard before, but assumed (and a Google search confirmed) it was the phrase generally translated as "still, small voice" in the Elijah story. Does it appear anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible? I'm reminded of Socrates' description of his "daimonion" in the Apology -- his interior voice, in other words conscience, the warning voice that told him to think again when he was about to do something wrong.

    Have you ever read the fantasy book "The Book of Joby"? It's a retelling of the story of Job (in a modern setting). I don't want to give too much away...but it comes to some of the same conclusions that you do. I agree that God would MUCH rather we disobeyed his command (or a command we thought was from him) rather than do something that goes against morality and against our conscience.

    "We are stardust, we are golden, and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." (Joni Mitchell)

    by Eowyn9 on Thu Oct 17, 2013 at 06:16:49 PM PDT

    •  That's a question I've struggled with for a while. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Eowyn9, ramara, mettle fatigue

      The comedian Stephen Wright has a line I love, something  like this: "I think my brain's the most important part of me.  On the other hand, look what's telling me that."

      Because, see, I am inclined to agree with you:  I think it's far more moral to do something because your own moral sense tells you it's right, rather than to do it because God said to.

      ... on the other hand, look what's telling me that.

  •  You don't have to write G-d (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ramara, mettle fatigue

    The injunction against writing out his name only applies to Hebrew, not English ( or any other language for that matter).
    God!  There, I wrote it!

  •  Like your ending. (5+ / 0-)

    Last para; nice to read. Good luck with your studies.

    “I came here in peace, seeking gold and slaves.” - Jack Handey

    by yojimbo on Thu Oct 17, 2013 at 08:25:50 PM PDT

  •  these words of yours (5+ / 0-)
    I think Rabbi Simeon brings up a very good point about strong emotion, but stops far short

    in every generation, the thinking minds of that time take understanding another step further, so every next generation and every next sees that part of the work of being alive is to advance our human understanding

    much appreciation for your beautiful work and into the future.

    •  Spoken as a true Burkean (6+ / 0-)

      I've been meaning to write a diary on the philosophy of Edmund Burke, known as the founder of Conservatism, how the so-called "conservatives" of today are not Burkeans but true radicals.  Many, although not all, of the people who  comment and write diaries on Daily Kos are truer to the mantle of Edmund Burke, believing that:  

      In every generation, the thinking minds of that time take understanding another step further, so every next generation and every next sees that part of the work of being alive is to advance our human understanding another step further.
      That is as true for the great experiment of American democracy as it is true for faith.

      "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals, now we know that it is bad economics." Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jan. 20, 1937

      by Navy Vet Terp on Fri Oct 18, 2013 at 01:51:06 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  similar 2 mandy patinkin saying to wallace shawn (0+ / 0-)

        in The princess bride by william goldman (an irresistible string of M.O.T.) about shawn's character repeatedly shouting "inconceivable!"-- my assessment of what happens and how it happens isn't really an endorsement, but at the same time i'm grateful it happens at all.  ;)

        and after all ('tho it's little to do with this thread), opposers of equal opportunity/equal-rights/mutual responsibility certainly do like the word "conservative" because it sounds so sane, so sensible, so rational, so frugal, so ... conservationist!  who in american names themselves selfish, xenophobic, self-indulgent, arrogant, penny-wise-pound-foolish, self-righteous, cinderella-obsessed plutocratic fawning privilege-worshippers?  no, they're going to label themselves so as to wrap themselves in the flag (which barbara bush literally did at, i believe, the convention nominating her sociopathic son - first time i ever saw people like that make clothes out of in effect a flag - a 'Nam medic friend of mine nearly had a stroke in sheer rage at her technical violation of flag rules) in a way they anticipate will bring them the support of easily-misled people, whom they've made that way by 40 years of underminding american public education k-gradschool.

        i did sort of review te wikiped article on burke and my sense of it is that the substance of the issues in his time were so materially different from now that i can't quite figure out how to translate it to now.  i freely admit to conservative socialism - i.e., that IS what and how i prefer things to be/happen.  or possibly conservative collectivism.  ehhhh, the isms are slippery wiggly buggers.  all in all, i guess i was being sort of complimented?  :P

  •  I love young, enthusiastic theologians (4+ / 0-)

    Thank you for your service to the nation and for the modern progression of theological study you represent.

    "no more hurting people - peace" Martin William Richard

    by EquityRoy on Fri Oct 18, 2013 at 06:33:06 AM PDT

  •  I personally think that if the character of (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ramara, LivingOxymoron

    Abraham was acting out of fear, he had enough examples of G-d's behavior to justify that fear. So in that sense, I don't agree that he failed except in the light of the fact that he was a coward in the face of that fear.

    •  Except that he argued with God (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      mayim, Eowyn9, ramara, Fishtroller01, JDsg

      over Sodom and Gomorrah, so I guess he had courage here, cowardice there.   And over Sodom and Gomorrah, God backed down five times, going from 50, to 45, 40, 30, 20 to 10.  If he were truly a coward he wouldn't have argued, or would have stopped at 45 and not pressed his luck.  

      But I'm not so sure "coward" is the right word to describe obeying a (possible) order to kill one of your two sons.  I have two sons and if anyone gave me such an order I would tell that person to get f--cked, no matter how powerful that person is.  The more instinctive reaction is for a parent to shield his or her child, as a father recently did in Colorado for his daughter during a rock slide, saving his daughter's life at the cost of his own.

      "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals, now we know that it is bad economics." Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jan. 20, 1937

      by Navy Vet Terp on Fri Oct 18, 2013 at 02:18:57 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Exactly (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        ramara, Fishtroller01

        There is really no level of fear that could compel me volitionally to take a knife to the throat of my son.  It is such a terrible story.  Isaac was an adult at the time -- why did he allow himself to be bound on the altar?  Surely he could have fought off Abraham, who was well over 100 years old.  Also, why does God call Isaac Abraham's only son?  Abraham never disowned Ishmael, who jointly presided with Isaac at Abraham's burial.  (And he may have later married Hagar, but that's another story . . . . .)

        •  Isaac's age at the time (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Navy Vet Terp, Batya the Toon

          is not certain. Those who interpret the story so he is 33 do so because he was 33 at the time of Sarah's death, the next incident in Abraham's story, saying that news of Isaac's death killed her, or that joy on hearing that Isaac was spared was too much for her heart and she died. But other than the fact that one event comes after the other does not mean they happened at the same time.

          In the text itself, Isaac is called "lad" or "boy" a few times, and his question to Abraham sounds like a child's question.

          I was taught that Isaac was 13 at the time of the Akeda, and to me that makes more sense. If so, Abraham's sons went through difficult coming-of-age rites (circumcision for Ishmael and near-death for Isaac, which would make any Bar Mitzvah seem like a piece of cake.

          Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be ... almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die. - Jonathan Safran Foer

          by ramara on Fri Oct 18, 2013 at 11:50:33 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  God was frequently wishy-washy apparently. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        "Have a good time... all the time." -Viv Savage

        by The House on Sat Oct 19, 2013 at 06:52:40 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Do you know Ens. Dan Millner? (0+ / 0-)

    He is a rabbinical student at the (orthodox) Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a rabbinic intern at the (orthodox) Hebrew Institute of Riverdale where I am on the board, and also in the Navy Chaplain program.

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