Posts Tagged 'Isaac'

The Binding: Fenrir and Isaac

On the Second day of Rosh HaShana we read arguably the most central texts to Jewish life, the story of the test of Avraham. As we read God commands Avraham to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. Isaac is bound and placed on the altar, and Avraham raises the knife to slaughter his son. A voice from heaven calls to stop him, saying that it was a test; a ram, caught in the undergrowth by its horns, is offered in Isaac’s place.

The Bible doesn’t specify how old Isaac was at the time of event. One clue to his age is when Isaac notices wood and fire but, seeing no animal, asks Avraham about it (Genesis 22:7). This implies that Isaac is at least old enough to know what the proper sacrificial process is and perceptive enough to ask his father about it. From the chronology of Sarah’s life we learn that the oldest he could have been was  36 or 37 when he was offered as a sacrifice (Sanhedrin 89b and Genesis Rabbah 56:8). So, Isaac was certainly not an older man when he was to be offered as a sacrifice, but neither was he a toddler. Probably the most useful clue to how old Isaac was their climb up the mountain.  Isaac is the one carrying the large pile of wood (Genesis 22:6). This fact tells us Isaac wasn’t a small child when he was to be sacrificed; he was at least a healthy teenager.

What is invested in the age of Isaac? If he was strong enough to carry the wood up the mountain, then he was probably physically and mentally strong enough to resist being sacrificed. The fact that Isaac allowed himself to be bound and placed on the altar shows that Isaac continued to trust his father.

I was thinking about this question recently while reading up on my Norse mythology.  And yes I was preparing to take my boys to see Thor: Ragnarok which is coming out in theaters soon. I read the story of Fenrir  the monstrous wolf  who is foretold to kill the god Odin during the events of Ragnarök. As the story goes Odin foresees that Fenrir will kill him so he gets the gods to capture him in hopes of saving himself. The gods plan is to control Fenrir to preempt his destroying the world by binding him in chains. Like a virile teenager Fenrir enjoys the challenge and is happy to prove his growing strength in breaking their chains. Eventually they produce Gleipnir, a magical slender unbreakable silken strip. Even though he wants to prove his strength Fenrir is no fool and does not trust them. He concedes to be bound as long as one of them will place their hand in his mouth. Everyone refused to place their hand in Fenrir’s mouth until Týr put out his right hand and placed it into the wolf’s jaws. They bind him and like the wolf from Peter and the Wolf the more Fenrir kicked, Gleipnir caught tightly, and the more Fenrir struggled, the stronger the band grew. At this, everyone laughed, except Týr, who there lost his right hand.

Why does Fenrir want to be bound to prove his strength? Fenrir is driven by pride and glory. Like a teen Fenrir needs to test his limits to understand himself. This growing power is exactly what the other gods fear in him and leads to his tragic capture. Ultimately he is limited by his drive for success. And while the gods do this for self-protection, it is not without a price.

Coming back to this test of Avraham the story of Fenrir is a fascinating foil. First of all it is not ever called the test of Avraham, but rather the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. If in fact he is not a young lad at the time of his binding, it is easy to see him as a teen. What is Isaac proving by carrying the wood, let alone being complicit his binding, getting on the alter, and almost sacrifice? Isaac is seeking to push his limits and understand the limits of his own body and his relationship with his father.  And what does the binding of a 37-year-old man mean?  Like Fenrir does Isaac have something to prove? We never see Avraham and Isaac interact again after the Akedah. Might their relationship be severed like  Týr’s right hand?

Coming back to Rosh HaShana the story of Fenrir is also a fascinating foil. What drives us to success? Might these traits that help us grow and strive for more also limit our success? In what ways are we heroic or tragic in proving we can deal with being bound?  May we all find a way to be unbound this coming year. Shana Tova.

 

 

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Repugnant Cycle

In VaEra, next week’s Torah portion, we read about the beginning of the Ten Plagues. I want to focus on the first two; the water turning into blood and the proliferation of the frogs. In both cases, the Torah informs us that there was an odor. In regard to the first plague we read, “The fish-life that was in the River died and the River became foul” (Exodus 7:21) and in regard to the frogs we read, “They piled them up in heaps and heaps, and the land stank” (Exodus 8:10). The emancipation of the Israelites could have happened in many different ways. It seems that Egypt suffered the plagues to teach them, if not us, the readers, something about the horrors of slavery. What can be learned from these smells?

The Midrash explains that Egypt was punished with this odor, measure for measure, for how repugnant they found the Israelites (Exodus Rabbah 10:10). Did the Israelites smell bad? At the end of Shmot, this week’s Torah portion, Moses came to Pharaoh to ask if the Israelites could go on a holiday outing. Instead of a celebration in the wilderness, Pharaoh increased the burden upon them by maintaining their quota of brick production while cutting their supply of straw. Frustrated by their increased work load they came to complain to Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “HaShem look upon you, and judge; because you have made our very scent to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants” (Exodus 5:21). Prior to this decree they were slaves, but they could at least take pride in the fruit of their labor. After the decree their perception of themselves became a reality.  It seems that the last straw was not the limited supply of straw, but the degradation of working all the time and not being productive.  They felt worthless and smelly.

But, maybe there is another way to see the Midrash that explains that the odor is measure for measure. Back in the stories in Genesis we read about when Rebecca helped Jacob steel the blessing from Esau. There we read:

And Isaac said to Jacob, “Please come closer, so that I may feel you, my son, whether you are really my son Esau or not.”So Jacob drew near to Isaac his father, and he felt him, and he said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”And he did not recognize him because his hands were hairy like the hands of his brother Esau, and he blessed him. And he said, “Are you [indeed] my son Esau?” And he said, “I am.”And he said, “Serve [it] to me that I may eat of the game of my son, so that my soul will bless you.” And he served him, and he ate, and he brought him wine, and he drank.And his father Isaac said to him, “Please come closer and kiss me, my son.” And he came closer, and he kissed him, and he smelled the fragrance of his garments, and he blessed him, and he said, “Behold, the fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field, which the Lord has blessed! ( Genesis 27:21-27)

Isaac is blind, but not stupid. We get a sense from the text that he knows that something is off. This is not Esau. It is as if he is Little Red Ridding Hood trying to figure out where her grandmother is, Isaac is trying to figure out if this is Esau or Jacob.  Jacob is unable to imitate Esau’s voice, but between the costume, feel of his hands, food, and drink he passes for Esau.  In a simple reading it was his smell that convinced Isaac.

Jacob stole the blessing by deceiving with smell, before the Israelites are worthy of redemption from Egypt their odor is exposed. The Israelites are shamed measure for measure.  In turn the Egyptians are shamed measure for measure. When people speak negatively about us, we are embarrassed. What have they exposed about us? What has been exposed about themselves?  What starts with the desire for blessing and affirmation expands out to cycle of shame and violence. There are powerful lessons here about the cycle of bullying- it does not smell very good.

– This post is linked to others on synesthesia


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