Is it possible that Avraham failed a test given to him by Hashem? That question has been on my mind and those of my Ninth Grade students, as we have explored Rashi’s selective use of a challenging Midrash.
We’re up to the point in our year-long exploration of Rashi’s commentary on Chumash at which we jump off the page to consider Rashi’s use (and occasional misuse) of original sources such as Midrash and Gemara. One of these voyages from 1,100 France to 500 Babylon made for an unexpectedly intriguing debate.
Yitzchak in Avraham’s Image … To Protect Whose?
Parshat Toldot begins with the anti-climactic “Toldot” description of Avraham’s progeny:
בראשית פרק כה
(יט) וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק בֶּן אַבְרָהָם אַבְרָהָם הוֹלִיד אֶת יִצְחָק: (כ) וַיְהִי יִצְחָק בֶּן אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה בְּקַחְתּוֹ אֶת רִבְקָה בַּת בְּתוּאֵל הָאֲרַמִּי מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם אֲחוֹת לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה:
One of the many questions my students picked up on in learning these פסוקים is the apparent redundancy within the first verse – if Yitzchak was “ben Avraham,” then clearly אַבְרָהָם הוֹלִיד אֶת יִצְחָק. Why does the פסוק need to inform us of this?
Not surprisingly, Rashi is bothered by this question, too:
רש”י בראשית פרק כה
אברהם הוליד את יצחק – על ידי שכתב הכתוב, “יצחק בן אברהם,” הוזקק לומר “אברהם הוליד את יצחק.” לפי שהיו ליצני הדור אומרים, “מאבימלך נתעברה שרה, שהרי כמה שנים שהתה עם אברהם, ולא נתעברה הימנו!” מה עשה הקב”ה? – צר קלסתר פניו של יצחק, דומה לאברהם, והעידו הכל, “אברהם הוליד את יצחק!” – וזהו שכתב כאן, “יצחק בן אברהם היה,” שהרי, עדות יש, שאברהם הוליד את יצחק:
An intriguing story – the scoffers around Avraham mocked the Patriarch for Sarah’s allegedly having conceived Yitzchak with Avimelech until Hashem, apparently to protect the First Couple’s image, made Yitzchak look so much like Avraham that no one any longer had any doubts as to who was the boy’s rightful father.
A look at the Midrash Tanchuma that Rashi is ostensibly quoting,* however, reveals some important differences:
מדרש תנחומא (ורשא) פרשת תולדות סימן א
בא וראה כח השלום! – שבשעה שנתטלטלה (that she was taken) שרה מיד פרעה ליד אבימלך, ונתעברה ביצחק, היו אומות העולם אומרים, “הַלְבֶּן מאה שנה יולד?! אלא, היא מעוברת מאבימלך או מפרעה.” והיתה חשד בלבו של אברהם על אלו הדברים. מה עשה הקב”ה? אמר למלאך הממונה על יצירת הוולד, עשה כל אקונין שלו כדמות אביו, כדי שיעידו הכל שהוא בנו של אברהם. מנין? ממה שקראו בענין, “אלה תולדות יצחק בן אברהם.” ממשמע שהוא אומר “יצחק בן אברהם,” איני יודע שאברהם הוליד את יצחק? ומה ת”ל אברהם הוליד את יצחק?! – שכל הרואה אברהם, היה אומר, “בודאי שאברהם הוליד את יצחק,” ממה שהיה קלסתר פניהם דומין זה לזה! לכך נאמר, “אברהם הוליד את יצחק.”
Rashi changes this Midrash in his retelling in many interesting ways – the absence of Pharaoh and Hashem’s outsourcing “the change” to an angel are two – but perhaps the most intriguing difference is Rashi’s omission of Avraham‘s doubt, brought on by the mockers’ derision – והיתה חשד בלבו של אברהם על אלו הדברים – as the very reason for Hashem’s making the change at all.
