Thursday, May 22, 2008

In Which Chana Does an Imitation of a Homeless Person

Alas for me, I cannot claim to have the brilliance of Sherlock Holmes' "Man With the Twisted Lip," but I do a fair job of looking homeless simply by being myself. Today, the imitation takes the form of
  • exhaustion, combined with lack of food
  • lanky hair and a glazed-over expression
  • an oversized sweatshirt worn over a sweatshirt
  • mismatched attire
And that may be all for now.
But I am entitled; I am sick...exquisitely, amazingly sick... and that is all.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Packing, Eden Wok and Scarsdale Cousins

Having eaten nothing but 10 M&Ms this morning, I have...

1. Taken two finals (English & Chumash)
2. Gone to Staples three times (twice successfully, once before it opened)
3. Carried back loads of boxes by myself (strapped onto my arms)
4. Done all my laundry
5. Returned the vast majority of my library books
6. Packed up most of my room.

And that last is what is depicted so vividly below. Enjoy.

Of course, my Scarsdale cousins arrived to rescue me from this mundane task, and so began the annual torture of their darling cousin. This time it took the form of ribbing me about the fact that I apparently have no friends, determining that random guys on my digital camera are clearly my boyfriend, and later deciding that one day I will be homeless and wandering the streets. Yechiel basically points at a whole pack of garbage bags and goes- "Yeah, Olivia, so that's where you'll be living one day."
Oh, and let's not neglect the part of this where Dustfinger breaks in to tell really random jokes to me that I don't understand, but which Yechiel and Dov do understand, so that they must both interpret for me. Dustfinger finds this hilarious...Also, I have now gleaned that Dov's philosophy is to live in the present- in which case he is never worried by anything.

Add to this the policemen with guns and tasers who were right outside of Eden Wok and good times were had by all.

But Yechiel could not adequately conclude his day without making sure that I was marked forevermore:

Yechiel has decided I am both edible and kosher. He further states this is something of which to be proud. And he is now officially sketchy (perhaps even sketchier than the guy he has decided is my boyfriend- take that. *Evil laughter*)
Alas, he shall forever look down on me for having packed up my life in six boxes. He prefers the non-portable life. Ah well.
I love you guys!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Why I Hate Jane Austen

To the author of Jane Eyre, the author of Emma seems essentially superficial.

“She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well; there is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting..What sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study, but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of Life and the sentient target of death—this Miss Austen ignores…Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete, and rather insensible (not senseless) woman; if this is heresy—I cannot help it.”

~page 76, from “The Place of Love in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights” by Mark Kinkead-Weekes


Life is about what "throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through..." The trick is to reveal that passion via the mundane and ordinary means of our everyday lives, which we do, but Jane Austen does not like to, in most of her works. If the genteel demeanor hid what was dark, fascinating, furious and compelling, then that would be a type of brilliance, but it does not. Even Elizabeth's passion is a shallow mimicry in comparison to that of an Anna Karenina...

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


It's not even worth it for me to take my computer and possessions upstairs in order to go to sleep. I have to be back down here in five hours. Alas for me, I don't trust my laptop here all here begins the trek upstairs.

Tired is a state of being.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Year in Review!

Here comes the fun!

This year, I have participated/ attended/ been part of:
And this is nothing compared to what this year actually contained...and by this I mostly refer to all the people I met during the course of this year, many of whom are wonderful individuals I am privileged to have as friends.

I'm still not done + next year will be here soon.

Let the good times roll!

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Fairy Queen

For Lightman

He lived in a garett, a little artist’s garett furnished only with the barest necessities. There was a brown table overladen with books and scrolls, parchment unfurled and stuck to the table by sticky tea residue from the various and assorted pots and cups he had left upon the table. The only part of his musty enclave which was truly his own was the little balcony he had outside, upon which he would stand, holding a trusty mug of tea and looking down upon the sights that would greet him, most surely that of little Sara, whom he mentally referred to as Princess Sara from the novel. She was indeed the little princess, with all of that woman’s charm; her hair was black, her eyes a queer green and her lips were red and full. She was the baker’s daughter, but she loved flowers, and it was upon her to adorn the plates of bread with budding roses or silvery lilies. She wore them in her hair as well, and every part of her aspect seemed fresh to him, and shouted to him of a life that was alive, that blossomed every day with new fervor and new delight. He took pleasure in watching her, and delighted in venturing out every day to take a flower from her.

