This week, I've been on vacation (and battling a sinus infection...), and so I haven't had a chance to write a new blog post. Instead, I am reposting something I wrote back in 2012 on our Torah portion, Vayera. I'll be back next week with a brand new post. Thanks so much! And Shabbat Shalom.
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I love big, fancy words - especially ones related to Biblical scholarship. I don't know what it is about them, I just think they're terrific. Did you know, for instance, that a word that appears only once in the
entire Torah is called a 'Hapax Legomenon'? Now how could you NOT love a term like that?? Or the 'official' designation for God's holiest Name, the granddaddy of all God's titles - the one we pronounce 'Adonai' - which is 'Tetragrammaton.' Try sneaking that one into a cocktail party conversation... This week, I'd like to discuss another one with you, though you may already be familiar with it from other areas of literary scholarship. And it's one I've already (cunningly) employed in this first paragraph...
In the JTS commentary on our Torah portion, Vayera, one of my former Bible professors, David Marcus, writes about prolepsis. He defines prolepsis simply as 'anticipation,' or what movie-goers might know as 'foreshadowing.' Dr. Marcus gives us two versions of how this rhetorical device is employed in the Biblical narrative, and I'd like to briefly talk about both.
When the Torah gives us information that it unknown to the characters themselves, that is one kind of prolepsis. For example, in Vayera the story of the Binding of Isaac is introduced with the phrase, "Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test" (Genesis, 22:1). Right away, we know that this ordeal is 'a test,' and it assures us that all will end well. It instead becomes a thrilling story, as we follow Abraham up the mountain, watch him tie up his son, then bite our nails as he raises the knife in the air... and an angel stops him at the last minute. Incredibly dramatic stuff, to be sure, but all the while we, the readers, can rest easy knowing it's only a test. Thank you very much, prolepsis!
Another example of this technique is the use of seemingly unimportant details in one story, which will then later reappear elsewhere with greater purpose. For example, why did I refer to Adonai as the 'granddaddy' of Names at the start of this blog post? A peculiar choice
of idiom, no? Or is it...When we are first introduced to Abram - whose name is later changed to Abraham - we might also be wondering why he has a name meaning 'Great Father.' It seems almost cruel, considering that he is child-less. But the name, of course, bears great significance, because he does indeed become the father of all monotheistic religions later on. However, the name is even more complex still. What kind of a 'Great Father' agrees to sacrifice his child? How are we meant to feel about his name while reading this terrible story about the near-sacrifice of Isaac? It seemed so innocent before, but now the name holds great tension for Abraham, for Sarah, certainly for Isaac, and for all of us as well.
At the end of his Torah commentary, Dr. Marcus shares a fabulous insight about prolepsis: "Too often we worry about the future, and about what can go wrong in our personal and professional lives... Instead of worrying about these matters, we might be well advised to adopt a proleptic technique.
Let us envision success in our endeavors." Before starting a big business presentation, visualize being congratulated for 'nailing it.' Before swinging a golf club, picture the ball already in the hole. And hey, maybe when you place a vote in a ballot box, you can already picture your candidate delivering the acceptance speech! Prolepsis allows us to feel calm, because we already know things will end well. Why worry about failing when you've pictured yourself succeeding? Changing your outlook CAN transform your experience. All you've got to do is envision a positive end-result. I know you can do it, Daddy-O!
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