Avraham – a doubter? It seems that the Midrash is suggesting this possibility. Avraham, who believed at age 100 that he would have a son? Avraham, who pinned his hopes for Jewish Peoplehood on a strict one-year deadline? Avraham, who believed even when his righteous wife laughed? Perhaps it was to make the likelihood of Avraham’s conception at that advanced age, and the concomitant furtherance of the Jewish Nation, even more stultifying that Hashem inserted Avimelech in the picture. Still believe, Avraham? Sure, no problem. But then along come the comedians, and והיתה חשד בלבו של אברהם. The change in Yitzchak was not, as Rashi implied, for the mockers; why would Hashem make such a change just to convince them? Who were they in the grand scheme of history? Let them laugh! But that Avraham should doubt? Had it come to this? Hashem needed to take action. The test had become too great for even Avraham to endure.
The Object of Doubt – Two Paradigms
In class we constructed two separate possibilities as to the meaning of the Midrashic line והיתה חשד בלבו של אברהם. Perhaps the phrase comes to mean only that Avraham worried what others would say – a תפארת לו מן האדם problem. Hashem wanted, in that case, to protect Avraham’s image in the world at large. This theory is also brought in the Anaf Yosef commentary to Midrash Tanchuma, along with the explanation that Avraham had doubts of his own. The problem with the other-conscious theory is that it leaves little resolution as to why Hashem would have set into effect the very course of events which would lead to others’ doubts, only to resolve them by changing Yitzchak’s appearance. The less “frum” approach, on the other hand, that Avraham was personally doubtful, at least leaves with us a more satisfying (and edifying) chain of events: Hashem put Avimelech in the picture as a further barometer of Avraham’s belief in Hashem’s ability to grant the Patriarch a child; Avraham cried Uncle, faltering in his belief at this point; Hashem sent a safety net, making Yitzchak look like Avraham, to save Avraham.
(The Anaf Yosef points out that Mizrahi‘s text of the Tanchuma, in place of והיתה חשד בלבו של אברהם על אלו הדברים, has the more evocative line והיתה קטטה בבית אברהם על אלו הדברים – and there was fighting in Avraham’s house due to this matter. This text would lend credence to the idea that Avraham himself had some doubt who was Yitzchak’s father, and that it was for Avraham’s sake that Yitzchak’s appearance needed to be changed.)
Avraham’s Doubt: Means of Edification, Base for Growth
If we are to adopt the explanation that Avraham had doubts of his own which needed to be assuaged, we are left with the difficult reality that Avraham stumbled in his faith. How do we understand Avraham as a doubter? Is it time to sell Avraham to a caravan of Arab merchants? My students proposed a working hypothesis to help preserve both the Midrashic version of events and Avraham’s image. Imagine, they posited, that a teacher gives his students a pretest on the first day of school. The results will determine their class placement for the rest of the year. Naturally, the teacher will ask the students to solve problems which he knows are currently beyond their capability. The goal of the pretest is not to determine what is already known, but what is not yet known; the purpose is to ask continually harder questions until the student cannot answer them any longer, at which point the teacher will have the knowledge he needs to plan the year accordingly. If the students were to cheat and score beyond their personal capability, this would only make the rest of the year harder for them.
Perhaps Hashem had the same plan in mind for Avraham: continually “up” the challenge until Avraham cried Uncle. Make him infertile. Wait until he is 100 before guaranteeing him a child. Give him a strict one-year deadline. Throw in Avimelech and Pharaoh. And then add the comedians to the mix. In the end, it is peer pressure which proves too much for Avraham. That is the level from which Avraham can now begin to work on his Emunah. Looked at from this perspective, Avraham did not fail the test given to him by Hashem – he passed it four times, and the fifth was never required of him! Think of the wall in an optometrist’s office, with its rows of ever-smaller letters and numbers. One who reads four rows perfectly before stumbling on Row 5 has not failed – he has simply indicated to the optometrist what prescription he requires. In a similar way, Hashem now knows where Avraham needs work in his Avodat Ha’Emunah – incidentally, a level that most of us would probably not come close to – and his work on Emunah can begin again now.
Changing Yitzchak – An Outside Job?
At the same time, it is interesting to note another difference between Rashi and the Midrash. Rashi goes out of his way to say that Hashem made the change – מה עשה הקב”ה? צר קלסתר פניו של יצחק – even though the Midrash went out of its way to say that an angel caused the change: …מה עשה הקב”ה? אמר למלאך הממונה על יצירת הוולד. Why would the Midrash be so clear in its assertion that Hashem appointed an angel to do this job?
