parshat vayera, genesis 18 -22
Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on November 10th 2022 on Clubhouse. We look at the Binding of Isaac and wonder whether Abraham passed or failed this test. What possible lessons are to be learnt from this narrative other than blind faith and obedience. Finally, we are puzzled why Abraham confronts God over Sodom and confronts Sarah over sending away Ishmael but remains silent when it comes to sacrificing his son.
Welcome to Madlik. My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition. Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8:00pm Eastern and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Vayera and we watch with pride as Abraham confronts God over Sodom and confronts Sarah over sending away Ishmael but we are dumbfounded as Abraham remains silent when it comes to sacrificing his son. We look at the Binding of Isaac and wonder whether Abraham passed or failed this test? What possible lessons can we learn from this horror story other than that blind faith and obedience are to be rewarded? So put away your puzzles and join us as we try to untangle this riddle: Unbinding Isaac.
So boy, it really is a riddle. And it’s a riddle every year, it never goes away, it never gets solved. This strange story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son. So, I think I’m gonna just jumped into the text. The only thing that I will say is what is going to be different about this year is we’re going to at least try to put it into context. And that is because it begins with four words, וַיְהִ֗י אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה Sometime afterward, God put Abraham to the test. And through the magic of computers, and Google, and Sefaria, I can tell you that this is the first time that phrase is used in the Torah. So, this is a episode. This is a drama that cries out to be put into context. So here we go. It’s Genesis 22. Sometime afterward, God put Abraham to the test, saying to him, Abraham, he answered, here I am הִנֵּֽנִי. Take your son, your favorite one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there is a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you. So early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac, he split the word for the burnt offering. And he set out for the place of which God had told him and on the third day, looked up and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his servants, you stay here with the ass, the boy and I will go up there, we will worship and we will return to you. Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac. He Himself took the firestone and the knife and the two walked off together. וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם יַחְדָּֽו. Then Isaac said to his father, Abraham Father? And He answered, Yes, my son, and he said he are the firestone and the wood. But where is the sheep for the burnt offering? And Abraham said, It is God who will see to the sheep for this bunt offering my son, and the two of them worked on together, וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם יַחְדָּֽו they arrived at the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, he laid out the word, He bound his son Isaac, he laid him on the altar on top of the wood, and Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son, then a messenger of God called to him from heaven, Abraham, Abraham, and he answered, here I am הִנֵּֽנִי. Do not raise your hand against the boy or do anything to him. For now, I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favorite one from me. When Abraham looked up his I fell upon a ram cord in the thicket by its horns. So, Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. And Abraham named that site ה’ ׀ יִרְאֶ֑ה whence the present saying on the mountain of God there is vision, the Messenger of God called Abraham a second time from heaven and said, by myself, I swear God declares because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your favorite one, I will bestow my blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven, and the sands on the seashore. And your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed my command. Abraham then returned to his servants, I could add alone, because it says only Abraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beer Sheva, and Abraham stayed in Beer Sheva. This is the whole chapter, the whole literary episode. And boy, does it raise questions or their nuances, or their commentaries and commentaries on commentaries between the lines. So I just want to raise the question that would come to any modern reading this, and I am going to put two reactions to this that are on the two extremes. The first is the great philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who tried to establish the rational basis of all morality. And he said, we can use as an example, the myth of the sacrifice that Abraham was going to make by butchering and burning his only son at God’s command, (the poor child without knowing it even brought the wood for the fire.) Abraham should have replied to this supposedly divine voice, that I ought not to kill my good son is quite certain, but that you this apparition are God, of that I am not certain, and never can be, not even if this voice rings down to me from visible heaven. So, Kant, on the one hand, says, no matter how you read it, it is an offense to reason it is an offense to logic, go so far as to even say it it is an offense to any perception we have of a God, Kant would say, this cannot be God. And on the other extreme, is Kierkegaard. Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish existential philosopher, read it and said, The only conclusion that you can take from this is that we have to have a leap of faith, that we have to have a suspension of the ethical, that the basis of all religion is not to follow God when it makes sense. Not only to follow God, when it doesn’t make sense. But precisely when it doesn’t make sense. That is when faith is achieved. So here are the two extremes rabbi, is there any place in between?
