Abraham, Isaac, and Bob

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 – Sermon 2021 / 5782 – String of Pearls / Princeton Reconstructionist Congregation (Princeton, NJ)

Rabbi Maurice Harris                           

Shana Tova to one and all. I’d like to talk about midrash this morning. Midrash and Bob Dylan. And then invite us to have a chance to break into small groups for a bit of discussion. I’m not sure where the inspiration for this came from, so I hope you’ll indulge me and see what we discover together. 

First, a word about midrash. I know many of us are already familiar with what midrash is, but because we are all bringing different kinds of knowledge to this moment, let me start with a definition. 

Midrash, and I’m quoting someone here, “…can be described as a form of storytelling that explores ethics and values in biblical texts.” Midrash adds to, expands upon, or even challenges the plain meaning of the biblical texts it works with. It is a method and a form of biblical interpretation that is open to multiple interpretations of biblical texts. In many ways it is creative and almost free form, yet it does follow certain rules and traditions. There is no one set of books called “The Midrash” – midrash is a disorganized collection of writings scattered across many different anthologies.

Midrashim – the plural of the word in Hebrew – often take the form of stories elaborating on incidents in the Bible, to derive a principle of Jewish law or provide a moral lesson. The ancient rabbis would create midrashim in response to something puzzling, interesting, disturbing, or confusing in a biblical text. Any number of bumps or oddities in the Hebrew of a biblical passage could trigger the sages to develop a midrash – an explanation or fanciful story that would provide an explanation for the unusual or perplexing feature in the text.

The tradition of developing midrash took hold in early rabbinic communities up and down the land of Ancient Israel during the time when the Second Temple – the one that the Romans destroyed about 2000 years ago – still stood in Jerusalem. After the Roman destruction and the beginning of the great exile of the Jews, midrash became one of the ancient rabbis’ primary tools for reinterpreting the Bible to make it speak to their time and situation. 

Let me offer an example. In the Book of Genesis, chapter 13, we find this passage in which God says to Abraham: 

“Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust (!) of the earth; only if a person could count all the dust of the earth could they actually count the number of your future descendants. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”

Genesis 13:14-17

In the aftermath of the great Roman destruction, the surviving rabbis were struck by something curious in this text. They wondered why God tells Abraham that God will make his offspring like the dust of the earth, when God could have used a different metaphor that might be a little less, well, dusty and, well, dirt-like. In fact, two chapters later in Genesis 15:5, God repeats the promise to Abraham of uncountably large numbers of descendants, but in that text God says to Abraham, ““Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can. That’s how many descendants you will have!” Why not just stick with stars – why also dust? This question led to the development of the following midrash

Why in the Torah does God say to Abraham, I WILL MAKE YOUR OFFSPRING LIKE THE DUST OF THE EARTH? Why dust?… Here is what God was trying to say to Abraham: just as the dust of the earth extends from one end of the earth to the other, so too your children will be scattered from one end of the world to the other. … And as dust is made to be trampled on, so your children too will be made for kingdoms to trample on. Also, as dust wears vessels of metal away, but itself endures forever, so with the people Israel: all the idolatrous nations shall disappear, but the Jewish people will endure.

Genesis Rabbah 41.9

What a poignant glimpse this midrash offers us – not so much of what the actual meaning of the verse in Genesis is – but of how a newly scattered and exiled people saw their own predicament woven into the words of the Torah itself. And that brings me to the main idea I’d like to explore with you: that midrash is often a mirror, a mirror that allows us to look at an ancient bit of the Bible, bring in our imagination and our literary creativity, and discover something of our own situation refracted through the prism of the original text. 

The art of midrash is ancient, but the midrashic impulse lives on, and we see it in the words of many contemporary writers and poets today.

Consider the Nobel Prize winning laureate, Robert Zimmerman, also known as Bob Dylan. One of the biblical texts that is traditionally read during Rosh Hashanah services is the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son, Isaac. The biblical verses come from Genesis 22, and begin like this:

[After some time had passed], God tested Abraham. God said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied. Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the flint and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The flint and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God … will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

Genesis 22:1-8

Dylan offered his own midrash on this biblical text in his 1965 song, “Highway 61 Revisited” with these opening words:

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”

Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”

God say, “No”. Abe say, “What?”

God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but

The next time you see me comin’ you better run.”

Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”

God says, “Out on Highway 61”.

As with any good midrash – and I’ll admit that this is a very unorthodox midrash, but humor me for the moment – as with any good midrash, there’s more going on than initially meets the eye. Dylan’s irreverent lyric re-imagines the conversation between God and Abraham in Genesis 22, but Dylan’s Abraham responds more like the Abraham of Genesis 18 – the Abraham who challenged God’s ethics when God told him that God planned to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham argued that a truly just God would not destroy the innocent residents of the cities along with the guilty. 

Also, in Dylan’s lyrics, once it becomes clear to God that Abraham may not be willing to follow the command to kill his son, the lyrics seem to take inspiration from the Book of Jonah. God says, “You can do what you want Abe, but the next time you see me comin’ you better run.” Jonah, if you recall, was the prophet called on by God to do a job he didn’t want to do and tried to run from God, but ultimately Jonah discovered there was nowhere he could run to escape God’s presence. 

Just as Jonah ultimately resigned himself to having to go forward and act according to God’s instructions, Dylan’s Abraham does the same. He asks God, “Where do you want this killin’ done?” This folk hipster midrash ends with a clear answer from God: “Out on Highway 61.”

