Monday, November 09, 2009

Coming of Age in Avraham's Tent

The book of Bereishit is a book of family. The subjects of father, mother and child, filial responsibility, parenthood and inheritance -- spiritual and physical -- are featured as central themes of the first fifth of the Torah. At the end of Vayera, the Torah presents its reader with two clearly connected stories, which, through subtlety and hints, reveal the roots of geo-political realities for centuries to come. The two stories are separated only by the flimsiest of pretexts; the episodes are the story of Yishmael's deportation, and the tale of Yitzchak's near sacrifice.

The parallels between the two episodes are many and multi-layered, found in both the language the Torah employs, as well as the imagery and details of each story:

  1. In both events, a cherished and beloved son is sent out of Avraham's tent, seemingly never to return.
  2. Both include a seemingly completely passive actor (a son), and an active parent.
  3. In each (21:14, 22:3), וישכם אברהם בבקר, Avraham rises in the early morning to dispense with a distasteful task.
  4. In both tales, the passive child is literally about to die.
  5. In both passages (21:17, 22:11, 16), a מלאך, a heavenly angel, protests the death.
  6. Both stories have the angel of heaven revealing to the active parent something which he did not see before, but now sees (a well for Hagar in chapter 21, and a ram for Avraham in 22).
  7. Each episode ends with a blessing of the child as the source of a great and numerous nation.
  8. Both end with hints at a suitable marriage for the passive child (now a man), and thus a way for the blessing to be actualized.
Clearly, the Torah wanted these two passages to be read together, to be compared, and most importantly, to be contrasted. So, what differences are evident in the tales?
  1. In the Yishmael story (ch. 21), Avraham protests Sarah's demand of deportation initially, and only agrees when God commands it. In the Yitzchak episode (ch. 22), there is no scriptural evidence of Avraham's protest.
  2. In ch. 21, it is the women who take active roles in the events, while in ch. 22, Avraham does so.
  3. In ch. 21, Hagar, in her anguish over the deterioration of her son's situation, shows selfishness in casting him away so that she "not see the death of the boy". In stark contrast, even in the most trying time for the father-son relationship, Avraham and Yitzchak's relationship is twice described as the most intimate, filial, loving relationship, יחדיו -- they are sublimely, simply, "together".
  4. The word גוי, "nation" is used in ch. 21 to refer to Yishmael's future nation-offspring, while in ch. 22 the word is used only to describe the other nations, those not from the seed of Avraham.
  5. The angel in ch. 21 is a מלאך אלקים. The name of God used here traditionally signifies Lord of judgment, strictness and nature. In ch. 22, it is מלאך ה' -- the name of God is the personal God, That of mercy, loving-kindness and intimacy.
  6. In ch. 21, the ending blessing is given directly to Yishmael. However, in ch. 22, Yitzchak does not receive any direct blessing. Rather, it is given to Avraham.
What are we to make of these two events? The following theory is not an exhaustive explanation of the above comparisons. There are certainly endless themes and points of contrast here that may be plumbed. However, I would like to present my first thoughts, and leave the comparisons and contrasts as food for further thought.
It first strikes the reader that these episodes are really coming-of-age stories. In both, a passive child is transformed into a man with a divinely-mandated destiny. It is important, therefore, that the two children be passive initially. However, by the end of the story, each child is prepared for marriage. Marriage is the threshold of majority; when Yishmael's mother chooses a wife for him (21:21), he is invested as a grown man, ready to fulfill his destiny. And at the end of the Yitzchak tale, the lineage of Betuel, and Rivka his daughter, is seen by the Rashi as the oblique reference to Yitzchak's being mature for marriage. Finding appropriate wives, Yishmael and Yitzchak are ready to begin their Godly destinies.
However, these destinies are widely divergent. One will become the unique vessel through which God fulfills His promise to His beloved Avraham. The other will bring forth twelve princes of the desert (17:20), living and dying by the ethos of the sword (16:12). This point is brought to light by the difference in the stories regarding the final blessings (difference #6). Yitzchak's blessing is given to him indirectly; Avraham receives the blessing from God, and this blessing as a matter of course devolves upon Yitzchak. This is evident because the blessing is immediately followed by the marriage of Yitzchak. כי ביצחק יקרא לך זרע -- In Yitzchak you will have "seed" (21:12). The Torah is quite exact in its choice of terms in the blessing of ch. 22: "כי ברך אברכך והרבה ארבה את זרעך ...וירש זרעך...והתברכו בזרעך". In this blessing (22:17-18), the term for the progeny is "seed", reflecting the fact that the blessing currently being given to Avraham will only be fulfilled through his "seed" -- previously identified exclusively as Yitzchak.
On the other hand, Yishmael's blessing is given directly to him, through no intermediary. Indeed, in the eyes of destiny, Yishmael is a new man, a man without a father, a man who carries no previous tradition into his future.
This distinction is evident in the diction of both blessings. Whereas Yishmael is blessed to be a גוי גדול, Yitzchak's blessing (through Avraham) states that through him, גויי הארץ, the nations of the land, will be blessed. The word for "nation" that tells what Yishmael will become is precisely the same word used to tell Avraham and Yitzchak who will be blessed by them, and who is considered outside of their chosen group. Yishmael is a גוי, he is a nation amongst the nations of the world, and set apart from the זרע הנבחר.
In the same vein, the God that saves Yishmael is אלקים -- God of strict, natural justice. It is the God that does not judge Yishmael on future actions, but באשר הוא שם, in what he is now. This is quite different from being saved by the loving, intimate and merciful ה', who saves Yitzchak. Indeed, the blessings and methods of salvation continue to delineate between the divergent futures of these two sons of Avraham.
Perhaps these divergent futures are necessary products of the parenting exhibited during the coming-of-age crises. Yishmael is fatherless in his story -- he has been exiled by his father. (Indeed, he returns (according to the midrash) only to bury his father with his brother, and to demonstrate that he has no part as a chosen son.) His mother exhibits callousness and selfishness. The pain of watching her son wither away is too much for her, and she casts him away from her, the distance of an arrow's flight (21:16). Her callousness develops her son and his descendents into men who place themselves at odds with other men, and at odds with the Jewish spark (Yishmael is seen by Rashi (commenting on Zecharia 6:1) as the final exiler and oppressor of Israel). Perhaps to underscore how deeply the parental instinct of Hagar has impressed itself upon Yishmael, a mere four verses after she casts him away, the same bow and arrow is employed in 20:20 to describe Yishmael's weapon of choice. Yishmael's mother and her persona make him unfit as a son of Avraham.
On the other hand, Yitzchak, as pointed out earlier, is imbued by Avraham, his parent, with tremendous love and kindness, even when obeying God's most seemingly harsh commands. Together, intimately, father and son scale a mountain, and together, just as intimately, they descend it, and the son is invested not only with his destiny, but with his inner character.
(To further drive home this dual, inter-generational relationship, a parallel can be found in the fact that this is not Hagar's first exile from Avraham's home. In ch. 16, she leaves leaves to escape Sarah's abuse. The cycle seems to be repeated in Yishmael, although in his case, the exile is divinely justified, whereas in Hagar's case, it is not. On the other hand, Avraham is also commanded to self-exile himself (parallel to Hagar) from his father's home. He does so, and thus provides prental precedent for Yitzchak's sacrifice event.
Ultimately, in a social setting where birthright and inheritance are of extreme importance and fought over vehemently, it was important for God's plan to leave no uncertainty as to which son bore the noble title of "Son of Avraham". The coming-of-age denouements related in our parasha show how God defined each child with their destiny, and set them on their often-opposing paths for subsequent history. In this light, we understand well the Torah's decision to tell, in 25:6, of the sending away of Avraham's subsequent children. As with Yishmael, they needed to be unequivocally denied the option of supplanting or even joining Yitzchak as the physical or spiritual inheritor of Avraham.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Vayera and Providence