But he was unhappy. It was not the kind of unhappiness that passes, the loneliness borne merely of a cold winter, of an inability to see farther than the cold snow upon the ground, a momentary loneliness that could disappear once the sun had come out, as it recently had. No, it was a loneliness that went far deeper, a coldness that seemed to sink into his very bones. He either burned with fire or he froze for lack of it; he seemed to exist only at extremes. Those who knew him saw him as mild and kind, a gentleman, a student, someone who existed but who did not impact the world around him. Only he knew the kind of impact that he had and could have, for his very soul burned with it- it was in his music.

His music was at once a curse and a gift; it was all of him risen into a kind of nothingness, an offering of flames that he gave to those whom he cherished. There were few who could comprehend it and even fewer who could comprehend him, and so he languished in his apartment, scribbling feverishly when the mood was upon him, sorrowfully berating himself for his lack of will when it was not. His landlady was good enough to come up every so often and straighten out his rooms, air his linens and do up his sheets, but he did his own dishes and cared for himself. His dining room table, it was true, was ill-used- it was a surface upon which he left his various scrolls and scribblings- and he mostly ate in the kitchen, but otherwise his apartment was lit by sunshine and was clean, white in most aspects, where the light hit it.

He had come to rely upon a routine; he would begin the mornings with a breath of fresh air as he walked onto his balcony, clad only in his soft grey bathrobe, his hair mussed from a night’s ill sleep. Often he could not sleep, for sounds danced within his mind, music that rode his thoughts and inflamed him, a kind of electricity that sparked within his body, something which he could not control, for it was his master, and he its disciple. There were bags under his eyes and the shadow of a beard, yet for all this he did not look particularly unkempt so much as tired, and tired in a productive manner rather than one that suggested laziness or an inability to produce much of merit.

He would drink his tea in the mornings, lazily watching the rain through the panes, silver slashing through the sky and splattering upon the white stone, otherwise standing outside so that he might observe the people go about their daily routines. He was able to find some joy in them, but there was no one who brought him as much joy as Sara, who seemed as free and unchained as he was not. He admired her vivacity and foolishness even as he knew he would never dare make the scenes that she reveled in; he hungered for her zest for life and hoped she knew nothing of the headaches that plagued him, of the images that drove him mad. He lusted after the completion of some great project, but was always aware that there was yet something more that must be done, and something else that must be accomplished ere he could rest.

He would retire to his apartment, having been refreshed by the sight of that beloved face, and begin anew, bringing new energy and vigor to his work, writing the sun and sky and moon into his music, but mostly writing everything he felt, the darkness that shadowed him and the horrors that plagued him. He knew human experience intimately; lived it with every pore of his being. He did not need to hear a person speak to know what troubled them; he was aware and it was this very awareness that brought him pain, a kind of sorrow that he could not escape. He did what he could for the malcontents who sought him out, but it was all he could do at times to contain what he himself felt, for he knew that none of them suffered as he did, and none of them knew what pain was in the way that he knew it. Pain was his lover, someone who slept with him at night, caressed him in his dreams, smiled at him in his sleep. Pain was everything to him, and he reveled in her touch, for he had long ago decided he had no other hope, and if she was to be everything to him, he would enjoy her.

He realized, however, as music careened before his eyes in a swirl of colors, and he wearily looked upon the rainbow that shone before him and wrote, a conduit for the power that drew him, that he had begun to long for something more, something that was not made of pain but of something entirely different, a pleasure that he had never thought could be his. He knew that he would die young, had always known it, but even so he desired, selfishly in fact, to have one thing that would be wholly his and to know it absolutely. He wanted something as pure and unadulterated as the genuine being who danced before him, happy in the sunlight that flooded her face, reveling in the flowers she clutched to her breast. He wanted Sara, as his companion, his friend, and at some point, his wife. And so he set out to woo her in the best way he knew how- to draw her in with his music.