Adam Mintz 08:15
I think there has to be. Let’s start from the beginning. So, Kant takes I think, what’s a more logical kind of explanation, that it can be justified, God’s command cannot be justified. Kierkegaard really introduces something that needs some explanation. I don’t really know what suspension of the ethical means. I mean, obviously, I’ve heard it from Rabbi Riskin when I was 14 years old. So, I’ve heard it, I know it, but I still don’t really know what it means. Suspend the ethical, is that actually true? Does God expect us to suspend the ethical, I kind of think that God wants us to never suspend the ethical, why should we ever need to suspend the ethical? Shouldn’t the ethical be the ultimate by which we make all decisions?
Geoffrey Stern 09:12
But I think you could argue that if all religion is ethics, is what we would call wisdom and logic. What do we need God for? Where does God come in? I think Kierkegaard would say if you are an honest, in his case, Christian, and we might say an honest Jew, what you’re saying in the words of Hebrew National, is there is a higher authority. And that’s, I think, what he’s coming at from suspense. I think, the Akedah even in our tradition, Rabbi I mean, there were martyrs who martyred themselves, their children, their families, and did Kiddush Hashem sanctifying God’s name based on this story, saying, I don’t get it, I don’t understand it. But my faith in God transcends that, at least Are you with me that you understand that there is a thought process like this, that there are those who would look at us who say it’s all ethics is saying, well, then where does God come in? And where do you stop projecting your ethical ideas on the world?
Adam Mintz 10:29
I mean, obviously, that is what Kierkegaard says. And what’s interesting is that point is made by God being unethical. I would be happier if that point was made by God being ethical. But the point is made by God being unethical, God saying, kill your son. And what Kierkegaard is saying is you need to respect God, even when he says, kill your son. So, you’re right. That’s the way Kierkegaard defines religion, religion needs that, the phrases you quoted Hebrew National, the phrase that they always use is a leap of faith. The difference between religion and science is that science, everything makes sense. Religion always needs a leap of faith. And Kierkegaard is saying that the leap of faith in this case, is a leap of ethical faith, meaning we need to trust God, even though what God is doing breaks our rules of ethics. Isn’t that what it’s saying?
Geoffrey Stern 11:37
So it breaks all rules of ethics. But you know, I promised that we would stir the pot a little bit tonight, it actually breaks God’s rules of ethics. If you look at Deuteronomy 12: 31, it says, God detests that they should offer their sons and daughters in fire to their gods. So, there is a very strong tradition in Judaism. And, you know, I had a conversation with Loren this week about what it is that Abraham actually introduced to the world. And to say that he was a monotheist, in our western sophisticated sense is a hard one. But we can identify certain things in the Torah, that Judaism came to reject. And certainly Malach, the religion that was in the Canaanite religion, of sacrificing your children to God is explicitly rejected in God’s own Torah. And then in Deuteronomy 13, there are rules about listening to a false prophet. So, you can put Kant, and you can put Kierkegaard to the side, but we have an additional wrinkle in the story of the arcade dad, that God is almost asking Abraham …. sure, the Torah has not been given yet. But he’s asking him to break his own Torah. And he’s asking him to listen from a voice from heaven. That sounds like it’s God. But maybe because of the tenants in our own Torah, you can question whether that’s a Navi Sheker, whether that’s something that I shouldn’t be listening to, does that enter into it too?
Adam Mintz 13:30
I don’t think it’s a problem that God says in Deuteronomy, you can’t kill your children, because God makes the rules. So, if God wants to make the rules, God can break the rules. We can’t break God’s rules, but God can break his own rules.
Geoffrey Stern 13:44
So that doesn’t bother you as much I get it
Adam Mintz 13:47
That doesn’t bother me as much because the whole thing bothers me. But that doesn’t bother me. The fact that there’s a contradiction in God’s Torah. When we get to it in Deuteronomy, we’ll figure out what the answer is.
Geoffrey Stern 13:58
You’ll get a good Brisker scholar and there’s a loophole here.
Adam Mintz 14:06
Right in the middle of the summer, we’ll figure it out.