Perhaps, offered one student, the message from Hashem here is that just as an angel is, at Hashem’s direction, changing Yitzchak’s appearance in utero, it was just as much an angel, and also just as much at Hashem’s command, who told Avraham that he (and not Avimelech) would have a baby one year earlier. Lest Avraham begin to doubt his prior reliance on an angel, Hashem reinforces Avraham’s original belief that an angel can be empowered to act on Hashem’s behalf.
On the other hand, perhaps the angel is used here to imply to Avraham that if he is prepared to, even partly, abandon his belief that it is Hashem who bestows children (and, by extension, can do so whenever and however He wants), Hashem will essentially acquiesce to Avraham’s skepticism of Hashem’s abilities by outsourcing Yitzchak’s change to an angel rather than making the change Himself. Hashem’s use of an angel is thus a gentle Divine nudge, informing Avraham that if he is prepared to go it alone, Hashem is prepared to make that choice a reality. If so, why is it so important that Avraham realize the truth of what happened and believe unequivocally in Hashem’s ability to follow through on His guarantee and provide a child for Avraham?
Forging a People on Belief
Suppose Sarah’s pregnancy went ahead without Yitzchak’s being changed to look exactly like his father Avraham. The baby is born looking like Sarah, or like no one in particular, but Avraham’s once-dormant doubt as to Yitzchak’s true father is never truly forgotten, and he always wonders. The message in the Midrash is that that is not a Jewish People that Hashem can tolerate. We cannot be a People of ambiguous origin – or worse, one whose origin is shrouded in the ambiguity of whether it was in fact Hashem’s guarantee that brought it about. If Avraham’s doubts are holding him back from seeing Hashem as the sole and unquestioned Power that put the continuity of the Jewish People in place, the very integrity of the Jewish People is likewise called into question. Of what use any longer is the Jewish People to Hashem if we cannot serve as a living and confident testament to His presence on this earth? The change of Yitzchak thus serves as a testament not only to Hashem’s ability to both create and change nature (as “Hashem as Creator” during Ma’aseh Bereishit was modified during Yitziat Mitzrayim to display “Hashem as Changer”), but also to the centrality of belief in the furtherance of the Jewish People. For if Yitzchak is born unchanged and Avraham is never sure whether Hashem’s guarantee really came true or whether maybe, just maybe, Avimelech was inserted into the picture to ameliorate a fumbled promise, is that a Jewish People at all?
* In fact, while Rashi borrows elements of this comment from the Midrash, he takes other elements from Gemara Bava Metzia .פז. While it is out of the scope of this post to compare the two sources and how Rashi borrowed selectively from each, I will give you the Gemara here and you can make the comparison for yourself. (The bold phrases might offer some hints as to key differences. The first story in this Gemara, about Sarah nursing many babies, is brought in a different Rashi elsewhere in Bereishit, unlike the Gemara which connects it to the Yitzchak story.)
תלמוד בבלי מסכת בבא מציעא דף פז עמוד א
“ותאמר, ‘מי מלל לאברהם, הניקה בנים שרה?’ ” – כמה בנים הניקה שרה? – אמר רבי לוי: אותו היום שגמל אברהם את יצחק בְּנוֹ, עשה סעודה גדולה. היו כל אומות העולם מרננים ואומרים, “ראיתם זקן וזקנה שהביאו אסופי מן השוק ואומרים: בנינו הוא; ולא עוד, אלא שעושין משתה גדול להעמיד דבריהם?!” מה עשה אברהם אבינו? הלך וזימן כל גדולי הדור, ושרה אמנו זימנה את נשותיהם, וכל אחת ואחת הביאה בנה עמה ומניקתה לא הביאה, ונעשה נס בשרה אמנו ונפתחו דדיה כשני מעיינות, והניקה את כולן. ועדיין היו מרננים, ואומרים: “אם שרה, הבת תשעים שנה, תלד, אברהם, בן מאה שנה, יוליד?!” מיד, נהפך קלסתר פנים של יצחק ונדמה לאברהם. פתחו כולם ואמרו (בראשית כה), “אברהם הוליד את יצחק.”