He began slowly, unaware even of how his face changed when he looked upon her. One day he walked downstairs, lightly tripping down the stairs, almost laughing as he entered the bakery and gravely requested a cinnamon bun. “A cinnamon bun?” said she, earnestly, pleasantly. “But for whom? Surely you don’t mean to eat it all yourself, now do you? Take another, why don’t you, and give it to someone on your way.” She pulled another of the sticky concoctions from the shelf, placed it into a white paper bag and wrapped the package for him prettily, sucking her finger where she had burned it. “Have a lovely day!” she said and smiled upon him radiantly, then paused a moment. “Ah yes,” she said again, as she bent down swiftly and rose up again- “here it is- the nightingale’s rose. It is all in red, and it is meant for you.”

She handed it to him with a dazzling smile and he, for his part, charmed by her innocence, amused by her exquisitely childish behavior, took it from her and gave a half-bow, exiting the shop. He returned to his garrett and wrote once more, paeons and odes to the spirit of youth, to everything that influenced him and taught him of her and all that was her. He wrote the redness of a rose into his music, composed tunes to the green of the stem, unfurling and becoming in her presence. She was his companion, and everything she touched became beautiful in his presence.

This became a habit, so that every day, instead of beginning with his customary mug of tea, he instead stopped by the bakery and requested a sweet. She had a different flower for him each day- a lilac, a lily, an iris or a tulip- but never again the rose, as she had the first day. She was always pleasant and always friendly, never anything if not polite. But he could sense that she did not feel for him what he did for her and this only added to his sadness, since he saw in his grasp someone who could see him truly, for when he looked into her eyes he caught the shadow of his pain. There was something reflective about those eyes, something dark in the experience they had despite her innocence and youth. He wondered about them often, composing music to them, to everything that they were.

He wrote her eyes, then, extraordinary as they were, green and luminescent, into his piece, adding it to the rose and her daily smiles, the joys that gave her pleasure, the innocence of her youth. He played his piece, unfinished, drawing the bow across the strings, the violin collaborating to produce an exquisite darkness that surprised him even as it struck him as the very essence of who she was. The next day, when she handed him a crocus, she remarked that she had almost gone blind the night before; for some strange reason something had ailed her eyes. She looked at him curiously as she said it, and he blushed, almost as though he were younger than his years, and had committed some crime, though he did not know what.

She laughed up at him, and simply to see her took away some of the pain that rested upon him like a coverlet, one that hung as closely to him as his clothing, if it were not his skin itself. Every time she looked at him he caught the faint shadow of his pain in her eyes, and was curious as to whether she understood, or whether it was his own wishful thinking that placed that unhappiness there as well. There was no reason that she should be unhappy, well-fed and content as she was, living out her days brightly and merrily in a golden world where she was protected and all was as it should be. And he would not give her the pain had he the choice; a thousand times over would he wish to bear it rather than give it to her. But in this he had no choice; one is either born with it or without it; if it is acquired, it is only because one had the potential for it at birth.

He would play to himself to calm himself, melodies that caught his fancy and twirled about him, lifting him to euphoric heights or giving vent to the chains that bound him. He had not revealed himself, and so no one knew of his talents; his landlady knew that he enjoyed the violin, but did not realize she harbored a prodigy in her apartment. She knew nothing of him and he kept it that way; he did not like the way in which people would see him as freakish were they truly to understand him. When he played, he ceased to exist, for his soul and the music were so attuned, so truly together, that it was like a man and his lover, the two existing as one, impossible to sunder. He wondered at these times whether there was more of him to give even if he wished it, decided that there was, and decided that anything that could lift the burden of his life from him would give him a stronger and more beautiful reason to exist.

And so he waited. He waited as he learned of the tips of her fingers, of the young men who romanced her, of the way she looked as she stepped outside in her smart red cape and black shoes, of the curl to her hair and the shine to her skin. He waited and he wrote all of this into his music, enhancing it, creating a melody that was at once haunting and enchanting, as though she were something more than a baker’s daughter, and he something other than a poor student. And then came the day that he believed he had completed all, and having gone to see her in the bakery, he invited her to visit him- just for a moment, he said, so as not to worry her father. She gave him an odd look and then went to fetch her things, her wrap and her coat, and followed him up the stairs.

