“He saw Hell open up beneath him.” – Rashi on Gen. 27:33
ראה גיהנם פתוחה מתחתיו
That is an unusually terrifying image, even for Rashi, the great collector of fantastic legends. What’s going on here? What verse could have prompted such a dark reading from our most illustrious commentator?
Here’s the scene. Isaac has grown old, and feels the time has come to pass on the mantle to his eldest son, Esau. So he tells Esau to prepare a meal, and gets himself ready to give Esau the special blessing of the first-born. It’s all very tender, very fatherly.
But nothing goes as planned. Isaac’s wife Rebecca has always favored Jacob, and wants him to inherit the family covenant instead. So she disguises Jacob as Esau (they’re twins, after all), and sends him in to get the blessing from his nearly blind father – which he does.
Then Esau comes back in. After a few words of introduction, it suddenly becomes clear to Isaac that this is the real Esau. And it is at that moment, when Isaac realizes he has been tricked, that we read:
Isaac began to tremble violently… (Gen. 27:33)
וַיֶּחֱרַד יִצְחָק חֲרָדָה, גְּדֹלָה עַד–מְאֹד
It is a startling description. Of course he’s upset. But to think of this gentle old man, in the midst of blessing his children, suddenly start to shake uncontrollably – is particularly disturbing. The language suggests that much more was going on for Isaac than mere surprise. So this is where Rashi jumps in to tell us that Isaac was having visions of Hell opening up beneath him.
But why? What is it that rattles Isaac so profoundly that it sends him straight to the gates of Hell?
A classic midrash, searching for the source of this “trembling,” takes us back to the Akeidah, the famous ‘Binding of Isaac’ by his father Abraham:
‘Isaac began to tremble violently..’ – Rabbi Hama ben Hanina said: He trembled even more here than he trembled on the altar. (Bereshit Rabba 67:2)
וַיֶּחֱרַד יִצְחָק חֲרָדָה גְדֹלָה עַד מְאֹד (בראשית כז, לג), אָמַר רַבִּי חָמָא בְּרַבִּי חֲנִינָא מְאֹד, מֵחֲרָדָה שֶׁחָרַד עַל גַּבֵּי הַמִּזְבֵּחַ.
When Rabbi Hama sees this extreme reaction in Isaac, he cannot help but be reminded of the terror Isaac faced in his youth, and wonder if the trauma left him permanently shaky, prone to something like panic attacks.
There is another source that imagines Isaac’s “trembling” beginning on the altar, and it also reads like a kind of midrash. This one, however, was composed centuries later – and not at all by a rabbi. It is an astonishing narrative, and worth seeing in full:
Abraham said to himself, “I will not hide from Isaac where this course will take him.” He stood still, he laid his hand upon Isaac’s head in blessing, and Isaac kneeled to receive it. And Abraham’s face epitomized fatherliness; his gaze was gentle, his words encouraging. But Isaac was unable to understand him, his soul could not be uplifted; he clasped Abraham’s knees, he fell at his feet pleading, he begged for his young life, for the fair hope of his future: he called to mind the joy in Abraham’s house, he called to mind the sorrow and loneliness. Then Abraham lifted the boy up and walked on with him by his side, and his talk was full of comfort and exhortation. But Isaac could not understand him. He climbed Mount Moriah, but Isaac could not understand him.
Then Abraham turned away from him for a moment, and when Isaac again saw Abraham’s face again it was changed: his glance was wild, his whole being was sheer terror. He seized Isaac by the throat, threw him to the ground, and said, “Stupid boy, do you think that I am your father? I am an idolater. Do you suppose that this is God’s bidding? No, it is my desire.” Then Isaac trembled and cried out in his terror, “Oh, God in heaven, have mercy on me. God of Abraham, have mercy on me. If I have no father on earth, You be my father!”
But Abraham said softly to himself, “Oh, Lord in heaven, I thank You: it is better for him to believe that I am a monster, than that he should lose faith in You.
The author is the great Danish existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, and the tale appears at the beginning of his masterwork, Fear and Trembling (whose title, as you can see, contains the same word that he uses to describe Isaac’s terror).
In Kierkegaard’s vision, Isaac’s trembling at the altar is caused not just by the fear of death, but by the belief that his beloved parent had turned on him – that he had “no father on Earth.”
What would become of the boy who passed through this kind of experience? Certainly he would be traumatized. But more than that, we might also expect that he would vow, above all, never to be that kind of father himself. Never to betray his own child.
If, then, we turn back to the moment that Isaac sees Esau enter his room, perhaps his trembling makes more sense. Isaac suddenly realizes that he sent his son Esau off with words of love and promises, only to return to find himself forsaken by his own father. Isaac flashes back to the Akeidah. Except that this time he is the father willing to sacrifice his son. He is the monster.
There is even a hint of this Kierkegaardian connection in the text of the Torah itself. For when Isaac first calls to Esau, he says, “My son.” And Esau replies with one word:
“Hineini.” (Gen 27:1)
וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, הִנֵּנִי
Hineini – “here I am” – is a notable word in the Torah. It doesn’t come up too often, and is usually spoken only in response to a call from God. In fact, so far in Genesis, the only other time we have seen it spoken by one person to another is – you guessed it – at the Akeidah. When Isaac calls out, “My father,” Abraham responds:
Hineini, b’ni – Here I am, my son. (Gen. 22:7)
So when Esau spoke this same word – hineini – was it a kind of trigger? Did it take Isaac back to a moment when his own father spoke to him with words of affection, only to, soon thereafter, raise a knife to his throat?
Was this memory in the back of his mind even as he prepared himself to give the blessing – to love his own son unconditionally, and to never, ever do him harm?
And then when Esau returned, and understood that he had somehow been betrayed, and let out a “great, bitter cry” of pain and hurt, did Isaac hear in Esau’s wail the sounds of his own cries, that day he thought his father was going to kill him? Was he reliving his own personal hell? Did Isaac, in that moment, realize his greatest fear, and become the father he vowed never to be?
No. No. No. No.
He saw Hell open up beneath him. And he began to tremble violently.