Geoffrey Stern 14:09
Okay, so I promised that we would look at it in context, because of those impactful four first words. So why she says after these things, all of a sudden, this story that could be very isolated, is connected to what happened before. And Rashi says some of our rabbis say that it means after the words of Satan, who denounced Abraham saying of all the banquets which Abraham prepared, not a single bullock, nor a single ram did he bring as a sacrifice to you God. So basically, we have a story where Satan is coming in and saying, You think this guy is so great? You think he’s so holy, wait till you test him and an end that is what it means after these things. And the other thing that he says is others say that it means after the words of Ishmael. So now he has a story where Ishmael with Israel says…, it seems like to Isaac, he says, You know, I got circumcised at age 13. What the hell did you do? You were just a baby. If you had to stand up to what I did, you would not have persevered. So, it’s fascinating. What Rashi brings from rabbinic literature. I mean, the first thing where he talks about this Satan, we all know there’s this amazing book called The Book of Job. And the book of Job literally starts by saying that the Satan comes to God, and he says, you see this guy, Job, who you’ve given so much to, I’m not sure, if you gave him a few challenges, he would stand up. And there was a book that I just read from my friend, Richard Middleton, it’s called Abraham’s Silence The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God. I recommend highly, because it really surveys all the literature on the subject of the Akedah. But for the book, he tries to compare the story of Job to the story of Abraham. And Rashi, in a sense, is saying it’s a similar type of a story. So, we have two threads that we can untangle here, even if we only look at these two. The thing about comparing it to Job is that they were many in the Talmud, and Rambam, my mother is, in particular, says that if you look at job, it’s a parable. Job, it never really happened. It’s one of these kinds of ethical dilemmas, ethical stories that we’re supposed to learn from. So even kind of comparing it to Job puts it in a whole different perspective, is this something that really happened? Or is it a parable that we’re supposed to learn from? So, before we even get to the second part of Rashi, that talks about comparing it to Ishmael L. Rabbi, can we look at this as something that is so farfetched that it almost becomes in the same category as Job where it becomes a kind of a legal fiction, something that were supposed to do what we’re doing tonight, which is, evaluate and look at, but maybe something that never really happened?
Adam Mintz 17:44
So I think that’s what Kierkegaard says, I don’t think Kierkegaard cares whether it happens. Kierkegaard says that the story is there to tell you something important. You know what that important thing is that you have to suspend the ethical sometimes, because God is always God did it happen did not happen did Job happen, doesn’t make any difference. The details don’t matter. What matters is that you have to realize that our ethical understanding can’t be the last word. It’s really what you said before, that you pushed back to me, and I think that’s right. So, I think that that point you just made is a really interesting point, that point that whether it happened or not, even though in Yeshivah obviously, you know, it happened, how could it not have happened? But when you look at it really honestly, I don’t think that matters,
Geoffrey Stern 18:34
Except that so much of what we do at Madlik is to say what happens if you look at this as literature as opposed to reality? You know, if you look at אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה as the beginning of a new chapter, in a parable, I think maybe as we go through the evening, that might take us in a different direction. I think Richard Middleton, in his book, tries to really press the parable of Job because as we all know, in Job, he is confronted by people saying you shouldn’t question what happened just now, you should actually be that pious servant of God who takes that leap of faith and suspends his ethical judgment. And the punch line of Job is no God says, You, you Job are right in questioning, and you should silence these guys. And Richard wants to project that on to the Akedah. But of course, that only leads to more questions because of the silence of Abraham. In what I read in the beginning. Abraham only says two words to God or to God’s angel throughout the whole narrative Hineni. I’m here. It’s really amazing. how little he says, I mean, it’s almost as amazing how little he says to his son, there have been hold studies done on this in terms of just how powerful a story it is because so much is left in between the lines, I really emphasize that they walked together, the walking together is a powerful positive image. But the negative image of that is that they walk quietly. They didn’t talk, the father did not talk to the son, the son, only at the end said, Where’s the sacrifice. It’s such a powerful story because of what’s not said, as much as what is said.
Adam Mintz 20:44
So here now you come into a different, you see, up to now, we’ve been talking about God. Kant talks about God. Kierkegaard talks about God, just now you started talking about the people. Abraham, why was Abraham silent. So, there was a German literary critic in the 1950s. His name was Eric Auerbach. Eric Auerbach wrote an essay on the Akedah, he asked your question, (Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature – Fiftieth-Anniversary Edition Erich Auerbach) what did Abraham and Yitzchak talk about on the Akedah. Don’t tell me they didn’t talk. That’s idiotic. They didn’t talk if they didn’t talk, because they were petrified. But that also needs to be said, Right? What did they talk about? So, he makes the following argument. He said: What did Avraham and Yitzhak talk about? He said, They reflected on what their lives had been up to that point. What else would you talk about? When you’re on the way to sacrificing your son? They must have talked about what their life was and what Avraham’s dreams were for his son, and what Yitzchak’s dreams were for himself. And that was all going to come to an end. So, Auerbach thinks that the Torah doesn’t tell it to us, because the Torah wants to focus on God. But actually, there’s no reason to believe that Abraham and Isaac don’t have a father son relationship.
