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Sarah Got a New Fur Coat:
The Poetics of the Akeda

Ilana Kurshan | Text and the City | VaYera 
 
Ilana Kurshan (Bronfman ’95, faculty 2009-2011) works as an editor and translator for a literary agency in Jerusalem, where she lives with her husband and three toddlers. Her writing on the parsha, daf yomi, and motherhood appears at ktiva.blogspot.com, and she can be reached at kurshan@gmail.com
Poems of the Akeda
All translations by Ilana Kurshan


Deeds of the Fathers
T. Carmi

And after the Akeda?
Then the most difficult test began.

Abraham took his son to the camel races
Hiked with him from the Euphrates to the Nile,
Swam by his side, watching him like a hawk
In the waters of Eilat. And when they returned home,
He slaughtered flocks and herds aplenty,
All tender and good,
Sweet scent of songs and of muscle and meat
And guests in good graces come in from afar.
Isaac ate and ate, ate –
And was silent.

Abraham bought his wife a fur coat
And golden jewelry
He installed emergency lighting in their tent
He brought her boots in style from a shop on the Nile
Hashish from Tarshish,
Cinnamon from Lebanon.
Sarah, who grew old overnight,
Never took off her mourning clothes.

Abraham prayed to his God morning and evening,
He hung tzedakah boxes on all the tamarisk trees,
Studied his Torah night and day,
Fasted,
And gave room and board to angels for almost no fee. 
The voice from on high disappeared.

And the voice within him 
(The only one left)
Said: Yes, you went
From your land, from your homeland, from the land of your father,
And now, in the end, from yourself. 

* * *

Abraham 
Meir Wieseltier

The only thing in the world that Abraham loved was God.
He did not love the gods of other men,
Which were made of wood or clay and of polished vermilion,
Which were created by men who came home each evening to their wives
to guzzle meat and wine,
Which were sold in the city market like onions to the highest bidder:
He invented his own God, and made himself His chosen one. 

And of everything that existed in the world, he loved only Him – God.
He did not bow down to other gods; he said to them: If you go right,
I'll go left; If you go left, I'll go right
He said: Lest they say, I made him wealthy.
He refused to take anything from anyone or to give anyone anything,
Except God. Him, all He had to do was ask,
And He would receive. Everything. Even Isaac, the only one, the tender inheritor.
(But if there is a God, there is also an angel.)

He did not appreciate anything in the world, only God.
He never sinned to Him; there was no difference between them.
Not like Isaac, who loved his coarse-minded son; not like Jacob
Who slaved away for women, who limped from the blows that God gave him at night,
Who saw angelic ladders only in dreams.
Not so Abraham, who loved God, and whom God loved, 
And together they counted the righteous of the city before they wiped it out.
 
* * *
 
So, By the Altar
Rivka Miriam
 
So, by the altar, Isaac wished to remain
With his father’s rough hands working him
Removing him from the world as they had brought him into it
With a groaning yearning.
 
Abraham was binding his son
As if with umbilical cords
To return him to the ancient, frail loins
That Sarah laughed at.
 
So, by the altar, Isaac wished to remain
Growing ever smaller
Turning back again into his father’s hidden seed
Blue as a dream, numerous as the stars.
 
Confined by his cloak, sweating, Abraham’s chest rested
On his son’s face. His beard in the light breeze.
The ram nibbled at the grass, gazing into the distance with squinting eyes—
The angel never came. 
Perhaps more than many other biblical story, the Akeda has lent itself to poetic reinterpretation -- from the work of modern Hebrew poets such as T. Carmi, Meir Wieseltier, and Rivka Miriam (translations of whose poems appear here) to the poetry of Wilfred Owen about World War I, to songs by Leonard Cohen and Joan Baez. What is it about the Akeda that has given rise to so much lyricism?

            On the most basic level, these poems serve as Midrash, filling the gaps in a difficult and unsettling text. Why did Abraham obey God’s charge to lead his son to the sacrificial altar? How did the incident transform Abraham’s relationship with Isaac, with Sarah, and with God? T. Carmi explains that after the Akeda, Abraham acted like a guilty father and husband, trying to make up for a past betrayal by taking his son to the camel races and buying his wife a new fur coat. Wieseltier condemns Abraham for his self-righteousness, insisting that the patriarch was drunk on God. And Rivka Miriam suggests that Isaac did not want to be unbound after all. None of these perspectives is supplied in the Torah. If the biblical account is the set of natural numbers (i.e. 1,2,3,4,5…), then these poems, as Midrash, are attempts to fill in some of the real numbers as well (i.e. 1.1, 1.2, 1.23. 1.233….) The set of real numbers is infinitely dense: between any two real numbers, there is another real number. The same is true of Torah: You can turn it and turn it and always find more in it.

            But these poems do more than just fill in missing details. The chief characteristic of poetry is metaphor -- the literary device of showing what something is by describing it as what it is not. “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 Alfred Noyes's highwayman. Likewise, we have a more nuanced understanding of the biblical characters after we have encountered them in these poems. What if Abraham had felt so remorseful after the Akeda that he spent the rest of his life making up for it? What if Isaac had become sullen and obese? To ask these "what if" questions is to substitute other details, to alter the altar. 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.

Abraham is the hero of the Akeda because he was able to make such a substitution – he acted as if he would have been willing to give up his beloved son for God. As Rashi says (22:13), “For every sacrificial act he performed on the ram, Abraham would pray and say, ‘May it be Your will that this be as if it were done on my son -- as if my son were slaughtered, as if his blood were cast, as if he were flayed, as if he were burned to ashes.’” Biblical scholars such as Richard Elliott Friedman and Tzemah Yoreh  have posited that in the original biblical story, Abraham carried out the sacrifice of Isaac—but repugnance at the idea of human sacrifice led a later redactor to substitute the ram for Isaac (see
http://thetorah.com/the-sacrifice-of-isaac-in-context). Is the Akeda a story of substitution, or a story that was substituted for an even more terrifying tale? Either way, the Akeda dramatizes the act of substitution that constitutes metaphor, which in turn constitutes poetry.

Historically, the Akeda story underwent another act of substitution 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 sacrificial animal replaced Isaac and then prayer replaced sacrifice, suggesting that we are supposed to pray as if we are offering to God that which is most precious to us. Perhaps this is why the Akeda appears at the very beginning of the Siddur – as a reminder that prayer must be an expression of our whole-hearted devotion to God. Prayer is not this devotion, but a metaphor for it. The notion that prayer is a metaphor and not the thing itself has helped me work through some of my discomfort with traditional liturgy, which I continue to recite faithfully even as I allow for my own mental metaphorical substitutions.

And so the Akeda lends itself to poetry because it is the paradigmatic story of metaphorical substitution in the Bible. The Akeda 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? As such, the Akeda story is an inspiring reminder that the world can always be otherwise.  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, peace for war, and good for evil; and the belief in our ability to make such substitutions is an expression of faith in God.

God tested Abraham, and that test goes on -- both when we try to connect to God through the metaphors of prayer, and when we work to change the world through acts of courageous substitution. Let us hope that we, like Abraham, are up to the challenge. 
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