The epic account of the “Gurionic War” from debut novelist Adam Levin was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Awards’ JJ Greenberg Memorial Award for fiction. Levin spoke to the Forward’s Allison Yarrow in November. In this excerpt the protagonist, Gurion, provides his own exegesis of the famous Akedah story whose impact is assessed in this week’s review of Yael Feldman’s book by Alicia Ostriker.
Excerpt from Adam Levin’s “The Instructions”
McSweeneys 1030 pages, $29
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
The tale of Avraham’s tenth test is not about faith, no matter how bad any Israelite or Danish scholar wants it to be. If you’re enough a wiseman to patriarch all Israelites, and you know you’re being spoken to by Adonai—the same Adonai Who made your disobedient in-law a salt-pillar, your barren wife fertile at the age of eighty-nine—you do what He says because you know that if you don’t, He’ll do it Himself, then punish you and the world for your disobedience.
The tale of the tenth test is a testament to Adonai’s mastery of language.
To Avraham, He said, “Please take your son, your only one, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the land of Moriah; bring him up there as an offering upon one of the mountains which I shall tell you” which ≠ “Sacrifice Isaac on the mountain,” even though it seemed to, to Avraham. And it would have seemed that way to me if I was Avraham, instead of Gurion reading about Avraham. If I was Avraham instead of Gurion, I would not have suspected God of artfulness. I would not have suspected Him of having built a sentence around loopholes. And I would have done exactly as I was told—exactly as I thought I was told. I would have brought my son up the mountain, prepared to kill him. I would have thought: “Better by my hand than an angel’s, for Isaac is my son, not Theirs, and I will kill him better than would They.”
But despite my sympathies with Avraham, it would be chomsky to insist that Adonai ever explicitly told him to sacrifice Isaac. He only told him that he should bring Isaac up the mountain “as an offering,” which is a very slippery phrase, since it could mean at least a couple of things that ≠ “Sacrifice Isaac on the mountain” (e.g., “bring Isaac as you would bring an offering” or “place him on a mountain as you would place an offering”), so although Adonai didn’t lie to Avraham, or even reneg, He did mislead Avraham, and He knew He was misleading Avraham, and that has always seemed shady to me. Avraham loved Adonai, and Adonai Avraham. And both of them knew of the other’s love, but only one of them acted like he did.
To hide my anxiousness from June, then, was not to lie to June, and to show up second to detention was not to reneg on her, yet to do these things was shady. Whether she would consider my level of anxiousness or even notice I’d arrived second was beside the point—I hoped she would notice and consider (I knew that I would), and I knew she’d be misled if she noticed and considered, but I would show up second anyway. It is true I had a justification: I’d told my friend I’d wait for him. It is true the explicit trumps the implicit and that the spoken is a contract, the unspoken at best an understanding, and June and I hadn’t spoken about the exact time at which we’d meet (I’d asked her in Main Hall the day before, leaning back on the lockers, sitting beside her, But how will I see you tomorrow? at which point Miss Gleem said we both had detention, and June answered, “That’s how”), so the most we had was an understanding. But it is also true that I’d arranged my justification (or at the very least allowed for the arrangement of my justification by Nakamook) with no less lawyerliness than Adonai had placed His “as” in that shady commandment.
By the time Benji returned to the Office with Vincie and Leevon, I’d spent an hour hoping to be undermined. If only June could arrive second, I thought, despite my artfulness…
But that’s not what happened.
We arrived at the southern doorway of the lunchroom thirteen minutes before detention started, and June was already inside, at the northern end— Benji’d rushed the last few steps ahead of us and checked. He told me, “She’s waiting for you. I’ll shut this door and guard it. When the monitor comes up Main Hall, I’ll give you a warning. Get to the other doorway,” he said to Leevon and Vincie, “and if you let anyone in, or start spying on our boy, I’ll pull your guts out through your mouths and feed them to Botha with a shovel. I’ll cut your arms off and roll you down a hill like logs.”
Vincie and Leevon went to the northern doorway. The northern doorway was doorless. They stretched their arms like tortured Yeshuas across the space between its sidewalls.
“Don’t look so worried,” Nakamook told me. “It’s fine you’re jumpy. It’s a serious thing to be in love with a girl, but worrying is stupid. If she loves you back, it’s because she can’t help it, and if she doesn’t love you back, then you can’t help it. All you’re about to do is find something out. You have no control over this. It’s not a fight and it’s not an argument. Don’t strategize. And forget what I said about anything having to do with girls and how to kiss them. It was just talk. I was just talking to talk because it’s fun to talk. Especially about girls. You look like you’re about to cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry and don’t strategize. This is exciting. That’s why you’re jumpy. No one knows how to first-kiss anyone, Gurion. That’s why it’s so good. That’s why you’re so nervous. It’s probably why you look like you’re gonna cry.”
If I was about to cry, it was because Nakamook had spoken over a hundred consecutive words without cracking a single joke, and he wasn’t talking about killing someone—he wasn’t even angry at all. He was supposed to act Nakamookian, not concerned; not like someone I could disappoint. And it wasn’t only how he was talking, but what he was saying. I’d been worrying so hard about my shadiness that everything else had gotten blotted out. Over the previous hour, I hadn’t once thought about kissing June, or what I would say to her, and now that Nakamook brought it up, I couldn’t stop thinking: You are not only shady, but unprepared.
My throat was closing. I swallowed to fight the choke and a noise came from my neck like stepping in tar.
I’m not gonna, I said, cry. “You’ll cry if I tell you to cry, crybaby,” said Nakamook. It was the right thing to say. I thumb-stabbed at his chest and he blocked it, flicked my ear with his swearfinger. I thought: If she breaks your lobe, she breaks your lobe. Benji stepped aside, kicking the stopper out as I passed him. The door closed slow and quiet behind me.