I. The peshat, the literal meaning
of the text
Mitzvot in the Parasha
The parasha does not contain any of the 613 mitzvot.
The Shla, however, considers the obligation to give hospitality
to strangers a mitzva and indeed it is a subdivision of
the 611th mitzva (vehalakhta biderakhav, "you will
walk in the ways of Hashem," Devarim 28, 9), as well
as a subdivision of the injunction to walk according to
Hashem our God (Devarim 13, 5), as is written in the Semag
(Great book of Mitzvot).
In Tractate Sotah, page 14 a, Ribbi Hama ben Hanina demonstrates
that we should
--- dress those who are naked like Hashem dressed Adam
(Bereshit 3, 21),
--- visit the sick like Hashem did with Avraham (Bereshit
--- bury the dead like Hashem did with Moshe (Devarim
--- comfort those in mourning like Hashem did with Yitzhak
after the death of Avraham (Bereshit 25, 11).
Ribbi Simlai notes that one can see from this that the
Torah is composed, from beginning to end, entirely of
acts of kindness.
Themes of the Parasha
The parasha contains scenes which have been
the subject of many important commentaries. The main episodes
---Three visitors come to Avraham circumcised and announce
--- Sarah's laugh and her denial thereof.
--- God's promise to Avraham that he will beget a great
nation and that all nations will be blessed by him.
--- Avraham's plea on behalf of Sodom. The punishment
of Lot and the destruction of Sodom.
--- The act of incest between Lot and his daughters.
--- The abduction of Sarah by Avimelekh.
--- The birth of Yitzhak, Hagar's scorn and the banishment
of Hagar with Yishmael.
--- The pact made on Avraham's land by Avimelekh whose
destroyed Avraham's wells.
--- The "non-sacrifice" of Yitzhak (the akeda).
Many cultures have described these scenes symbolically
in literature, religion or art: it everyone's right to
use the symbols they please for creative purposes.
Method of study
But if we want to learn the meaning of these
scenes according to Jewish tradition, to which they belong
(the one unquestionable truth), we must first learn the
rules of composition of these stories.
The purpose of this Internet site is not
to transmit imaginative commentaries, even if they are
based on science, experience or creativity.
The purpose of this site is to teach the Torah through
the method of the Sages themselves: we will study the
Torah with the Sages, and try to demonstrate to readers
their method of interpretation and their tools of analysis.
My role is to present this as accurately as possible.
By slowly studying the approach of the Sages, readers
will learn to study like them, and with them.
1. In Judaism, the theme of a story is only
one of the elements that is transmitted.
2. The theme only acquires meaning through
its linguistic form in Hebrew. If a story keeps its meaning
in translated form, this can be seen as an error, particularly
in regard to the Biblical stories, because the real meaning
is found in the formulation of every single word and its
link to other expressions in the Tanakh (the five books
of Moses and the prophets) in which this word appears.
It is only through this link to key words and to their
context, that the true meaning is found. Unusual linguistic
and grammatical forms are the signs that indicate to us
particular meanings. This is Rashi's method of interpretation
which uses special linguistic forms as clues to understanding
the meaning of the text, the peshat.
3. The guidelines for the interpretation
of these signs have been passed down by oral tradition.
4. The way I use this technique is to:
--- read the Torah in Hebrew,
--- ask yourself as many questions as possible in order
not to get carried away by the story.
--- take note at the same time of all possible meanings
that can serve as a moral lesson.
Demonstration of the method
A very useful example is found in the personal
diary of Rabbenu Yosef Caro in Magid mesharim. Rabbenu
Caro does not begin with the grand concepts which he more
anyone is capable of analyzing, but chooses rather to
begin with a long list of questions (the Shla does the
same, as does the Talmud). I have quoted the list below
in order to demonstrate how one SHOULD study:
--- Why is it written (Genesis 18, 1): "And
Hashem appeared unto him" and not "Hashem appeared
--- Why is it written that He appeared unto him when nothing
is written about what He said?
--- How is it that God visited Avraham when he was sick
but did not speak to him, since words are an essential
part of the mitzva of bikur holim (visiting the sick)?
--- What is the significance in being told that this took
place " in the plains of Mamre" and of what
concern is this to us?
--- What is the significance in that he sat "in the
--- What are we meant to understand from "in the
heat of the day?" And why?
--- Why three men, and what is the meaning of the fact
that he ran to meet them?
--- What is the significance of the fact that he went
to fetch "a little water?"
--- what is the meaning of "under the tree?"
--- What is the meaning of "three measures of fine
--- What is the meaning of "So do, as thou hast said?"
--- What is the meaning of: "Avraham ran unto the
--- What is the meaning of: "And Sarah heard it
in the tent door?"
From this we can see that the traditional
method of Torah study is based on:
identification of the smallest units of
identification of significant elements, which can then
be linked to where they appear in other parts of the Tanakh
and the oral Torah,
a clear understanding of the different levels of the text.