She took in the odd arrangement, the browns of the table and the violin, stored carefully inside its case. Her eyes widened as she saw it but she said nothing, preferring instead to take a seat upon a velvet green cushioned-chair, which was fading slightly. The sun gave her a halo upon her black hair, and she looked up at him, smiling delightfully, as he told her he had written her a song. “Play it,” she requested, and settled back with a strange look- almost of resignation, as though he had triumphed over her. She closed her eyes and he began- unable to look at her- unable to look at anything but the swirling colors that accompanied the music he had written, the images that danced before his eyes, vivid visions that inflamed and aroused his heart to further desires and stronger measures.

He looked upon her as he finished and noticed that she had been crying. He bent closer, helpless, unhappy that her fringed eyes were wet with tears, and only then noticed that her tears were truly diamonds, and that she had lifted one of them off and set it upon the table. “You have there,” she told him carefully, and she seemed to shine strangely, “the tear of a fairy. It is precious, so you must keep it with you always, to aid you in remembering.”

She went toward the stairs but stopped and turned once more. “You have had the great misfortune,” she stated, “to fall in love with a fairy. And what is more, I am not merely one of the fairies, but I am the Fairy Queen herself. You have done what no mortal has done before, with any of their ballads or odes- you have managed to draw a tear from me. Lest you destroy yourself, however, I warn you to put this music aside, and give up this venture of capturing me.”

He was stunned, senseless. The baker’s daughter, a fairy queen? It made no sense, and yet he saw that it was true. How else to explain the experienced innocence in her eyes, the joy that she brought him, the pain that she understood too well? She was an immortal, and he, a human. Yet even as he saw clearly, and realized this, he knew too that he must triumph, that he must capture her essence and write it into music, imprint it upon his soul. He loved her, he saw now, and she had known it, though she had hoped to keep it a light flirtation between the baker’s daughter and the poor student. But he loved her, and what was more, he saw through to her essence, a mystery that none had perceived before. Why was she here? What purpose did she serve? He did not know and knew he would not know. He only knew that she was as unhappy as he, in her own way, and that he would write her into his life in order to keep her.

Every day he added parts of her to his opus, and she grew fond of him, coming to visit him. She spun him tales of the land whence she had come, explaining that she had been exiled for her disobedience, and told that she might live as a mortal instead. “But I am immortal,” she had added wryly, “and so I will live here until they send me back- or until-“ and then she was strangely silent, and did not finish her thought. He wrote these half-finished silences into his piece as well, her strangeness and otherworldiness, the mortality that was not truly hers, the color of her skin, which was pale and iridescent, and the queer green eyes that saw straight through to his soul.

He offered her everything he had and she would take what she could; he remembered fondly the way in which she had sat one evening, his blanket wrapped around her, shivering a little as she drank a mug of tea. Her supposed father never seemed to notice these absences, and she good-naturedly informed him that she did not allow her father to miss her at these times, or even to notice that she was gone. She had been doomed to live as a mortal even though that was not her life, and this was not her place, but small magics remained to her, and she practiced them even now.

They grew closer, until her very shiver caused him to grow cold, and he knew that she was aware of something stronger than he was, a kind of connection that caused her to grow ill. As he wrote more and more of her into his piece, he felt her fade away, until her skin was almost transparent, iridescent, shining with a thousand colors but demonstrating none. And then came the night when he came up to his apartment only to find her in emerald silk, desiring to dance with him, and he knew that it was finished, and the dream had been concluded.

He danced with her, and then almost tentatively she placed her fingers on his cheek- and transferred to him a fierce rush of power, of the current and river that was herself, so that he was drowning in it, in a pain and joy that was not his own and an ability that far exceeded his, though in a way that was completely different. She pressed her lips to his silently, and he felt the agony was shared, but it was an exquisite kind of agony, one that meant as much to her as it did to him, and with it came a blinding sweetness. It was only after this kiss that she handed him a red rose. “I will tell you the truth,” she said, “and you will hear it, and then you will decide.” She stood and suddenly seemed a Queen in truth, the Fairy Queen, and for a moment he was afraid.

