Which Abraham Do We Learn From? 5777/2016
I have to admit to you, there’s a kind of editing we sometimes do with biblical stories when we read them to the kids.
For example if a bar/bat mitzvah child is assigned the Torah portion Vayishlach, of the many great stories and themes in that parasha, we usually won’t assign that child to chant and study the rape of Dinah. When we tell the story of Esther at the family service at Purim, we don’t usually tell the very end of the story. That’s the part where the Jews of King Ahasuerus’ kingdom are given permission to steal and pillage and do all of the bad things to the non-Jews that they were going to do to us.
But this is an adult service. And we, on this very important day of the year, should look at the whole story of this day’s Torah portion. Even the most difficult of parts. We read the Akaida, the story of Abraham almost sacrificing his son with a knife on the mountain top; a concept already incredibly difficult. But there’s a profoundly sad and emotionally shattering end of the story that we almost never address. This year we will.
Let’s recall this amazingly rich and many layered story:
First, remember that it’s only one page long; only 19 sentences. But in spite of its brevity, there is something so very compelling in the Akaida, the Binding of Isaac.
Something that has given birth to thousands of pages of commentary by Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars;
Something in it that has inspired novelists to write novels,
It’s currently the subject of a very popular and rogue video game; The Akaida inspired at least one 20th century opera;
The music of Bob Dylan;
It’s found in the soundtrack of The Hunger Games;
It’s been lampooned by writers of South Park,
Analyzed by Sigmund Freud,
And many times it’s been depicted on the big screen by Hollywood.
Something powerful is going on in these 19 sentences: An aging mother and father, Sarah and Abraham, were long ago promised by their God that they would have a child. And that child would be the first of countless generations of a great people, with descendants as numerous as the sands of the seas and the stars of the heavens. That’s quite a promise.
Years and years passed. And no child. Feeling for her husband and his desire for that Divinely promised child, Sarah gave Abraham permission to sire a son with her servant Hagar. But that was not really fulfillment of God’s promise to Sarah and Abraham.
Finally, when they were both well on in years, at an age that not even our most advanced fertility experts could imagine, Sarah gave birth to the boy Isaac. Oh how they celebrated and cherished that child! So many years waiting and praying and hoping. Imagine the incredible love and joy that we feel when a child arrives, and add to that promises from God that this little boy represents an eternal future, the beginning of a great nation!
Now we arrive at today’s story; all of that promise devastatingly crumbling as God commands Abraham to take that very child and slaughter him on a mountain top to prove his loyalty. God said, “Take your son, your only son, the one you love, Isaac, go to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering.”
One can only imagine the crushing collapse of Abraham’s emotional and spiritual world. One can only imagine the anger he must feel towards his God. We can only imagine his fury and confusion and indignation. One can only imagine. That’s the hard truth of this story; that “one can only imagine” these feelings, because Abraham says nothing. We only read of his acquiescence, his willingness, and maybe even eagerness, to do what God has asked of him. To prove his faithfulness. It’s so hard to understand. The Abraham in this story is simply a religious fanatic! He has totally given his soul and all he most cherishes over to this God of his. He apparently has sublimated normal human emotion; love of child, the willingness or even inclination to argue with God and ask Him, “Why? This makes no sense! Is there an alternative? How else can I show You and prove to You that I love You?!”
The fanatically myopic patriarch, ready to pay the most horrible price to please his God.
But still, even with the dearth of overt emotional information, there is a particularly beautiful and clearly conveyed loving relationship, loud and clear, throughout most of the story: The love of father and son, the closeness between the boy and his dad. In almost each and every one of the first 12 sentences, the relationship between Abraham and Isaac still manages to be tenderly and clearly conveyed.
Let me give you just a few of the phrases that keep eching bond between father and son:
“ take your son, your favorite one, Isaac, the one whom you love . . .”
“Early the next morning Abraham and his servants and his son Isaac went on their way”.
“On the third day Abraham said “stay here and the boy and I will go up the mountain; we will worship and we will return to you.”
“The two of them walked together”.
“Isaac said to his father Abraham, “’Father!’” and he answered, ‘Yes my son?’”
“And the two of them walked on together”
And then it ends. It stops. Everything changes. The blind zealotry of the believer seems to have sadly won out over the father’s love for his son. From that moment on the relationship forever changes. The angel of God cries out to stop Abraham at the moment he’s ready with a knife to slay the boy., “Abraham, Abraham!”
We sometimes present that as an almost happy ending. ‘Yay, Abraham doesn’t have to slay Isaac. He’s proved his faithfulness to God. Isaac must be giddy with joy. Maybe they hug and are closer than ever!’ Too late. That’s not how it ends.
In the concluding eight verses of the story, there is no more language about beloved father and beloved son; nothing about the two of them together. There is no more conversation between the two. Do you know how the story ends? It’s very sad. Very tragic.
This is the part we don’t often talk about. The relationship between the father and son has ended. It says that Abraham goes down the mountain, alone. He returns to his servants alone, and then goes home, alone.
Where is Isaac? It doesn’t say. We know he’s still alive because his story is yet to be told. He will die an old man. But from the moment that the father was clearly ready to take his son’s life for a cause apparently more important and more compelling than loving a child; from that moment on their relationship was over. They never see one another again.