Geoffrey Stern 24:13
So I love that you mentioned Auerbach, because he really does focus on how distinctive this whole narrative is. And you definitely raise one of the points. But you know, it seems to me that we need to look, the text is crying out for context, we’ve already emphasized how powerful the questions are. But if you go back this parsha is so unbelievable. It starts with God, after promising to Sarah that she will have a child. It says that these three people that came to visit, go down towards the Sodom. And now God had said in Genesis 18: 16. Now he had said, Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him, for I have singled him out that he may instruct his children for posterity to keep the way of God by doing what is just and right in order. So, God is contemplating destroying Sodom. And he says, How can I hide this from Abraham, Abraham is a paradigm of he is going to be the model of ethical behavior, I need to share this with it. And then Abraham are kind of almost mimics Gods introduction. And in verse 25, says, Far be it from you to do such a thing, after God tells him he’s going to destroy Sodom to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty. And he says, Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly. So this story of the Acadia is not on a Tuesday afternoon, where nothing is going on? We are just finishing a story about doing justice, about doing the right thing. And Abraham goes on in verse 27, says, Abraham spoke up saying, Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. So this Abraham who says nothing during the Akedah, The Binding of Isaac, all of a sudden has a voice. And he just goes on in verse 30. And he said, Let not MY LORD be angry, if I go on, what if 30 should be found there? I will not do it. If 30 are there, he talks to God he goes if there are 50, 40 30 righteous people, and then he goes on he says, Let my Lord not be angry if I speak this last time. What if 10 should be found there? And God says, I will not destroy for the sake of 10, having finished speaking to Abraham, Hashem departed, and Abraham returned to his place. So, I don’t know, maybe this is what the beginning of the Akedah is referring to when it says, After these things, but here we have a different Abraham, we have an Abraham, who is arguing with God who has a voice, certainly there has to be that contextual irony of it. What do you make of that? Why does he argue for the people of Sodom, and not argue for his son, his only son, Isaac?
Adam Mintz 25:44
Well, first of all, I want to tell you, if we had an answer to these questions, we could retire the clubhouse class, because no one’s ever had a good answer to that question. I mean, that’s the question right there, you ask the question. It can’t be. And that has nothing to do with Kierkegaard that has nothing to do with suspending the ethical, that has to do with Abraham, fighting for people. He’s willing to fight for the anonymous person of Sodom whom he doesn’t know. And he doesn’t fight for his son, the religious answer, the answer you heard in Yeshiva, once upon a time, is that when it came to his son, that was a direct order, and therefore he couldn’t fight with Sodom. God gave him some wiggle room. So, we fought, but that’s not a satisfactory answer.
Geoffrey Stern 26:35
So, some of the commentaries are asked, why did he stop at 10?
Adam Mintz 26:40
Yeah, that’s a good question.
Geoffrey Stern 26:42
And they also asked, wasn’t this all about his nephew, Lot at the end of the day? Who was living in Sodom? I mean, isn’t how the story progresses? Why doesn’t he say, will you not save Lot.
Adam Mintz 27:00
I think he probably knew that God wouldn’t kill Lot. Because already in the war of the Four Kings and the Five Kings last week, God didn’t kill Lot. So, it’s pretty confident that Lot was safe.