This method is a far cry from interpretation
that is based on a particular external theory. Never forget
this method and apply it systematically to every Torah
Then it will be easier to study the commentaries and understand
the teachings of the Sages.
Now examine Rashi's commentary and answers
to the first verses: you will see that they follow exactly
this method of analysis.
II - Torah Or
We now move past this phase of study, which
seeks to find the exact literal meaning - the peshat -
and go onto the second phase which is to seek to understand
the inner meaning, what the Shla calls "Torah or,"
Torah is light.
The akeda according to
Chapter 22 describes the consequences of
Avraham's acquiescence to Hashem's commandments: he is
faced with the injunction to sacrifice his beloved son.
The binding of Yitzhak by his father Avraham is the most
difficult trial that can confront any man.
The Shla stresses the following:
the pact between the two men, Avraham and Yitzhak, in
climbing the mountain together and preparing for the sacrifice,
Using the method we have described, the Shla goes on to
present a more precise interpretation which demonstrates
the nuances of this text.
When it is written: "And where is the
lamb for the burnt offering?" this question must
also be seen as a prayer to God, that He should bring
another victim for the sacrifice (otherwise Avraham knows
it would have to be his son).
The meaning of the question must be understood
in the context of the fact that God grants an intercession
prayer, as is constantly repeated in the supplication
prayers (slihot) which are said at the beginning of the
New Year. The Yalcut on verse 22, 9 describes the floods
of tears and cries that accompany these prayers.
A prayer is also an intense struggle which
involves all of one's being and the entire world. The
commentaries write that Yitzhak cries out when he recites
the beginning of Psalm 121: "I lift up mine eyes
unto the hills from whence cometh my help." Father
and son carry out the will of God but not with the joy
that is asked of them.
This too raises a question and requires pause for thought.
An additional problem
Let us follow the method of linguistic examination:
another problem is raised in verse 22, 5: "I and
the lad will go yonder" (ad ko). The Shla notes that
the word "ko" signifies reproof by Avraham against
God who promised him an heir with this same word ko: "ko
yiye zarakha, so will be thy seed" (15, 5).
The Shla answers these questions in a very
long and complex analysis of the text and notes that the
meal offered by Avraham to the three angels holds the
key to understanding this passage.
The Shla finds the answer to these linguistic
questions by analyzing Avraham's existential dilemmas,
as when he asks himself whether the three people are human
or angels. One of the criteria he uses for distinguishing
angels is that they are immobile (as is written in Daniel
7, 16, and do not jump as Tractate Berakhot of the Jerusalem
Talmud 1, 1) notes, whereas men are constantly in motion
as is written in Zachariah 3, 7.
One can see that the Torah text follows the same line
of questioning we have described, on condition it is read
It is clear that this mobility is linked
to what God said to Abraham ("lekh lekha, go towards
yourself"). The angels add support to the presence
of God, they form a merkava, a chariot. Man walks, like
Avraham and Yitzhak did towards Mount Moriah (Jerusalem)
and the righteous man walks in such a way that nothing
can halt him: "many waters cannot quench love"
(Song of Songs 8, 7). The living waters of holiness (kedusha)
have the power to destroy the klipot that suffocate life.
Thus a text which appears simple, because
it seems to tell a simple story, is in fact very complex.
The method of studying the text, however, is very clear.
Once students learn it, they can apply it to the entire
Using this method, the Shla rejects any
one interpretation and offers instead two simultaneous,
extreme levels of interpretation:
---- on the one hand, at the experiential level, the akeda
is a long, cruel, brutal and poignant trial that pits
together two people who love each other;
--- on the other hand there is the more intimate, dual
level of a dialogue involving the presence of God. This
level is symbolized by the perfumes in the Temple.
This is the level that moves the heart,
as when Yitzhak is offered as a sacrifice "of pleasant
smell" (reah nihoah, Shmot 29, 18); and when the
angel of God tells Avraham not to lay his hand on his
son (22,12). The midrashim write that when they reached
the place of the two seraphim of the Holy of Holies, it
is at this moment that the divine voice was heard.
The linguistic meaning of the site of the
sacrifice (which did not take place) being Mount "Moriah"
is now clearerm, for moriah is the name of a perfume in
Hebrew. One should note too that the last word of the
Song of Songs (besamim), which refers to the mountain
where the lover impatiently seeks and exhorts The one
she loves, also means "perfumes."
The story of Abraham and Isaac takes place
in an atmosphere of extreme tension and at many levels
simultaneously; Judaism is not a sinecure and we are warned
of this from the very beginning of its history, which
is presented as a model for the future. We learn from
this story that man must go towards God with all his soul,
but he will also find that God will put a limit on his
extreme feelings of faith and devotion.
Judaism, therefore, is not a religion that
promises immediate "happiness now" and claims
"we know, we have got there." Even the man who
is most willing to say "yes" to God, finds himself
confronted by mysteries that restrict his omnipotent desire
to do good.
