Isaac Went Swimming and Sarah Got a New Fur Coat: Poetics of the Akedah
(Shiur Taught at the CY 9 November 2006)
More than any other Biblical story, the Akedah has lent itself to a great multitude of poetic interpretations. Countless poets have reinterpreted and re-examined the Akedah in their work. But what is it about the Akedah that lends itself so well to poetry?
In an effort to answer this question, we will consider three poems about the Akedah, each written by a modern Israeli poet of the last century. In your chevrutot, I encourage you to first read through the story of the Akedah (Genesis 22:1-19) and then to consider these poems and the subsequent discussion questions. You may read in Hebrew or English, but be sure to read the Biblical account in the same language that you read the poems.
Don’t worry if you don’t get through all the poems — it is most important, for the purposes of the shiur that will follow, that you use them as a means of understanding, more generally, the relationship between poetry and the Akedah. In other words, when you are in chevruta, your focus should be on the poems; but when we reconvene, our focus will be on poetics.
II. BREAK FOR ANALYSIS OF 3 POEMS IN CHEVRUTA (poems printed in previous post)
How do these poems enhance our understanding of the Akedah? Well, for one, they function in many ways like midrash – they fill in the missing details of the story. How did Abraham relate to his wife after the Akedah? How was the ram regarded? None of these details are supplied in the Torah. If the Biblical account is the set of natural numbers (i.e. 1,2,3,4,5…), then poetry, like midrash, is an attempt to supply some of the real numbers as well (i.e. 1.1, 1.2, 1.23. 1.233….) The set of real numbers, as we know, is infinitely dense: between any two real numbers, there is another real number. The same, I would argue, is true of Torah: You can turn it and turn it, and you will always find more in it.
But poetry is about more than just filling in the missing details. The chief characteristic of poetry is metaphor — the literary device of saying that something is something else. The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas. The moon is not a galleon — it’s the moon! But by comparing it to a galleon, we refine our image of the moon, at least as it appeared to Noyes’ highwayman. Metaphor is thus a counterfactual that sheds light on the actual. It shows us how something is what it is, by telling us that it is what it is not. Wieseltier tells us that Abraham loved only God – and yet we know from the Bible that Isaac was his son, his only son, whom he loved. T. Carmi tells us that Abraham and God parted ways — but the Bible tells us that after the Akedah, God praised Abraham and renewed His blessing of promise.
And yet out of these counterfactuals emerges an enhanced understanding of the actual. We have a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the Biblical Abraham after we have encountered the Abraham in these poems — what might it have been like IF Abraham had felt so guilty and remorseful after the Akedah that he felt he had to spend his whole life making up for it? What IF the ram posed for a fashion magazine?
To ask “what if” is to substitute other details. It is to exchange the reality we know for something else. It is to see Isaac laid out on the altar, and to imagine that it could be otherwise — to alter the altar, as it were. It is to recognize (to paraphrase Wieseltier’s crucial parenthetical) that “if there is a Bible, there is also midrash.” And there is also poetry.
It is no coincidence, I think, that the Akedah lends itself so well to poetic reinterpretations. Why? Because the Akedah is the paradigmatic story of metaphorical substitution in the Bible. The Akedah is about the very question, “What if things had been otherwise?” What if Isaac had been on the altar instead of the ram? And what if the ram had been on the altar instead of Isaac?
Abraham is the hero of the Akedah because he acted AS IF he would have been willing to give up his beloved son for God: Ki lo chasachta et bincha. Of course, he ultimately DID withhold his son from God: the angel intervened, and things were otherwise. The Akedah lends itself to poetry, then, because it is itself a metaphor for the act of substitution that constitutes metaphor, which in turn constitutes poetry.
And so I have now answered my motivating question: Why so much poetry about the Akedah? And now a second question: So what? What do we, as students in this yeshiva, take home with us from this analysis of the poetics of the Akedah? I want to close with two take-home messages, one about tefillah and one about tikun olam.
First, tefillah: Historically, we have witnessed another substitution in the development of Judaism over time. If the first metaphorical leap was from Isaac to the ram, then the second leap –hundreds of years later– was from the ram to prayer. The sacrifical animal replaced Isaac, and then tefillah replaced sacrifice. And so we have to remember, when we daven, that we need to offer our tefillot to God AS IF we were offering that which is most precious to us. When we daven, it must be AS IF we were putting our sons on the altar. This is why, I think, we recite the Akedah early in the morning every day. In traditional siddurim, it appears right in the beginning of the morning service, after birkot ha-shachar. The recitation of the Akedah reminds us what prayer is really about, i.e. the expression of our whole-hearted devotion to God. I could go on here about how it has helped me, given my discomfort with many tefilot, to remind myself that prayer is metaphor – but I promised another take-home message.
And so second, tikun olam: The Akedah lends itself to poetry because it is a story about metaphor. As such, it reminds us that the world always can be otherwise. This notion is also the motivation for tikun olam. If we did not harbor a dream that the world could be better, we would not bother to try to improve it. We human beings have the ability to substitute truth for falsehood and peace for war and goodness for evil; and the belief in our ability to make such substitutions is an expression of faith in God.
God tested Abraham, and I think that test goes on — both when we try to connect to God through prayer, and when we work to repair God’s world. These are quite daunting tasks, and I can only hope, like Abraham, that we are up for the challenge.