Well, one small correction. There was one more time, years later, when they were in physical proximity to one another; at a burial cave in Hebron, when Isaac and his brother came there to bury their father Abraham, after he died.
So, that’s Abraham? The great patriarch? The hero we are to emulate. The founding father?
Well, then perhaps the Akaida is in reality a cautionary tale. Maybe that’s where its value lies. Cautioning us against extremism; of getting so caught up in a larger cause that we lose sight of the actual people in our lives. Faith more important than family? God more important than a child?
A cautionary tale for this highly charged election season. Are any of us endangering the most important relationships we have because of blind conviction, support of some greater and larger cause that we’re more passionate about than our families and more sacred than the relationships with our closest friends and the people we work with?
Abraham was so caught up in the moment he forgot to think about the future, he forgot to think about the next day! ‘Gee, if this morning I show my son I’m willing to sacrifice his life at God’s request, I wonder what we’ll talk about this tomorrow morning?’
We are at the apex of one of the most emotional and intense political elections of our lifetimes. Maybe we need to hear this cautionary tale about the aftermath of this election; about the possible personal collateral damage.
By the way, these words are truly non-partisan. Individually we could be an Abraham on either side of the aisle. Most of us are so angry and frightened; many are zealous, immovably convicted in our stances, that when all is said and done, might we destroyed relationships along the way?
We can only assume that for the rest of his life Abraham had to mourn the loss of the relationship with his most beloved child.
A moment of such regret: Let me share once again an episode recalled by Cantor Richard Botton from his early years of his career: “At the end of one of my very first funerals, I walked over to the brother of the deceased who was standing next to the open grave. He was clearly so upset and distraught, shaking as he stood there. I reached out to put a reassuring hand on his arm and told him, ‘Don’t worry, it will get easier with time.’ He furiously pulled his arm away from mine and said, ‘No it won’t! My brother and I haven’t spoken for 20 years . . . and I can’t remember why!’”
Is that the only Abraham for us to look at? Thankfully he has other hugely dramatic and important moments in Torah that can teach us. Fortunately for us Abraham responded differently to another challenge and a command from his God. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah: Once again Abraham is informed from above, asked to involve himself in the sacrifice of human life to fulfill God’s wishes. God tells him that because of the great sins of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, that God is going to destroy both cities, killing all of the people who live there.
Thankfully, here we find a different Abraham, a different side of Abraham. Perhaps the Abraham of the Akaida might well have acquiesced and said “Yes Lord, how can I help?”
But this Abraham was not a blind zealot. This Abraham seems to have a mind of his own. His own conscience, his own sense of justice. This Abraham was able to approach the God of the universe, with his own humanity and emotion and compassion intact.
This Abraham brings his own convictions along with a gutsy and amazing ability to question even God! To argue and bargain! How cool is that?!
This Abraham approaches God and says, ‘Woah, woah! Wait Lord. Let’s talk this over. I need to speak up here!’ And then he begins to challenge and negotiate! He famously says to God, “What if there exist, among this entire population, 50 righteous people? Would you kill the entire city knowing that there are 50 innocents among them? And then Abraham gets really chutzpahdic and says, ‘God, I know you. We have a history. This is not the type of God you want to be. Believe me. I know you are the Judge of everything and everyone; don’t you want to judge justly? And be forever remembered that way?’
And God listens! Abraham is being reasonable. He’s engaging in rational and thoughtful conversation. Abraham is standing up for himself and his fellow human beings! And God seems to like that. God says ‘I’ll spare them if they were just 45 righteous people. And as we know the bargaining continues until God agrees to spare the cities even if there are only 5 righteous people among them.’
Which Abraham does Jewish tradition ask us to emulate: I would suggest that Judaism at its highest and best does not want us to blindly follow. Understand that Judaism at its highest and best is not about the individual relinquishing ourselves and our souls and our intellect and gut-sense of right and wrong to some higher being, or highly placed human being, to command us how to act.
The Judaism that I know and aspire to is one that acts in partnership with each individual Jew, requiring that each of us always includes our own intellect, passion, and sense of justice in our decisions and actions.
That’s why I so love Rabbi Shira’s response to a colleague who once quoted that great 11th century thinker and said, “But Maimonides said it!” Shira’s reply?, “Maimonides said so? One man’s opinion!” She doesn’t have to blindly accept. None of us have to. We are always to bring our own mind and heart to our Jewish decisions.
When the Abraham of Sodom and Gomorrah responded to God’s command by bringing his own voice and conscience to the conversation, he made good and right decisions for himself and for the world. And maybe God learned a little something.
As we enter these sacred days, only to be followed by our return to a tense and angry world, may we conduct our lives, our conversations and our decisions with the knowledge
Thoughtfully speaking up like Abraham for what we think is right and good. 5
Which Abraham Do We Learn From?
Rabbi Tom Weiner October 3, 2016/5777 Rosh Hashanah Congregation Kol Ami
Yet with a civility and awareness that tomorrow we will want to still walk on together, side by side, down that mountain; and continue to live our lives together as family, as friends, as community, and as one people.