Parshat Vayera: Isaac’s Ashes

If you watched Sir Paul McCartney on the Late Late Show, doing carpool karaoke with James Corden and playing some of his greatest hits in a Liverpool pub you will have to agree with me that he is one of the two greatest living Beatles.

He was promoting his latest best-selling album “Egypt Station,” released last month.

And given that this is his 18th solo album in a career spanning over 60 years you would find it hard to believe that there was ever a time when people believed that Paul was dead. But there was.

I remember as a 10-year-old staying up late one night with a friend, as we scared each other with evidence that Paul McCartney was dead (this was 10 years after the rumors of his death had surfaced and been denied by Paul and his label. The theory was that Paul had died in a car crash and been replaced by a lookalike (who unlike the real McCartney, was right-handed). It seemed to us that the evidence was overwhelming (despite knowing it was false).

Cover of The Beatles ‘Abbey Road’ album (Screen capture: YouTube)

For example, the cover of Abbey Road shows a white-clad John Lennon representing a heavenly figure, Ringo Starr dressed as an undertaker, George Harrison as a gravedigger, and the barefoot McCartney as the corpse. In the final section of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Lennon is heard saying “I buried Paul” (though Lennon himself claimed he was saying the words “Cranberry sauce”).

And famously, on the cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” the bass guitar in the foreground only has three strings, symbolizing the missing bass player and on the back cover McCartney has his back turned while the other three face the camera.

Though a conspiracy theory can never be completely debunked it is fairly safe to say that McCartney is alive and well. He himself made a joke of the conspiracy theory by titling his 1993 album “Paul Is Live” with its parody of the “Abbey Road” cover.

With rock stars, it seems that if they are not dead they must be alive. Yet is it possible for Biblical figures to be both alive and dead?

‘Sacrifice of Isaac’ by Caravaggio (Public Domain/ Uffizi)

In Parshat Vayera we read of the binding of Isaac. God tested Abraham, instructing him to offer his son as a sacrifice, only to retract the instruction at the last minute, telling the patriarch not to harm his son. Abraham instead offered a ram as a sacrifice in place of his son. That’s the story we all know. And they all lived happily ever after.

But what about all the evidence that points to the fact that Isaac died on Mount Moriah, and his ashes remain there to this day?

True, the Torah states that Abraham offered a ram in place of his son (Genesis 22:13) but the Hebrew term for “in place of” could also be read as “underneath” or “after” offering his son.

The Torah tells us that after the binding of Isaac, “Abraham returned to his youths, and they arose and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham dwelled in Beersheba” (Genesis 22: 19). Where was Isaac? Why did he not return with his father and live in Beersheba?

Furthermore, the beginning of next week’s Torah portion describes Sarah’s death and funeral at length, yet Isaac appears to take no part in it. Why did he not attend his mother’s funeral? Nor is he mentioned in the Torah when Abraham decides it is time to find a wife for his son. Was he still recovering from the ordeal? Or was he actually dead?

Cinematic representation of Abraham about to slaughter Isaac. (Screen capture: YouTube/ The Bible Mini-Series)

Rashi on Leviticus 26:42 says that Isaac was killed. The verse states, “I will remember my covenant with Jacob and also my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham I will remember and the land I will remember.”

Rashi asks, “Why does it not say ‘remember’ with Isaac?” He answers that God says, “The ashes of Isaac appear before Me heaped and placed on the altar.”

In Ta’anit 16a the Talmud discusses the custom for the communal leaders to place ashes on their foreheads when fasting for rain. One explanation for the ashes is, “in order to remember the ashes of Isaac.”

In Shiboeli Haleket, a 13th century halakha book by Rabbi Tzidkiya ben Avraham the doctor, when describing the origins of each of the blessings of the amida, he writes (siman 18) :

“When our father Isaac was bound on the altar and became a heap of ashes, and his ashes were cast on Mount Moriah, the Holy One, blessed is He immediately put dew upon him and brought him back to life… immediately the angels said, ‘Blessed are You who brings the dead to life.’”

In I Chronicles 21:15 the verse states, “The Lord sent His angel to Jerusalem to destroy it. As he was about to destroy, God saw and repented of the evil…”

The Aramaic translation on the verse explains what it was that God saw.

“The word of God sent an angel to Jerusalem to destroy it, and when He came to destroy it He saw the ashes from the binding of Isaac at the base of the altar, and remembered His covenant with Abraham.”

The same idea is mentioned in the Talmud (Berachot 62b) when discussing that verse, “Shmuel said: He saw the ashes of Isaac.”

All of these sources imply that Isaac actually died on the altar.

However, Maharsha (on Berachot 62a) explains that Isaac didn’t actually die. There is an idea in Judaism that if someone intends to do a mitzvah but is prevented from doing it, God considers it as if the person had done the deed. So perhaps the idea here is that Abraham intended to offer Isaac as a sacrifice but was stopped at the last moment, so God considers it as if Isaac was sacrificed.

‘Abraham and Isaac’ by Anthony van Dyck. (Public Domain)

But there is one source which implies that Isaac literally died on the altar.

The Talmud in Zevachim (62a) discusses the returning exiles who came build the Second Temple. It asks how they knew the exact location of the altar.

“Rabbi Yitzchak Nafcha said they saw the ashes of Isaac heaped in that place.”

So we know Isaac went on to marry, have children and live a long life. Yet at the same time his ashes remain heaped on the site of the altar.

The Mishna (Pirkei Avot 5:8) lists many miraculous things that were created in the final moments of the sixth day of creation. One of those is “the ram of our father Abraham.”

If the ram sacrificed in place of Isaac was an ordinary animal, it (or its ancestor) would have been created along with the other animals earlier on the sixth day.

Perhaps this unique ram had powers similar to those of Schrödinger’s cat (which is both alive and dead at the same time). Perhaps this ram was both an animal sacrifice and also Isaac, both at the same time. And perhaps Isaac came down from the altar yet also his burned ashes remained there for all time.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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