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.