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D'var Torah: Vayera

Music and Poetry for Isaac

The door it opened slowly, my father he came in, I was nine years old.
And he stood so tall above me, his blue eyes they were shining,
and his voice was very cold.
He said, “I've had a vision, and you know I'm strong and holy,
I must do what I've been told.”
So we started up the mountain, I was running, he was walking,
and his axe was made of gold.

You can think of midrash as the original fan fiction.

Google that phrase—“fan fiction”—and here’s what you’ll find: untold voyages of the starship Enterprise; previously unknown magical creatures bedeviling Harry Potter; and way more than fifty additional shades of gray.

Those stories fill in gaps in the originals, and they answer questions the earlier tales might have implied, but never explicitly asked or answered.

And that’s just where the rabbis found themselves: confronted with a sacred text that was at times frustratingly, maddeningly incomplete. Leaving them to wonder what might have happened in the gaps that the Torah chooses to leave empty. Those gaps can include long stretches of characters’ lives, the motivations behind their actions, and their emotional or moral responses to significant turns of events.

One way the rabbis handled this problem was to turn it into an opportunity, by filling those empty spaces with details that might have happened, but were never recorded.

As Leonard Cohen fills them here, in his song “The Story of Isaac.” And how does he do that?

He puts words in Abraham’s mouth:

You know I’m strong and holy. I must do what I’ve been told.

He adds details that Isaac observes:

I was running, he was walking. His axe was made of gold.

The rabbis would surely have had a field day with that golden axe if it had actually been mentioned in the original text. But it’s Cohen’s addition, and he leaves it to us to guess what it might mean.

Well, the trees they got much smaller, the lake a lady's mirror,
we stopped to drink some wine.
Then he threw the bottle over. Broke a minute later,
and he put his hand on mine.
Thought I saw an eagle, but it might have been a vulture, I
never could decide.
Then my father built an altar, he looked once behind his shoulder,
he knew I would not hide.

More details. Cohen wants us to notice something the Torah doesn’t bother to discuss: the height of the mountain, so high a lake below looks like a hand-mirror; the length of time the bottle takes to hit the ground. So, that climb up the mountain took a while. And poor Isaac—happy, eager, running—has no idea what he’s in for. He seems almost casual about not knowing if the eagle he saw might have been a vulture; he’s heedless of the notion that he might become the bird’s next meal.

I love the fact, though, that Cohen has Isaac—innocent, and maybe a little stupid; or maybe a holy fool—tell the story. The book of Genesis doesn’t give him even that much agency—not even the right to relate his own experience.

I talked about this myself in another d’var about the Akedah, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah a few years ago. About how Isaac seems to lack a voice—even a personality, it sometimes appears—and how, after being treated as a pawn, a mere object, it must have been a tremendous struggle just to regain that voice—to make himself a person who could act, and not just be acted upon.

Some version of that Isaac—the one who’s learned to speak—is who Leonard Cohen and I were both looking for in the spare story of his near-sacrifice.

But can we? Or not can we—in the sense of having the skills to construct an alternative narrative in the gaps—we’re both storytelling professionals, after all—but may we? Who has the right to make midrash?

Early in my Reform Jewish education, midrash was often what we got, though it wasn’t labeled that way. We heard Bible boy adventure stories, like young Abraham smashing idols and little Moses burning his tongue on a hot coal—neither of those tales to be found anywhere near a verse of Torah, though both were inspired by them. These were rabbinic midrashim that over time took their place alongside the written Torah.

Are the rabbis the only ones who get to do that? Does the story stop there? Or—if the law and the narrative didn’t stop with the tablets Moses carried down from Sinai and with the first Torah scroll, but was added to by the rabbis...if the story and the law were reconstructed by them, even if they might have claimed they were just discovering what lay beneath the surfaces, and not amending it—then don’t we have the same right?

The answer may depend on what we believe midrash is for.

You who build these altars now to sacrifice these children, you must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision and you never have been tempted
by a demon or a god.
You who stand above them now, your hatchets blunt and bloody,
you were not there before,
when I lay upon a mountain, and my father's hand was trembling
with the beauty of the word.

Fan fiction, by and large, is an exercise in “Here’s what I wish would happen” or “Here’s how I would have done it.” And writers of fan fiction usually don’t mind messing with the original premise or characters in the service of their goals. This mucking about often comes in the form of what’s now called “shipping”—“ship” as in “relationship”—creating a romance for two characters that their creators never intended. But it’s been around for a long time, as in the early Star Trek fan fic that focused on a romance between Kirk and Spock.

Midrash, when it makes major additions to the core text, shows more faithfulness than that to the text’s initial purpose—it’s perhaps less likely to read the values of the midrash-writer’s day into earlier times. Though that certainly happens too, as in a reading like today’s, which remains so open to interpretation, or to rationalization.

But in each case, a polemic is being advanced—an argument about how we should be in the world. It’s interesting that Leonard Cohen doesn’t call Abraham to task—the Isaac he gives voice to refrains from judging his father. But that’s part of a strategy that in no way abandons judgment and argument. Writing at the height of the Vietnam War, Cohen offers a warning, and an indictment:

And Cohen’s rights?—mine, ours?—to read these ancient text out of our own experience? To enlarge the stories and make sense of them by our own lights—stretching, but hopefully not snapping—the thread of Jewish history?

We may not speak with the authority of the great rabbinic commentators, but that doesn’t mean we have no authority at all. They reconstructed. So can we.

Having sung the story of Isaac through his own twentieth century prophetic voice, having indicted an older generation bent on sacrificing the younger, Cohen might leave things there, allowing us to feel comfortably superior in our innocence.

But he doesn’t view the world that way, and won’t let us see it that way either.

His fourth and closing verse is harder to make sense of than the others, but I have a provisional interpretation. It is that in these later times our lives are provisional, and contingent, lacking the certainty of a God who speaks to us—actually speaks to us—in words directly relevant to our present day, to our moment-by-moment existence.

Which is to say that if the God of all creation no longer speaks definitively to would-be Abrahams, we would-be Isaacs have also been left in silence.

And if you call me brother now, forgive me if I inquire,
"Just according to whose plan?"
When it all comes down to dust, I will kill you if I must, I will help you if I can.
When it all comes down to dust, I will help you if I must, I will kill you if I can.
And mercy on our uniform, man of peace or man of war, the peacock spreads his fan.

Shabbat shalom.

—Dan Mishkin
November 2015

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