“I have captured you,” he said, and heard the truth in his words even as he said them.

She inclined her head. “You have captured me,” she answered, “there- in your music. If you play it, I shall fade away and disappear; I shall not exist anymore. I will only exist in your soul, where I will join you, so that when you play you will play with the memories of me, with what I am and what I was to you. I will add to your pain, but I will also share it, and in that way I will be a slight comfort to you.”

She paused. “If you do not play it,” she said, and a glint of hope remained in her eyes, “we may continue as we are, but you will never be complete, and I will always be a Fairy Queen, the companion of a mortal but never truly his, not in this life or another. For I will take no partner be he not immortal,” she said, and he realized she had done this as a kind of penance, for she would not love someone only to watch him die, when she herself could not.

He hesitated a moment, for he could not bear to bring her harm. He thought and then anxious, he arose and paced the length of his apartment, stopping only to take the bow and run his fingers up and down its length. “You would do that?” he asked, and his voice held more than a question.

“Of course,” she answered simply, and she waited for him to decide.

It seemed like eternity; it was a matter of moments. Tears swam in his eyes as he reached for the bow. “I would have you for myself,” he said thickly; “I would have you in my playing, in all that I am.” And he proceeded to play her requiem, for it was the essence of her, and once it had been played, she could no longer exist. He took her spirit and gave it new life; blinding colors lit his vision and entire worlds were opened to him, so that he saw worlds he could never have imagined, fairies chanting the requiem alongside him. He saw them all performing as one, in a kind of brilliant unison, but when he actually looked at the woman before him, he saw her fading, fading, her skin turning white as the color left her face, until finally her lips were blue. But he could not stop. The bow rose and fell of its own accord; he played and played and sapped her strength, and he felt again the imprint of her lips upon his, the fierceness of that moment and the rose that she had given him. He took it all and drew it to himself, until his skin was on fire with the pain of it, but even then he took more so that her soul melded with his, and he was complete. He looked at his bow, then, and it seemed to be lit with golden light, and he saw the image of her dancing with the fairies, carefree and mad in their joy. He looked again to where she was but she had disappeared; she had given her entire self to him. He played a music that was exquisite and sacred, holy in its tenderness and purity, dark and mad, the music of suffering, the requiem of a fairy queen.

And it was only when he was utterly exhausted that he let the bow slip from his nerveless fingers, preferring instead to slump to the floor, his head caught upon his elbow, and he cried with a ferocity that tore at his heart, for he had both destroyed and freed the only creature that he had ever loved- and it was then that he had acquired his genius.

In the future, whenever he played, he saw her in miniature dancing in gold upon his bow, images created of flame and fire, and his soul felt attuned to the world in a way that it could not have without her sacrifice, and without his ability to take her away.

But he could not help, after these performances, after these moments which made his very career, to shed a tear as he looked at his boutonnière, which was always a red, red rose…


Credits: The Little Princess, "A Narnia Lullaby," "The Nightingale and the Rose"


In the haste of quiet night,
Merlin comes, his torch alight,
Silver eyes that pierce the gloom
Illuminate the golden room.

A rich brocade, a satin cover,
A king of strength and renewed vigor,
Upon his face a pale sheen
Of sweat; this he had not foreseen.

“What is it, Merlin?” he demands,
And rising from the bed, he stands,
A king of might and royal worth
Awaiting news of his son’s birth.

“The child has come,” answers the sage,
And standing there, he does now gauge
the King’s reaction to this news-
First pleasure, then a sigh, bemused.

“But must we truly let him go?”
Asks Uther, his whole face aglow.
He is a father, a man fulfilled
His body hums; his blood has thrilled

To the pleasure of these tidings;
He imagines the child riding,
His son now grown; a man so strong;
a king to right his every wrong.

“You must,” says Merlin, not without
a certain kind of compassionate doubt
as to the wisdom of his words;
nevertheless, he bids the King gird

his loins, take upon himself a sword,
and make haste to walk toward
the birthing room, so he may bid
his child farewell, and have him hid.

