Eating Your Pets: When To Hearken to Category Confusion. (Parshat Vayera)

eat your pet

The following piece sits at the intersection of two loves: Torah and Education. I welcome those unfamiliar with the Jewish world of Bible Exegesis to enjoy an unusual spin on an ancient text.


Kosher duck is delicious.

I’d never eaten duck before. I have owned ducks – I grew up on a farm outside Milwaukee and we had a chicken-coop full of ducks who were, basically, outdoor pets who flew away, each fall, right at the point in time when we were of sick and tired of them. Then, come spring-time, a trip to the farm-store, and we had fluffy, adorable ducklings in the aquarium, ducklings in the kitchen sink, ducks in the chicken coop.

But recently, a friend acquired a free-range, kosher duck from Grow and Behold, so in my head, my childhood pet was about to become food. This didn’t sit well with me. I had some very serious category confusion.

Category confusion is the uncomfortable feeling you get when you encounter something not only out of context, but also in a situation antithetical to the usual association. Two potentially good things, slammed together, become one uncomfortable thing: we’re all familiar with that awkward moment when social boundaries get mixed up. Or even just ideas, jumbled: a big sandwich in the bathroom. A nun with a harpoon.

In this week’s Torah Portion, Abraham and God appear in two scenes, replete with category confusion: the first shows God, who Abraham associates with justice, threatening to destroy the entire city of Sodom. The second shows the same God, asking Abraham for an offering; it just happens to be his son.

peeprs

Mr. Peepers. Pet duck … or dinner?

Abraham’s responses to the two moments of category are as essentially unlike as…well, as the concept of “pet” and the concept of “dinner.”

In response to God’s threats to destroy Sodom, Abraham steps up to confront Him, embarking on an almost absurd journey of bargaining: 50 righteous people in the town will spare it…all the way down to 10 righteous people. In response to God’s request of Abraham’s son, however: nothing. No apparent discomfort. No category confusion. Or at least, none that we can see with the naked eye.

That said, the verse reads:

And Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife; and they went both of them together. (22:6)

Yes, Abraham does ultimately take the equipment to sacrifice his son, but this story is already so terse. Why the unnecessary (underlined) details? If I was to suggest a rewrite, I could make this already concise story even more concise, excising the underlined portion: “Abraham took Isaac his son and the knife; and they went both of them together.”

What is lost, by cutting these seemingly extraneous details, is a sense of Abraham’s inner world. In Abraham’s mind, he wants the knife to be as far away from Isaac and Abraham as possible. The placement of the words mimics his internal world. In his mind, and in his relationship with his son, there is no room for a knife. This is an intolerable category confusion.

This particular reading goes deep into details to extract a particular interpretation, but it speaks to the way that we spend a great deal of energy, in our lives, saddled with all sorts of category confusions.

  • Our society want our children to be safe, to thrive, but teenagers are the most at risk group for depression and suicide.
  • Our society wants the next generation to be empowered and educated – but the economic realities that schools ensure are, in many cases, quite anti-education.
  • Our society wants clean air and water for our children…and also all the comforts of a hyper-industrialized lifestyle.

It’s beyond the scope of this piece to solve the category confusions of living complex lives with competing demands, but the Biblical language suggests that if we read closely, we may discover our true priorities.

Who knows what might have happened if Avraham had spoken his mind to God, the very words he spoke after learning of Gods plans to destroy Sodom:

“Far be it from you to do such a thing–to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Ex 18:25).

 

Perhaps the relationship between Sarah, Avraham and Isaac – effectively terminated by this watershed moment – could have been salvaged? Perhaps childrens’ well being would dwell more sacredly – and with more behaviors and laws to back up that values – at the center of our society.

Sometimes, category confusion is good. It tells us what we value… although in the case of the duck, once I grew accustomed to the idea of eating Mr. Peepers, I had to admit: my pet was delicious.

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