Friday, November 21, 2008

Parshat Chayei Sarah - פרשת חיי שרה

This week's Parsha starts by detailing the passing of Sarah, Avraham's wife and Yitzchak's mother. Note that I said Sarah was Yitzchak's mother. This is something obvious, yet it is often overlooked that only Avraham's name is mentioned in connection with Sarah's death - Yitzchak is noteable by his absence. How could it be that Yitzchak is not mentioned in this episode? After all Sarah was his mother!

This question is asked by Rabbenu Bavhya, who notes that the love for his father should have at least equalled that for his father. Where was his eulogy? Where were his tears? Rabbenu Bachya explains that Yitzchak had just come through another traumatic episode, the Akeidah, where he came within seconds of death, only Hashem's last gasp intervention saved his life. Rabbenu Bachya offers the explanation that due to his fragile psycological condition, Yitzchak was not told of his mother's death. Rabbenu Bachya then points out a blatant textual oddity: Not only is Yitzchak missing from Sarah's funeral, his disappearance begins at an earlier juncture, in the aftermath of the Akeida. What is happening?

When Avraham sets out for the mountain he takes Yitzchak and two others, referred to as "נערים," young men. The text tells us that they walked together:

"And Avraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and Yitzchak his son, and he took the wood for the olah, and rose and went to the place of which God had spoken to him."

On the way up the hill to the Akeidah, father and son walk together. After the episode is over however, the Torah only mentions Avraham returning to the young men:

"And Avraham returned to his young men, and they rose and went together to Beer-Sheva; and Avraham dwelled in Beer-Sheva" (Bereishit 22:19)

What happened to Yitzchak? It seems impossible that Avraham could have simply picked up and left without the son who was just saved by God Himself. He would not simply have forgotten him up on the mountain while he returned home with the young men. Again, what is happening?

There are two basic approaches found in the Midrashim to Yitzchak's whereabouts during the textual "blackout." The first approach is that Yitzchak is busy learning in Yeshiva. A second approach, found in other Midrashim, describes Yitzchak as having died or almost died, or died in a metaphorical sense, depending on nuance. Yitzchak has temporarily retired to the Garden of Eden.

Even though Yitzchak did not die it is deemed as if he died, and his ashes are on the altar... Where was Yitzchak? God took him to the Garden of Eden where he remained for 3 years. (Midrash Hagadol)

Many Midrashim see Yitzchak as having died, and Jewish liturgy abounds with references to the Akeida as if it had actually been performed to completion. Most likely, what we are meant to gain from this line of Midrashic discussion is this: Avraham's willingness to sacrifice what he loved most for God should be perceived on at least some level as if the offering was brought. On the other hand, Yitzchak ends up in Gan Eden. We might interpret this as referring to a place of spiritual perfection. It could be argued that both "paradise" and "yeshiva" may be seen as places where someone who has just been raised up on the altar as an olah, someone with a heightened sense of spirituality, might go to pursue the religious experience further.

Later on, Ya'akov dressed as Esav, enters his father's room, and Yitzchak takes a moment to enjoy the aroma of the meal served to him, of the goats his son has brought him. Rashi questions this particular pleasure, noting that few odours are as unsavoury as the stench of goats. What did Yitzchak smell? Rashi's answer is surprising: It is the bouquet of Gan Eden, the aroma of paradise. That was a smell familiar to Yitzchak: he once lived there. Yitzchak paused to recall this scent, to retrieve this sensory memory.

The Torah tells us that at this point Yitzchak was blind. Rashi16 explains that this was due to the tears of the angels who cried during the Akeida. Two of Yitzchak's senses, then, were affected by the same singular experience - the Akeida. In other words, after being raised up on the altar, Yitzchak's sight is forever altered. But what is the nature of Yitzchak's perception, and what is the extent of his vision? Is he somehow damaged? Is he naive regarding his son's shortcomings, seeing less than we do - or does he perhaps see much more?

Yitzchak clearly sees differently: He sees through the prism of his Akeida experience, an experience that took him directly to Gan Eden. Eden is a place deep in the past of our collective conscience. It is also a place in the future. Gan Eden represents a perfect world, it represents our world perfected, This is how Yitzchak saw, not through the jaundiced eye that most people use as a spectrum, which diffuses the good and focuses on the bad. Yitzchak saw the world from the perspective of the Garden of Eden. He saw perfection. He saw the culmination of history, the realisation of the process of redemption, the return to the perfected state of Eden. He saw the future.

Yitzchak's entire being is intertwined with this perspective, this type of sight or perception that focuses on the future. Even his name, which represents the essence of his being, means "will laugh" - in the future. This is the real meaning of the midrashim that tell us that Yitzchak went from the Akeida to Gan Eden: His eyes were "fixed" at the Akeida, his perception altered. Now he had perfect vision. Now he saw a perfect world. He saw the world from the vantage point of Eden.

That perspective, that perception, gave him the ability, even the courage, to approach a person like Yishmael, and to attempt to create harmony from the dissonance. Yitzchak saw that Yishmael can and will do teshuva, that Yishmael can and will come to recognize that there is One God.

(Taken from an essay by R' Ari Kahn.)

Shabbat Shalom!

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