Geoffrey Stern 27:12
So this is one of the insights that I got this year. And it was as a result of reading this book, Abraham’s Silence by Richard Middleton. If you look back at our initial story, in the beginning, and you pointed this out this week, God says to him, take your son, your favorite sub one, Isaac, whom you love. And of course, you pointed out last week Rashi, quoting the Midrashic interpretation, is where Abraham says, We’ll take your son, he says, I have two sons, your favorite one, he says, I have two sons that I love. And then he finally has to go to Isaac. What is fascinating is that when the story ends, it says, first of all, in verse 12, Do not raise your hand against the boy, for now, I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favorite one from me. It doesn’t say Isaac, who you love. And then at the end, it also says in verse 16, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your favorite one. Again, it doesn’t say Isaac, who you loved. So we at Madlik. We don’t live in one week in isolation. We know that last week, we talked about the story of a Ishmael. And we commented, and that’s also in this week’s parsha that when Sarah said to Abraham to send off Ishmael, Abraham also saddled up his ass early in the morning. There are people that make direct parallels verse to verse, between the rejection, the exiling of Ishmael to the story of the Akedah and here we quoted last week that it seems as though Abraham actually loved Ishmael very much if we’re talking about an argumentative Abraham as I said in the intro, even then he argued with Sarah Why send him out? This quiet hineni Abraham of the Akedah argues with Sarah Why send him out. And ultimately, he listens to Sarah and he listens to God. But one of the things that I started thinking about this week based on the fact that the beginning of the Akedah story is talking about Isaac, who you love and the end where The angel has to call out twice to Abraham not to kill the boy, and says, now you’ve proved your point. It doesn’t say Isaac, who you loved. I wonder if this is also about that dynamic. I wonder if this is a story of God putting Abraham to the test, I joked about whether Abraham passed or failed the test. But a test is made to show the teacher but also the student, who they are and what they know. And maybe there’s a dynamic here as well, about testing Abraham to see how much he loved this son, Isaac. And from that perspective, I think it’s an open question whether he passed or failed the test.
Adam Mintz 30:51
I’m with you. I’m happy to end the half hour with that. I’m with you. I do not disagree with you. I think that that’s an open question. I think actually, the whole story of the Akedah. The point is that it’s an open question. I don’t know whether Kierkegaard is right. Or Kant is right. I don’t know whether Abraham passed the test. I’m not exactly sure. You know, we call it The Binding of Isaac. Yeah, we call this class unbinding. Isaac. But why? Why is Isaac part of it? Isaac has no say, we don’t have time for this tonight. But there’s a fantastic question. How old Isaac is, there were three opinions in the commentaries. Either he’s five years old, 17 years old, or 37 years old. Now, if he’s five years old, it has nothing to do with him. He didn’t have any say in it. He was a kid. If he was 15, then you know, I understand he’s still a kid. But if you imagine he’s 37 years old, and his father wants to kill him, how could he not stand up for himself? We didn’t even talk about that part. So I don’t know if Isaac passed the test.
Geoffrey Stern 32:04
So I’m going to say something now that’s going to take Isaac out of the equation, I’m going to say something and that I’m just going to leave you all with that rudimentarily changes the whole story. Buried in the Guide for the Perplexed part 2: 41. Maimonides says, whenever there is an angel in a story, it is a dream. And if he had stopped there, we would all be flagging around saying, when does this apply? But he actually quotes our verse, of the angel coming in saying, Abraham, Abraham. And he talks about Abraham’s first Mareh (vision), where there was something terrible and fearful, which the Prophet feels while awake, and he has a great vision, and then his strength is taken away. What happens if the whole Akedah is I wouldn’t even say Abraham’s dream, I would say it’s Abraham’s nightmare. It’s Abraham’s attempt to deal with unresolved issues about his son Isaac, about his son, Ishmael, about who he is. And it’s all unresolved issues, too, in a sense. That’s what it’s all about. This becomes a kind of a canvas for all of us. it’s an open question it will always be open like a dream, that every year, we try to wrap our arms around, but to me, it puts it in a totally different perspective that this is going on in Abraham’s mind, and he’s trying to resolve unresolved issues.
Adam Mintz 33:55
That is a great way to end. Enjoy your Hadar Shabbaton, Geoffrey. I can’t wait to hear what their insights are Shabbat Shalom to everybody. And we look forward to seeing you next week. Parshat Hayei Sarah, Shabbat Shalom,
Geoffrey Stern 34:08
Shabbat Shalom and can’t wait till next week. And if anyone has any questions or wants to continue the discussion, go ahead, raise your hand.
Yochanan Lowen 34:22
Thanks, Rabbi The binding of Isaac is maybe my favorite topic of all. So, and I think I will have to open a room about it. So what I would say that you mentioned, Maimonides is talking about it. But according to what I heard from Professor Mark Shapiro, Maimonides himself does not actually talk about the binding of Isaac, but one of the commentators on the Gude for the Perplexed. (Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History Hardcover – May 1, 2015 by Marc B. Shapiro pp 67-70) I think his name was Narvani. He says that, according to my Maimonides, The Binding of Isaac was you can say it was only a dream or a vision. It wasn’t real. But guess what? This piece of Nirvani was censored. In the later editions. You have it only in the first edition of this commentator on the Guide of the Perplexed. And that’s very illustrational. There is, I think, maybe many people will be surprised to hear that I think that according to Talmudic and rabbinic opinion, Kant was more right than Kierkegaard. The Talmud says that all the the religious rules and laws of God has to fit with common sense logic and pleasantness. (דרכיה דרכי נועם see. If it doesn’t fit with that, it cannot be a commandment from God. There is a famous rabbi in the 18th century, who says that there is only one exception in the Torah for that. There’s only one commandment that doesn’t fit with pleasantness. And that’s the mitzvah of Brit Milah. But besides that, there is no other What do you think?
