Nourished on the Knife's Edge

I write this as we are on the knife’s edge of an election... and, with ballots still being counted in some close races and at least one important runoff to come, we will likely remain here for some time. As I sit here keeping company with just about every emotion I can name, I’m drawn to knife imagery and metaphor. In my inner living room, they gather: fear packs a knife, anger unsheaths it, hope dances with a glint of silver light, patience whittles a toy or totem, joy carves out a bite to eat, and love and sadness together etch their initials deep into the heartwood.

I write this as we are on the knife’s edge of an election... and, with ballots still being counted in some close races and at least one important runoff to come, we will likely remain here for some time. As I sit here keeping company with just about every emotion I can name, I’m drawn to knife imagery and metaphor. In my inner living room, they gather: fear packs a knife, anger unsheaths it, hope dances with a glint of silver light, patience whittles a toy or totem, joy carves out a bite to eat, and love and sadness together etch their initials deep into the heartwood.

Of course for each of us, there is the daily life.

Let us live it, gesture by gesture.

When we cut the ripe melon, should we not give it thanks?

And should we not thank the knife also?

We do not live in a simple world. (Mary Oliver, from At the River


Clarion)


We do not live in a simple world.

There is a seductive fantasy in our Torah portion, Vayera. The people of two towns, Sodom and Gomorah, appear to be entirely evil (with the lone exception being Abraham’s nephew Lot, a decidedly mediocre person). Abraham argues with God on behalf of theoretical innocents in their midst - should 50, or 40, or 30, or 20, or 10 innocent people be destroyed if God goes through with a plan to wipe the cities off the map? But once Lot and his family are rescued, no one remains to merit any mercy.

The seductive fantasy for us today is that as political sorting continues to play out, we can imagine the “other side” as completely unredeemable, like Sodom and Gomorah. It is rather convenient that all the wicked people are “there” and not “here”. That mentality weaponizes us as we imagine cutting out the “infection”. What a world we would be in if those whose beliefs threaten our existence simply vanished!

But Emily Dickinson picks up the knife metaphor and she too reminds us the world is not simple.

Surgeons must be very careful

When they take the knife!

Underneath their fine incisions

Stirs the Culprit — Life!


In the hands of a surgeon, a knife is meant to be a tool for preserving life. But the neatness of a surgical mentality that identifies what harm to cut out maps poorly onto society. Sodom and Gomorah don’t exist - not because they were destroyed, but because humans are humans wherever they live, a messy mixture of care and cruelty. The same Culprit - Life! that gives rise to wonder and beauty and goodness also brings us pain and pettiness. How we come to terms with that condition marks our spiritual path. How we live it out with others is what we call politics.

Later in the Torah portion, our ancestor Abraham picks up a knife, following God’s awful command to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham’s son. Before he can use the knife, though, an angel stops him and points out a ram to offer instead. A commentary collection called Daat Zkenim from the 12th/13th century reads the knife in a surprising way.

Genesis 22:10

וַיִּשְׁלַ֤ח אַבְרָהָם֙ אֶת־יָד֔וֹ וַיִּקַּ֖ח אֶת־הַֽמַּאֲכֶ֑לֶת לִשְׁחֹ֖ט אֶת־בְּנֽוֹ׃

And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son.

Daat Zkenim

The word for knife (ma’achelet)  is used metaphorically (based on the meaning of achal “eating,” as the root of the word). It is the instrument that since that time has been feeding Israel throughout history as we all still benefit from Avraham’s having passed this test.

The knife in Abraham’s hand represents at least two things - first, certainty of action, but second, knowing when to pause. Abraham wields faithful certainty with an alarming ease, and yet remains open to new information. What does it mean for this knife to nourish us?

This is my two-fold hope for us in this moment: (1) that we channel Abraham’s conviction for the values we hold dear, through voting, deeper learning, advocacy, however makes sense for you to follow through on what matters; and (2) that we remain sensitive enough to what we don’t know that we can change course wisely as needed.

Because the world is not simple.