The King walks swiftly; he sees his Queen
glowing within a golden scene;
she holds her child to her breast
and raises her eyes to the new guest.

“Ah, my lord!” she says at once,
“How beautiful is our son!
I cannot bear to have him taken;
how can your heart not awaken

to look on him, to see him now
his beautiful skin- his precious brow?
I love him so;” and her voice breaks
“Must you, must you, truly take—?”

“My Lady,” says the King, and kneels,
“This secret to us is not revealed,
but only to Merlin, whom we trust;
we only do this for we must.”

He takes the child gently from
her outstretched hands, like a mute swan,
they fold in onto themselves;
memories to place on shelves

within her mind, a searing pain
that far outlives the greater gain.
She cannot bear to watch and yet
she must, and like a statuette

carved in marble, so her features
mold to the exquisite pain of creatures
unduly tortured, unhappy far
beyond the realm of earth and star.

Merlin cloaks himself and stands,
awaiting his King’s broken demands
to care for the child, to serve him well,
to protect him with every spell

and every charm of which man knows.
Merlin pauses, nods- and then he goes
into the darkness; they know not where;
they remain behind, the severed pair.

They are united in their grief;
into the darkness they do weep.
They hold each other in the dark
the flush of magenta joy a spark

to kindle always their pained love,
a suffering undreamed of
that creates a beauty so forlorn
it’s pieced of hearts that have been torn.

My little Arthur, I love you so;
I cannot bear to let you go.
And yet, here in the hospital bed
I picture the life you have led

It is one of beauty; you emerged
into the world, and I a surge
of love did feel, so immense
I would keep you at any expense.

But can I keep you to hurt you,
to make you suffer, so when you grew
your life would be a kind of hell?
No, for this I love you too well.

Tears sparkle in my silver eyes;
do not think I ignore your cries.
I love you, Arthur; you are mine;
my child, you sparkle and you shine

with a radiance all your own,
one I am glad to have known.
But I cannot keep you and so I give
you to them- your life to live.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Wonders of Idolatry

R' Kook has the most fascinating take on idolatry. From The Fear, The Trembling and The Fire:

For Rav Kook, the holiness within idolatry shows itself in a number of its qualities, primarily in idolatry's:

(1) Constant spiritual novelty
(2) Deep passion, to the point of frenzy
(3) Imaginative representations
(4) Infinite commitment to the Divine

See the following!

The Ishbitzer on the Akedah

Colorseer mentioned the Ishbitzer's take on the Akedah today. Curious to find out more about it, I discovered Abraham! Abraham! Kierkegaard and the Hasidim on the Binding of Isaac by Jerome I. Gellman. Unfortunately, I cannot find that book in the YU library (possibly because it's incredibly expensive), and have resorted to reading The Fear, The Trembling, and the Fire instead. I here cite a lengthy excerpt from the book, not in any way desiring to infringe on the copyright but simply to demonstrate why you should find this book and read it soon.

Rabbi Leiner's exposition of the Abraham story occurs twice, once in each of the two volumes of Mei Ha-shiloah. The two passages complement one another and converge to a common theme. The following is from the first volume:

