Naming The Unimaginable

At the harrowing end, a ram replaced Yitzhak as the sacrifice; a narrow escape that came only after two divine interventions to divert father Abraham from his unimaginable mission.

Generations of rabbinic storytellers imagined even narrower escapes for Yitzhak, placing him as close to death as they dared; hoping to keep Abraham’s faithfulness (and Yitzhak’s resolve) intact beyond any question, to the point of no return.

In one sequence, Abraham began the sacrifice of his son, shedding a quarter of Yitzhak’s blood. Yitzhak would have died from this mortal wound had angels not taken him away to the Garden of Eden where he was healed over three years.

Another account relates that Yitzhak was—almost literally—frightened to death. Upon realizing that he would survive, Yitzhak created the blessing that would become fixed in his name: Blessed are You… who revives the dead.

In the most extraordinary escape of all, Yitzhak was actually sacrificed, reduced to ash, and then resurrected. In this story, the angels—not Yitzhak—created the blessing that celebrates reviving the dead.

An escape story much closer to the Torah’s narrative relates that Yitzhak was replaced on the altar by the bellwether of Abraham’s flock, a sheep named “Yitzhak.” Thereby, “Yitzhak” was sacrificed—even as Yitzhak lived.

A mortal wound and a miraculous recovery, a near-death trauma, a resurrection, and a pet sheep—not a ram—named Yitzhak: Each story set aside the scriptural account, edging closer to the unimaginable.

Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, added a more astounding tale to the tradition of such stories in which he went so far as to name the unimaginable: A father did, in fact, sacrifice his son; and that son’s name was Yivkeh/Let-Him-Cry, a tragically prophetic name:

Abraham had three sons, not just two.
Abraham had three sons:
Yishmael/ Let-God-Listen, Yitzhak/Let-Him-Laugh, and Yivkeh/Let-Him-Cry.

No one has heard of Yivkeh, for he was the youngest
the beloved one offered as an offering on Mount Moriah.
Yishmael was saved by his mother, Hagar, Yitzhak was saved by an angel,
but Yivkeh was not saved by anyone. When he was little
his father loving called him, Yivkeh, Yiv’k, Yeiv’k my little
darling. But he sacrificed him at the Akedah.
In the Torah is written the ram, but it was Yivkeh.
Yishmael never listened to God again in his life.
Yitzhak never laughed again in his life
and Sarah laughed only once, and never again.
Abraham had three sons,
Yishma/Let-Him-Listen, Yitzhak/Let-Him-Laugh, Yivkeh/Let-Him-Cry,
Yishmael, Yitzhakel, Yivkeh-el.
[Let-God-Listen, Let-God-Laugh, Let-God-Cry.]

The Torah would not say it, but the poet insisted: Abraham sacrificed a son, Yivkeh—not a ram—on Mount Moriah. It is a fact that Yitzhak did not die. But Amichai allowed no escape from the truth into the facts. You don’t remember a child named Yivkeh from the Torah’s story? No matter; you don’t remember a wound, a resurrection, or a sheep named “Yitzhak,” either.

Yivkeh, not Yitzhak, was the beloved one offered as an offering on Mount Moriah (although Genesis 22:2 described Isaac with this language). Yivkeh, alone among the sons, was the beloved one of nicknames so endearing that those names underscored the horror of what would come.

His name foreshadowed his fate. Just so, his brothers’ names ironically described their own lives after the traumas from which they would escape. Yishmael would never listen again. Neither Yitzhak nor his mother would laugh.

The poet named the unimaginable from the very beginning: Abraham had three sons, not just two. But in the end, indirection powerfully carried his point from earthbound life to the very heavens.

Indirectly, Amichai revealed that the name Yivkeh itself is a nickname—a short form of Yivkeh-el/Let-God-Cry. Just so, the name Yitzhak shortened the fuller Yitzhak-el/Let-God-Laugh. Both names follow the full-name form of the oldest brother, Yishmael/Let-God-Listen.

God’s presence, visible or not, makes of a name a hope, or a prayer: Let God listen, Let God laugh. When naming the unimaginable, a name becomes a living protest, an indictment, a demand: Let God cry!


This entry was posted in Midrash, Names, Parshat HaShavuah, Poetry, Torah. Bookmark the permalink.

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