Geoffrey Stern 36:31
So first of all, I love that there’s a commentary that says that but in our source sheet, you will look at my, the guide, Philippa Plex to 41. And literally in here, he talks about anytime that there’s an angel, it is just a dream, I shouldn’t say just because obviously, this was a powerful dream. But he literally mentioned our verse. So it’s, it’s buried in there. There was a guy who I don’t have a lot of respect for named Leo Strauss, he was a professor at Chicago University. And he wrote a whole book on Maimonides, especially the Guide for the Perplexed, and it was called Persecution and the Art of Writing, and he said that my Maimonides hid many things in between the lines. I don’t know if I ascribe to it in total, but certainly in this case, my monitor is whether we sing that job is just a parable, which is widespread in the Talmud, or here saying that the whole Akedah is a dream, I think definitely gives us license. I love what you said about the Toa having to be pleasant. There was a great scholar, he was actually in the family of the Chatam Sofer, the Katav Sofer, he called himself the Dor Rev’eiee, the fourth generation, he was a very orthodox, but he also supported starting a state of Israel. And
Yochanan Lowen 38:04
He was the Rabbi of Klosenberg.
Geoffrey Stern 38:06
Yep. And and he, he says, he quotes the verse כִּי הִוא חָכְמַתְכֶם וּבִינַתְכֶם לְעֵינֵי הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְעוּן אֵת כָּל הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה וְאָמְרוּ רַק עַם חָכָם וְנָבוֹן הַגּוֹי הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה. In Deuteronomy, it says that the Torah is your Hachma, which is wisdom, Binatchem your discernment in the eyes of the nation. And instead of taking that as something that was descriptive. He took that as something that was prescriptive, so that we are commanded to be logical to be ethical to be moral. And he took it has ramifications. So, I love that you bought that, that that that part of it into it. But this is truly also one of my favorites, my favorite stories as well. It is just fascinating. And it’s what Torah is all about. It lends itself to so many different perspectives and insights. Lauren, welcome to the Bimah what’s on your mind tonight.
Michael Weiser 39:09
This has been very, very interesting to me, because in Genesis 20, to one it says sometime afterward, as you said, God put to the test Abraham saying to him, Abraham, and Abraham answered, and then to stop this whole transaction. It was the angel that got involved. And you went through like four explanations whether it was a dream or whether it was actually God speaking. Why do you think to begin with? God spoke to Abraham in the text. And then it was concluded with the angel speaking to him was there only because of the fact this was a dream but what precipitated the dream, if it was God that started it.
Geoffrey Stern 39:57
So first of all, I’d like to say There is it’s very easy to come down very hard on Abraham here. And you know, maybe I was leaning towards the fact that Abraham was ready to sacrifice this guy Isaac because maybe he loved a Ishmael more. Maybe he resented what he had had to do to Ishmael. I mean, I’m not sure about his relationship with Sarah even I mean, twice, once in this week’s parsha. He pimps her off to a king or somebody saying that she’s my sister. Really, this is a fascinating relationship. But I do think that the commentaries that focus on what you just pointed out, which is that the command came from God, and the cease and desist came from an angel, that almost bodes well for Abraham, that he was waiting for anybody to tell him to stop. On the other hand, why did the angel have to say, Abraham, Abraham, you know, so there’s so many nuances into this. But clearly, the classical commentaries do recognize that the original command came from God. And Abraham in the Midrash says to the angel, well, who the hell are you I was commanded by God, if anyone’s going to stop me, it needs to be God. And nonetheless, he did acquiesce. But that is another nuance, to this story, no question about it. And of course, if you make it all into a dream, it’s this nightmare, where he’s torn, he really resent this son. And, and he, he wants to, to, to stop the sacrifice, he wants to embrace him. But at the end, he can’t bring himself to say, my son, Isaac, who I love. And one of the things that I really wanted to talk about, was that the idea that came into my head was that, you know, Abraham was one of these leaders who loved humanity in the abstract. So, he could definitely argue for Sodom, he stopped at 10. He didn’t get into his nephew Laban. He loved humanity in the abstract. And those are the kinds of leaders whether it’s a Marx or even a Herzl, who can start a movement. But when it comes to their own family, when it comes to their own people, you know, I’m thinking of a Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov of he says, “The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular. In my dreams, I often make plans for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually face crucifixion if it were suddenly necessary. Yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together.” So I think this might be even a parable about leadership. And let’s face it, at the end of the day, you know, there was Noah, and then there was Abraham, it could have stopped there. You know, Abraham could have had the 12 tribes. There are piyutim in the sources that I bring in the source notes that say why Abraham could not get the Torah, why it had to wait for Moshe. And the reason he couldn’t, is because he was not אב על בנים. He was not a good father; he obviously had not worked this whole thing out. And that’s an amazing story, also, that we get through Genesis, how we have parents trying to figure it out, and they’re not altogether successful. And therefore, there’s a process, it doesn’t just stop with Abraham.