    The trial of the akedah has to do with the greatness of Abraham's faith in God: even though God had told him [that his seed would be great] and that the covenant would be established through Isaac, and now he is being told to offer him up as a burnt offering, nonetheless, he believed in the first promises as before, and did not lose faith in them. And this faith is beyond human grasp. For in truth, Abraham did not receive an explicit command from God to slaughter his son. Therefore, [the Bible] does not say that "YHVH" ["the Lord"] tested Abraham, but that "Elohim" ["God"] tested him, meaning by this that the word came to him through a dim glass, so it says "Elohim," a term referring to power. That is why the trial is not said to be of Isaac, for Isaac believed Abraham when he said that YHVH had given the command. Hence, for Isaac it wasn't such a great test. But for Abraham, it was a trial, for he did not receive an explicit command. Now, had he any personal interest, of a father to a son, that would have forced him to have mercy on him. For in truth [it was God's plan] that he not sacrifice him, the test being only an appearance in the eyes of Abraham. And this is what he meant in his prayer for Sodom, when he said, "I am dust and ashes" [Genesis, 18:27]. "Dust" refers to an action that is not clarified and requires rectification, for from dust there can be growth." And "ashes" is something lost. And if, God forbid, he had sacrificed him, there would have been no way to rectify that act. Likewise with regard to the people of Sodom, if he had succeeded in his prayer that they live, and they were to remain in their wickedness, then he would be like ashes, that have no power of growth.
This paragraph has a companion in a more accessible comment in the second volume of Mei Ha-shiloah:
    The essence of the trial of the binding of Isaac lies in the fact that the prohibition of killing was clear to him, even more so slaughtering his own son. For clearly it was easy for Abraham to follow the command of the Lord with all his soul, even to sacrifice himself. Only in this case, as the Zohar states, this word came to him through a dim glass. That is, an explicit word did not reach him, and he was perplexed in his heart, and so could have decided the doubt either way. Now, had he even a small measure of self-interest towards Isaac, as a father to a son, he would have decided the matter for himself not to offer him as a sacrifice. For he had many thoughts and ideas and was confused by them, as the Midrash writes, "I had available a response: Yesterday you told me that Isaac would be my seed, and now you tell me "take thy son!" But I did not respond in this way. Instead I conquered my mercy in order to do thy will." And this was the essence of the trial (MH, 2:12). The sense of these two paragraphs is that Abraham at the binding of Isaac did not know what it was God was commanding. There was ambiguity and doubt at the heart of God's command, and as a result Abraham was perplexed about what he was to do.
That the command to Abraham was ambiguous has a precedent in the following Midrash, describing a dialogue between Abraham and God after the akedah was over:

    Rabbi Acha said: Abraham began to wonder, "This matter is incomprehensible. Yesterday you said "For in Isaac shall be the continuation of your seed." Then you turned around and you said, "Take your son etc," and now you tell me, "Don't send out your hand to the lad." I don't understand." The Holy One Blessed Be He answered "...When I told you to take your son, I didn't say to slaughter him, only to raise him up on the altar. You have placed him on the altar. Now take him down."
Thus does the Midrash have Abraham raise the question of the contradiction between God's earlier promises to provide Abraham descendants through Isaac, and the present command to kill the as yet childless Isaac. God replies that He hadn't commanded Abraham to kill Isaac at all, but only to "raise him up" on the altar on the mountain. Indeed, the Bible does not record an explicit command to kill Isaac, but only a command to "offer him up" or "raise him up," which can mean either a mere "raising up," or a "burnt offering."

Mordecai Joseph too depicts Abraham as not knowing the significance of the ambiguous words of God's command. But whereas the Midrash took Abraham to have misunderstood God, thinking "raise him up" to have meant sacrifice him rather than merely to raise up symbolically, in the Izbicer's mind Abraham simply doesn't know whether he is being asked to kill Isaac or only being asked to perform, perhaps, a symbolic act of placing him on the altar. He does not understand the ambiguous command.

The command is unclear because it reaches Abraham not from the attribute of God as YHVH, but from God as "Elohim", which according to tradition is the name of God that implies the attribute of "power," or "judgement," ("Din") rather than the attribute of mercy of YHVH. The point here is not that Abraham is being asked to do a cruel act, and for that reason finds himself addressed by "Elohim," but that the prophetic message is as from a distance, is unclear and indefinite in its import. It is through a "dim glass. In the kabbalah, the Divine aspect of Elohim corresponds to the dim light of the moon, hence to an unclear prophecy, whereas the aspect of YHVH corresponds to the strong light of the sun, hence to a clear prophecy. Had Scriptures described the prophetic message as coming in the name of YHVH it would have indicated a clear and unambiguous message.

What was the nature of Abraham's trial, then, if the Divine command was ambiguous between commanding the killing of his son and the mere placing of his son on the altar? It was, for the Izbicer, to test how Abraham would act in this state of uncertainty. It was a test of Abraham's authenticity before God.

