by Evan Wolkenstein: Director of Experiential Education, Jewish Studies Teacher 

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 sick and tired of the disaster they created on our lawn. Then, come springtime, it was a trip to the farm store, and once again, we had fluffy, adorable ducklings in the aquarium, ducklings in the kitchen sink, and ducks in the chicken coop.

Some time ago, 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, whom 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.

Abraham’s responses to the two moments of the 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… 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 were 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 of 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 wants our children to be safe, and 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 at a societal level, economic realities 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 confusion 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 God’s 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 children’s well-being would dwell more sacredly – and with more behaviors and laws to back up those 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: that my pet was delicious.