Michael Weiser 44:17
Thank you. Just one last quick question. Did Abraham love Lot?
Geoffrey Stern 44:21
You know, who knows? Who knows he had a transactional relationship with Him, in terms of Abraham came rich very quickly, partially because of Sarah, because this whole story that I reflected on before where he said she was my sister, and then the king gave her up and he gave much riches to Abraham, but he comes back to the land of Canaan, and he lets Lot choose where he will go. There’s friction between The shepherds of Lot and Abraham. So, it’s, it seems to be on the personal level. You know, the one you’d like to say that Abraham had the real relationship with was Ismael. But again, he’s he tried to stand up to, to Sarah, and he folded according to Rabbinic Judaism, you almost have to conclude his real relationship was with Hagar, who, after Sarah dies, he goes to in the stories that we read last week, it’s really a fascinating account of a not perfect individual, which is ultimately all of us, but the one who was responsible for creating this nation that was like the stars and like the sand. I think that’s a message too. There’s a there’s a biography coming out, I believe on Herzl, and hurt so of all the people in the world was the most imperfect individual, but he had one dream and I mean, it’s like Churchill was a failure until he came to World War Two. I think this might be a little bit of a parable in terms of leaders and leadership.
Michael Weiser 46:18
Thank you so much. Shabbat shalom.
Geoffrey Stern 46:20
Shabbat Shalom to you. Yochanan. So Yochanan, I am fascinated with you and what you what you do on on clubhouse and I’d love to learn more.
Thanks, Rabbi. I it’s a very big compliment when it comes from you. And I think I’m going to open now room about the binding of Issac, you inspire me.
Geoffrey Stern 46:45
So what is your background? And you’re very active on on on clubhouse I think I’m looking at your bio. You are the Hasidic Maskil of clubhouse Tell, tell us what that means.
It sounds kind of a paradox or oxymoron, right? Because the Hasidim and the Maskil were the biggest enemies. But I’m not the first one. From the 19th century. The first Hasidic Maskil was Eliezer Zweifel, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eliezer_Zweifel he published a book Shalom al Yisrael to make peace between all the Jewish movements of the time, the Hasidim the Misnagdim and the Maskilim and, and even the radical Maskilim like reformers or so. And he took for his book he took for recommendations from each of our four movements. It took recommendations of his book, believe it or not, even a Hasidic rabbi from the Schneerson dynasty, gave him a recommendation in 1870. So I grew up the siddik. I was a Hasidic Torah teacher. And now I’m Hasidic Maskil.
Geoffrey Stern 48:06
I am a paradox world. So I mean, I, obviously I didn’t grow up religious, although we always had Friday night. Shabbat and then at age 14, I became very religious, and I went to yeshiva in Brooklyn Torah Voda’as. And for six years I was in that world and don’t regret a second of it. But I really feel that in the shtetl, there was always someone who studied the Talmud on Shabbat with a cigar, whether he was called an Apicorus or a Maskil. And Judaism always thrived with those. And so when I saw that you were the Hasidic Maskil, I said, that must be a kindred spirit. And I think that we really do need more people like us. What we stand for, is that this Torah, and this religion and our mesorah and tradition belongs to all of us, and dare you, dare you tell me that it’s not mine, Because I don’t live up to some sort of predetermined threshold. It was given to all Jews and all humanity actually. So I think that we are very important to the world. And you know, there was a whole generation of very learned Jews that came out of Europe, and they went whether to Israel or to the states. There were scholars that came out of the Slobtka Yeshiva… there’s a book on them. There was a Harry AusternWolfson at Harvard, there was Menachem Alon. A jurist, a Supreme Court judge in Israel, they will all totally knowledgeable in our Jewish tradition, but we’re no longer observant. Big deal, they also own it, they also have a right to speak about it. And I think that’s, I think we need, we need more of that. So Kol HaKavod to you.