On account of the ambiguity in the Divine word, Abraham was in danger of falling into self-deception: Abraham could easily have convinced himself that God could not possibly have meant for him to kill Isaac. If in becoming convinced of this, however, Abraham had been influenced by his feelings toward Isaac, and was not deciding purely from a sincere attempt to discern the Divine intention, he would have been deceiving himself into thinking that he had done all he could to obey God's command. He would have been guilty of an inauthenticity in ascribing to God the command to merely place Isaac upon the altar as a symbolic ritual, had this ascription been based on Abraham's own desires, and not on an assessment of God's will. This would have been to fail the test, in a succumbing to self-deception.

The possibility of Abraham's creating a self-deceptive strategy for himself was rendered attractive by two available considerations. The first was the consideration of rationality. God, after all, had told Abraham that his seed would be continued through Isaac. Were Abraham to interpret the present command as directing him to slay Isaac, he would be making it a contradiction to the earlier promise. To entertain the truth of the contradiction would have required an ascent "above human reason." It would therefore have been quite convenient for Abraham to convince himself "as a rational being" that God could not possibly have been asking an actual sacrifice of him. According to the Izbicer, to pass the test Abraham had to overcome the temptation to use rationality as an excuse for succumbing to his own feelings of love for his son and for that reason refuse to perform the sacrifice. Abraham was being asked to ignore the contradiction when deciding how to act. His decision was not to issue from considerations of objective truth, or logic, but from elsewhere.

The second consideration supportive of self-deception was that God Himself had commanded Noah and his children (that is, all of humakind) not to kill. The killing of one's own child would surel have been a particularly grave transgression of the Divine command. So Abraham is in temptation, the temptation being to refrain from killing Isaac through representing to himself that the reason he chooses not to kill Isaac is that he, Abraham, is so very pious and obedient. He (Abraham thinks to himself self-deceptively) wishes only to heed the Divine commands, and so, when faced with the ambiguity of the present command, in light of the unambiguous duty not to kill his son, has no choice but to refrain from killing Isaac. Abraham would have failed the test had he engaged in t his elaborate reasoning as a way of concealing his real motivation: the wish to save his beloved son, Isaac.

Abraham, therefore, in order to pass the test, must rid himself of his personal attachment to his son and not be swayed by his love for him. Abraham was being tested, to see whether he could bring himself to a state wherein he could act only for the sake of God, wanting to do only what God wants, and not what he, Abraham, would want.

Success in passing the trial, then, does not depend solely upon what Abraham does. For even if Abraham were to decide not to sacrifice Isaac, which was in fact God's will all along (as Rabbi Leiner takes care to note), he could nonetheless have failed the test. Had he refrained from sacrificing Isaac, but for the wrong reasons, had he acted, that is, in self-deception, Abraham would have been a failure.

~The Fear, The Trembling, and The Fire pages 24-27


The Ishbitzer's answers are fascinating. One of them, the existential explanation, focuses upon the fact that Abraham truly had to make his decision within a vacuum, that is, blankly decide what the correct action was and proceed with it (God will intervene if necessary.) The important thing about this situation is that Abraham had to be clear that he did not absolutely know that what he was doing was the right thing, that it had the potential to either be "dust or ashes" (something from which something could grow and blossom, or something entiredly dead, with no potential for growth.) The other, theological explanation, which I prefer, works in terms of the Ishbitzer's theology, explaining that it was upon Abraham to attempt to suppress his feelings for Isaac; if he succeeded in doing so, he was meant to slaughter his son- if he did not succeed, he was not meant to do so. Since he did not succeed- the "angel," that is, his own love for Isaac, prevented him from killing Isaac. Equating the angel with his emotion is predicated upon the Ishbitzer's understanding of the angel that drove Judah to lust after the harlot (i.e. Tamar) and his interpretation of what happens by Zimri and Pinchas (which is also fascinating.)

Definitely check out the book!


I only found out about the incredible musical "Billy Elliot" tonight, which I shall have to see in October 2008 when it opens!

The song "Electricity" is by Elton John. Its lyrics are incredible. And the scene in which Billy dances out the meaning of the song is beautiful.