There is one more striking difference between Dylan’s midrash and the biblical original – in Genesis 22 Abraham never says a word in response to God after God tells him to sacrifice Isaac. He just begins carrying out the order. Dylan’s Abraham also resigns himself to carrying out the horrifying command, but he calls what God wants him to do “killing” – “where do you want this killin’ done?” – distancing himself from the assignment God has coerced him into carrying out. 

Interestingly, in ancient midrashim, there are lots of examples of the rabbis making up dialogue between God and humans that doesn’t appear anywhere in the original biblical text. Whether he knew it or not, Dylan was following a midrashic tradition in imagining an exchange of words between Abraham and God that utterly changes the meaning and character of what happens in the biblical story. 

Of course, in both the biblical original and the Dylan midrash, God has a specific place in mind for the sacrificial slaughter of Isaac. In Genesis, God wants Abraham to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah, but God withholds the exact location from Abraham initially, telling him only that he wants him to do the deed at “a mountain that I will show you.” This is a great example of the literary technique known as dramatic irony, which is what happens when we the readers know things about a situation that the characters in the story don’t themselves know. In this case, we the readers know that the place God is leading Abraham and Isaac to will later become the site of the Holy Temple, but neither father nor son know that. 

By contrast, in Dylan’s midrash, God tells Abraham exactly where the deed is to be done – “out on Highway 61.” So, what’s special about Highway 61? Is it just one of Dylan’s poetically evocative but ultimately inscrutable lyrics? I don’t think so. Before the Interstate Highway system was built starting in the Eisenhower years, the main arteries traversing the major regions of the United States were the US Highways – often two-lane roads hopscotching from small town to town, but ultimately connecting cities many hundreds of miles apart. 

US Highway 61 runs from New Orleans north, following the Mississippi River up to Memphis, then St. Louis, on to Chicago, and ultimately to Duluth, Minnesota. Before the Interstate Highway era, Highway 61 was one of the main ways out of the Jim Crow South for Black Americans during the 40s and 50s. It was also an artery along which music flowed between the south, midwest, and north, carrying Creole and African-American blues, backwoods country and bluegrass, and predominantly white folk music popular up and down its length, drawing in the lyrics and music of several generations of southerners, Dust Bowl survivors, and northern midwesterners. 

Highway 61 is a place brimming over with journeys, with people trying to escape the long legacies of slavery and people trying to scratch out a living. So, in Dylan’s version God has a specific location in mind for the ultimate test of Abraham’s loyalty – or is that really the case? After all, Highway 61 is, in an important way, not a very specific location. It is 1400 miles long. 

What else do we know about this place God has chosen for this macabre sacrifice? Well, Dylan’s lyrics tell us that Highway 61 is a place where you can find someone to take things you don’t know what to do with off your hands. As Mack the Finger says to Louie the King: “I got forty red, white and blue shoestrings, and a thousand telephones that don’t ring. Do you know where I can possibly get rid of these things?” You guessed it – Highway 61.

From Wikipedia’s entry on U. S. Route 61

Highway 61 also seems to be a place where families get scrambled and love gets twisted in inappropriate ways. Listen to this verse:

Now the fifth daughter on the twelfth night

Told the first father that things weren’t right

My complexion she said is much too white

He said, “Come over here and step into this light, yeah you’re right”

Let me tell the second mother this has been done

But the second mother was with the seventh son

And they were both out on Highway 61

Who and what else do we find on a journey to this strange highway? We find a roving gambler who is trying to figure out a way to trigger World War III, who meets an event promoter who decides to help him pull it off. Also, a desperate man with a bloody nose and no clothes who needs somewhere to run, and a stranger with a gun who tells him he should head to Highway 61.

Highway 61 is a place of strange convergences, many of them seedy and hopeless, some ominous, some funny, and some flat out crazy. It’s a place where many desperate journeys begin, and many plans get hatched, whether for good or ill. It’s a place where people try to do everything from finding healing and refuge to getting rid of worthless merchandise to redefining family relationships to destroying the entire world. And it’s also part of a retelling of Genesis 22 in which Abraham does what he can’t seem to do in the original biblical text – specifically, find the nerve to give God some courageous back-talk when God tells him to sacrifice his son. 

There are also two personal references to Dylan’s life woven into this song. He was born and raised in Duluth, where the highway ends, and it so happens that his dad’s name was Abram, the original version of the biblical Abraham’s name before God changed his name to Abraham.

As I said earlier in this talk, midrash is a kind of distorted mirror for the generations that create it – a mirror that allows people to look at an ancient bit of the Bible, bring their imagination and literary creativity to bear upon it, and discover something of their own situation refracted through the prism of the original text. 

So that brings us to the short discussion I invite us to have in small breakout groups. I have but one question I invite you to ponder with each other: Midrash stretches and reshapes our most ancient sacred texts so that they continue to play a role in our imaginations, though it also allows us to explore the issues and struggles of our own time and place as it warps the original story. How might a midrashic approach to our religious or national sacred stories help us face our own biggest challenges here and now? We’ll take a few minutes for conversation – please make sure everyone in your group who wants to gets a chance to speak – and then come back together and hear a few examples of what emerged from your conversations. 

File:US 61 map.png - Wikimedia Commons
Map of US Highway 61

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