I like what you said Geoffrey. So the greatest, the most famous Torah Scholar of the 18th century was Rabbi Jonathan Ibshitz. And he, he was kind of a radical rabbi, at the time, there was big dispute about him until today in the Torah world. And he he wrote in one of his esoteric Kabbalistic books, he wrote that in the period of the Messiah, the Messianic era, the mitzvahs would not be relevant anymore, but the Torah will always be relevant. So he made the distinction between the study and the knowledge of Torah and observing themselves of the mitzvah. So it’s a very radical idea, and he was actually persecuted for that. And obviously, he had to deny his authorship on that book. But all the academics today believe that he was actually the author.
Geoffrey Stern 51:25
Amazing. I had not heard that. Michael, welcome to the Bima.
Michael Weiser 51:30
Thanks so much, and quick question for you appreciate the discussion. I’m happy to listen to the story of Abraham and Isaac during the second day of Rosh HaShana, as traditionally, but you know what, I don’t know why it’s customary to read it that day. So if you have any insight to that, I would love to hear it.
Geoffrey Stern 51:54
So I, in typical Jewish fashion will amplify your question. Because what’s read on the first day is the story of Ishmael. So I made reference today a little bit to the fact that they both start off identical fashions that Abraham got up early in the morning and saddled his ass. And there are those … you can google it very quickly, to see those scholars who have literally mapped the two stories one to the other. And this is modern scholarship. But as I always believe modern scholarship, there’s nothing that they have on the rabbis and the rabbis in the Talmud, because it does go back to the Talmud, who said on the first day, we talk about the story of Yishmael, that is considered also a test of Abraham. And on the second day, the story of the Akedah, The Binding of Isaac. So I think if you pull back and you know, clearly, there are many Rabbi sermons that we’ll talk about why we have the two parshiot out on the two days, I think, if you pull yourself back from all of the highfalutin, and hermeneutics and darshanut. Ultimately, at the end of the day, you can not but recognize that for the most straightforward approach. You know, we’re talking about Abraham’s two sons, and they went on different paths, and they had different functions. But that had to have been very impressive. I think the Talmud itself always looks at the story of Abraham as the paradigm of sacrificing for God, for piety for listening to God, and that they took as a message that we were to have on Rosh Hashanah. And that’s literally what’s said, in the in the Talmud, in Megillah, but I think you can’t but ask, number one, these are two tests for Abraham. And at the end of the day, we’re almost looking at Abraham not as a patriarch, but as a dad, as a human being torn between these two instances. So again, I apologize for not focusing only on the Akedah. I think if you had to answer the A Qaeda, that’s a pretty easy answer, the Qaeda, and here we have to bend a little bit to Kierkegaard is the preeminent example of blind faith, of piety, and that’s how it has been kneejerk taken. And that would be the most obvious answer to say, on Rash Hashanah whether it’s the holiest day of the year or leading up to the holiest day of the we need to know that we need to listen to our God, no questions asked. And that what the Acadia is about. But I think it’s more complex than that. And I think the fact that the story of Ishmael is on the first day blows me away every year. And I’m curious why that also wasn’t a question to you, but the Akedah is, is, you know, we gotta listen to a higher authority. That’s a pretty obvious choice for a high holiday in my mind. Anyway.
Michael Weiser 55:29
Well, thank you so much for your response and Shabbat shalom.
Geoffrey Stern 55:32
Shabbat shalom. Thanks for joining us. I wish you all a Shabbat shalom. Come next week at eight o’clock Eastern. And make sure to listen to the Madlik podcast and give us a few stars and a good review and share it with your friends and family. Shabbat Shalom and I’ll see you all next week.
Sefaria Source Sheet: www.sefaria.org/sheets/444778
Listen to last year’s podcast: The Miraculous Birth and Ressurection of Issac