Indeed, even Moshe, the greatest of men, only acquires
49 degrees of Wisdom, not 50. And even though, as we have
seen, the mila (circumcision) is the only condition which
enables man to acquire knowledge of God, it does not do
so completely. The word mila is made up of the letters
that form the word Elokim, God, but notes the Shla, it
does not include the letter aleph which is the domain
The akeda analyses in detail what is demanded
in our relationship with God and what is restricted, and
we learn that this is the same in the love between men,
when it is intense and real.
We learn here that religion and love both involve two
indifference (not giving of oneself),
Love of God is characterized by the same
measured sensitivity as that shown by Abraham towards
his wife, towards his guests, towards his son, towards
the kings of other nations, and towards God himself. The
same qualities are found in "justice" (din)
and goodness (hessed).
Love has been discovered and love will be
the ultimate target, but the road to love is full of hardships
These trials signify that love is authentic.
This, of course, does not concord with our
infantile need for a love that is simple, fused, and immediate.
We should remember that Yitzhak is not a baby or a child
when he undergoes this trial in his relationship with
his father Avraham: he is 37 years old. This is not a
childhood or adolescent crisis; for it is only when people
are mature that they undergo such profound, unexpected
and incomprehensible - in the eyes of those involved and
in the eyes of those around them- trials in their relationships.
If they are overcome successfully, then the relationship
will attain a deeper and more meaningful level than it
could have reached previously.
What can we learn from the way these two
participants overcome their tragic trial?
1. Even if one is overcome by an imminent
tragedy, we learn from Avraham to see, through the darkness,
the positive from afar (read 22, 4). (What Avraham sees
- yere - is the future whole Jerusalem: yeru
2. Leave one's servants (read 22, 5), the
aides who simplify things, pass judgment according to
their own superficial criteria, their evil designs, and
their limited visions cannot see "beyond."
3. Follow the path directed by Hashem and
believe that "gam zu latov:" since Hashem is
good, this trial will also be for the good, even if for
the moment we do not understand its logic. Hashem's plan
takes place over many years (as we see in the long sterile
years of the matriarchs) or over many generations (it
is important to say the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzhak,
the God of Jacob in order to adhere to and fulfill his
plan), as in the amida prayer.
4. Understand that personal aspirations
or difficulties are part of the collective journey of
many generations and find meaning in this.
Thus the life and emotions of an individual
Jew are lived out within a context that is much broader
than that of one individual. This is seen most notably
in the turbulent histories many Ashkenazi and Sephardi
families: in a cross section of 4 generations, one often
finds secular exile, dramas, displacements, assimilation
and aliya to the land of Israel, which is the aspiration
of all generations. And this is not the end of the road.
The price paid
Here too, Judaism does not provide any easy
shortcuts, such as: trial, death, and resurrection in
the space of a few decisive days, and immediate entry
to paradise on earth. This is a seductive approach that
is adopted by many fringe sects. But reality still must
be faced, as the inalterable criteria of the truth.
Because Judaism was aware of this human
tendency to find easy solutions, it developed the sophisticated
Talmudic method of reasoning as a defense against the
propositions of false messiahs, false theories, and false
saviors who seduce the gullible.
This does not mean that we err in having
aspirations, or that the holiness of certain Sages who
led people astray is in question, but simply that it is
very difficult to discern what is right and the consequences
incurred by false messiahs have been so painful that the
Sages have always chosen to be prudent rather than kindle
Thus it is, that even though the ram replaced
Yitzhak in the sacrifice, and the akeda concluded with
joyful blessings, a terrible price was still exacted:
the death of Sarah. Despite the glorious victory, Satan
intervened, spreading the lie that Yitzhak had died, and
Sarah could not endure the anguish. Avraham was left to
bury his wife and his son his mother.
Yitzhak will find a wife to replace his mother, but Avraham
will never find Sarah again and his sorrow and tears will
We will see what happens to him in the following parasha.
1. Recommended Reading
--- Read the parasha in detail.
--- Study the references quoted in this commentary.
--- Read the beginning of Rashi's commentary, referring
to Rabbenu Yosef Caro's questions.
It is better to read a little, reflect and ask questions,
rather than read a lot in a purely intellectual manner.
2. Personal Development
Examine the crises you yourself have undergone
in your personal and affective relationships and relate
them to four concepts:
One. See, through the darkness, the positive from afar.
Two. Leave behind the servants (22, 5).
Three. "Gam zu latov."
Four. Examine personal aspirations or difficulties as
part of the collective journey of many generations and
find meaning in this.
Exchange these ideas with someone who is
capable of listening and avoid theoretical-political discussions.
3. Study the complex issues of moral conduct
that stem from this parasha and which are raised by the
Shla (in the 3rd part of his commentary):
--- the importance of hospitality and kind treatment of
others, especially those who are in a lower position than
--- the importance of making demands on children;
--- the importance of praying for sinners to return to
--- the importance of requesting for others what one needs,
a condition for the request to be granted (Baba Kama 92);
--- the importance of giving all of oneself in order to
draw closer to Hashem and his plan.
Identify precisely to which part of the parasha each question