The Ralbag (late-13th C - mid-14th C) was a great talmudist and halachist. He is perhaps remembered best, however, for his commentary on the Torah. To the modern and traditionalist views, the Ralbag's commentary is quirky; he believed in astrology, and yet had non-conventional views on Heavenly omniscience, because of philosophical considerations. His commentary to the Chumash is a very interesting read, for its diversity of thought and divergence from other Jewish thinkers.

It is the Ralbag's habit, after explaining the story verse by verse and conceptually, to list a number of "benefits" that are to be reaped from the passage. Some are character-building, and some are philosophical lessons. In the story of Lot and Sodom, Ralbag finds a philosophical lesson regarding the nature of Divine Providence. This lesson explains the method through which God affects providential salvation1 of humans.

The Ralbag states (עמ' קלח בהוצאת מוסד הרב קוק): "It is unbecoming of Man to neglect his own safety, [and rely] exclusively on the protection of God. Rather, he should be very diligent, for God causes his deliverance through man utilizing the best method available to protect himself. This is one of the tools with which God's providnece is completed: when a person is notified of the evil that will befall him...God provides salvation when [the man] tries to distance that evil in any possible way. And for this reason, Lot was commanded to quickly run, not look back or rest, until reaching the place where his salvation would be completed. If he did this, he would escape; if not, the evil would befall him."

Essentially, Man's own efforts to insightfully and wisely defend himself against danger through the natural means at his disposal is a part of the providence through which God protects those deserving of protection. This idea is crystallized by the Ran in his eighth essay (דרשות הר"ן, עמ' שיט בהוצאת מוסד הרב קוק). In discussing one method through which God protects people from dangers that crop up in life, he writes: "God places in the hearts of those who do His will the idea to do actions which by their nature protect them from damage from the system of the universe [luck, chance, uncertainty, call it what you will]." (This is also the view of the Ibn Ezra, as mentioned in a footnote to this page.)

In other words, the very insights we often have in a time of danger -- which path to take, what to say -- these ways that we extricate ourselves from perilous situations, are part of God's providential protection. What we see as our proactive stance and willingness to do our utmost to help ourselves are, in reality, a critical element of Divine assistance. (Perhaps this is what Rambam meant when he wrote (in his Letter on Astrology, translated here) that the destruction of the Jewish State around 70 CE was a result of the Israelites spending time learning astrology, instead of focusing their efforts the study on war- and states-craft. In the light of the above discussion, perhaps this missallocation of intellectual resources was God's providence removing its protective shield from Judea, leaving them open to attack and destruction.)

It is interesting to see how our sages of centuries past viewed the philosophical issues with which we still grapple. I am not sure that Ralbag would see God's Providence in only the terms set out by the above-quoted passage, and am certainly not sure that I see it only in these terms. Part of religious life is to experience God and His providence personally. This leads away from the "how" of Divine providence, which is an abstract philosophical challange, to the concrete affirmation of our lives as a part of the Divine plan, no matter the exact mechanism we can envisage that God used to alter the course of events. To experience the latter is life changing, to say the least.

And so this short post is not at all meant to limit the "acceptable" answers to this and other philosophical questions, but to widen the scope. Considering these issues will, I hope, motivate us to think deeply about modern Man and God -- to reference our intellectual history (which often had different philosophical assumptions than we do today), and blaze trails where novel ideas can be of assistance. I pray that this ultimately allow us to see God's interest and intimate involvement in our lives more clearly each day.

1 For other discussions of Divine providence that we have had here, search the blog for the term 'Providence'.

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