The Past Leading to the Present

Vayera By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Oct 30, 2004 / 5765 | Torah Commentary

The unusual Hebrew phrase “lekh lekha” occurs only twice in the entire Tanakh: at the beginning of last week’s parasha when God instructs Abraham to leave Haran, and this week, when God asks him to offer up his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice (Genesis 12:1; 22:2). The first is rendered by the JPS translation as “go forth” and the second simply as “go.” Both are inadequate because they lose the force of the preposition “lekha.” Martin Buber preserves it in his German translation with the phrase “geh du – go you.” The inelegance captures the state in which God addresses Abraham each time. The imperative betrays a note of anxiety. What certainty is there that Abraham will heed God’s unreasonable requests? The function of the preposition is to convey the plea that informed the command

In the repetition of the phrase, the Rabbis, who detected in the life of Abraham a series of ten divine tests, saw a certain symmetry. The first and the last, perhaps the two most demanding, were administered with the same mixture of authority and solicitousness. They also pondered which command Abraham might have regarded more favorably and concluded the second, because its final destination, the land of Moriah, was clearly stipulated at the outset. Unlike the first instance, Abraham knew exactly where he was supposed to go. In addition, he may have relished the prospect of sanctifying the location where one day the Temple would stand (M. Kasher, Torah Shlemah, B’reishit , pp. 544, 870).

But, indeed, where was the land of Moriah? On what mountaintop did the Akedah (the binding) take place? This is the question that interests me for the moment. Despite the elusiveness of the biblical text, the Rabbis had no doubt that Abraham’s final, supreme test took place in Jerusalem on what would become the Temple Mount. How the identification came about sheds a bit of light about the process by which a religious tradition is formed.

Onkelos, the early Aramaic translator of the Torah, already reflects the rabbinic view when he translates “the land of Moriah” as “the land of the Temple service (Gen. 22:2).” At the story’s end when Abraham bestows on the site the name ” ‘Adonai Yireh‘ whence the present saying, ‘On the mount of the Lord there is vision (Gen. 22:14),’ ” Onkelos reinforces the identification by paraphrasing the verse as follows: “Abraham worshiped and prayed there in that place saying to God, here future generations will worship because on this day and on this mountain Abraham once worshiped God.” In other words, Abraham’s act of piety sanctifies the site as appropriate for the pious acts of later generations.

The midrash parses the name “Moriah” in reference to the Temple as meaning a place from which emanates either the word of God (from yaroh, to teach) or the fear of God (from yare, to fear). The former alludes to the Sanhedrin, which convened on the premises of the Temple, and the latter to the exclamation by Jacob at Bethel just prior to his flight back to Haran to escape the wrath of Esau: “How awesome (nora, from yare.) is this place! This is none other than the abode of God and that is the gateway to heaven (Gen. 28:17).” (B’reishit Rabah, 55:7).

Hence Jacob’s dream of the ladder stretching from earth to heaven is also associated by the midrash with the future site of the Temple. Revelatory experiences of the patriarchs get aggregated by the Rabbis to the spot which would become the exclusive gateway to heaven. According to one midrash, God showed Jacob that night the fateful history of the Temple first in its pristine glory, then in ruins and finally in its everlasting messianic splendor. It is that sober vision which prompted Jacob to erupt full of fright: “How awesome is this place!” (B’reishit Rabah, 69:17).

The only thing wrong with this rabbinic construction is that it does grave violence to the facts. The patriarchs experience God in many places, some specified, others not. A site becomes sacred solely by virtue of such an experience. Thus God initially addresses Abraham in Canaan at Shechem at the terebinths of Moreh whereupon he builds an altar, as he does at Bethel, 21 miles south of Shechem (Gen 12:6-8) and later in Hebron by the terebinths of Mamre (Gen. 13:18). The site at which God reassures Abraham with promises of progeny and territory is not even given (Gen. 15). And, the biblical text is silent about where God informs Rebecca about her twins (Gen. 25:22-23) or where the covenant with Isaac is reaffirmed (Gen. 26:1-5).

There is but a single passing reference to Jerusalem in Genesis and it underscores the degree to which the place is off limits. After Abraham defeats the four kings from the east and recovers his nephew, Lot, he is greeted by King Melchizedek of Salem (i.e. Jerusalem) who blesses him for his dramatic victory. Though religiously kindred spirits, Abraham refuses to keep any of the spoils for himself. Let no one say that Melchizedek “made Abram rich (Gen 14:23).”

Nor does Jerusalem fall to the Israelites in the conquest of Canaan by Joshua. The book of Joshua specifically reports that the tribe of Judah was unable to dispossess the Jebusites from the city and had to settle for co-existence (15:63). (The contrary claim of Judges 1:8 is nullified by Judges 1:21.) Not till the time of King David is the impregnable redoubt finally stormed and turned into the new political capital and religious center of a fragile monarchy (II Samuel 5:6-7). The city can serve to unify the contentious tribes of Israel precisely because it belongs to none of them. With the construction of the Temple, Solomon seeks to strengthen the cohesive power of Jerusalem, but the monarchy immediately breaks apart upon his demise.

In fact, the ascendancy of Jerusalem and its Temple does not begin until after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom in 722 B.C.E. by the Assyrians. Twenty years later, the city is unexpectedly spared the wrath of Sennacherib’s invading army, a turn of events predicted by the Prophet Isaiah which adds to its religious luster. More enduring still is the appearance of the book of Deuteronomy in 622 B.C.E. with its radical cultic reform of a single legitimate sanctuary: “Do not worship the Lord your God in like manner (at the multiple high places and altars scattered throughout the land), but look only to the site that the Lord your God will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation, to establish His name there (Deut. 12:4-5).” Though Deuteronomy never mentions Jerusalem or its Temple as that sacred site, Josiah (640-609 B.C.E.), the last great king of Judah before its destruction in 587 B.C.E., enacted the reform and made the identification.

The final step of identifying Jerusalem with Moriah was taken by the author of the book of Chronicles around 400 B.C.E., a little more than a century after the modest erection of the Second Temple by those returning from the Babylonian exile: “Then Solomon began to build the House of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah (II Chronicles 3:1).” And it is this verse which Rashi cites in his commentary to Genesis 22:2 to prove that Moriah is Jerusalem. Subsequent events would only heighten the holiness of the city in the Jewish psyche.

In sum, I would observe that it is the notion of time that separates us from the Rabbis. The appreciation of historical development is a distinctly modern sensibility. A religious tradition tends to read backward, retrojecting later phenomena into earlier ones. The beginning is but an anticipation of the end. Our historical temperament reads forward, softening the iron-clad link between where we are and what came before. We respect the individuality of each event or text and study them on their own terms. For the Rabbis, the present colors the past; for us, it is the past which leads to the present.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Vayera are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld