Isaac was born to older parents—indeed Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90 or 91 when he finally came along. Imagine the childhood he must have had—being so doted on. Big party for his bris, big party when he was weaned. He was the golden boy of the family.
At the same time, it seemed his mother was worried about was some problem with Ishmael, and Sarah ordered Ishmael and his mother away from him. Rumor—or midrash—has it that it might have been bullying, it might have been abuse, it could have been teasing.
And there was a healthy dose of jealousy on his mother’s part toward Hagar, Ishmael’s mother. I imagine Isaac and Ishmael (14 years apart) were not the only children in the camp—but we don’t hear about the others. Did he have any playmates among the camp? Once Ishmael was gone, was he virtually an only child among a community of adults? He was certainly Abraham’s successor, with a lot of expectations piled upon him. And his mother paid close attention to him. How much freedom did he have?
And then one day, his father, without warning, woke him up early, urged him to get ready quietly, so as not to disturb Ima/mom/Sarah from her sleep, and meet him outside to begin a 3-day hike, with two servants and a donkey carrying wood and provisions.
Imagine Isaac’s joy of taking a trip just him and Abba, with the servants—I imagine acting as sherpas—making sure they were comfortable and cared for. The donkey was laden with firewood, provisions, cooking utensils, including a big knife. They set out for what Isaac hoped would be some “Abba and Me time”.
Abba seemed both distracted and focused on a goal or vision or problem that Isaac couldn’t see. Isaac was used to this from his dad—often engaged with God, amassing his fortune, solving problems, greeting guests and being the kind and welcoming host. Trips for just him and Abba were pretty rare. So Isaac skipped along next to his father, reveling in the changing scenery, the rocks, the clouds, basking in the joy of his father’s presence.
Each night at the camp site, Abba told stories—of battles with kings, of Sodom and Gomorrah and arguing with God, and of his own father’s land, the land he had left at God’s behest—the family there, the idols he destroyed. Lots of stories, some never told before.
On the third day, when everyone was dusty and tired, Isaac followed Abba’s gaze as he scanned the mountains. Then he listened as Abba told the two young men to stay put with the donkey, while Abba and Isaac proceeded on foot to pray to God. Abba put the firewood on Isaac’s back, while Abba kept the knife and the fire. Hand in hand—hand in hand!—father and son walked on together, in silence. Eventually, Isaac asked, “Avi—my father?”
“Hineini, b’ni—I am here,” he replied. It was a term of endearment, when Abba said “hineini”—it meant that he had his father’s full attention.
Isaac, curious. “Father of mine, I see the firewood and the flint for the fire and the knife, but where’s the sheep for the offering?”
“God will see to the offering, my son,” was the response. Another cryptic message. God would take care of it. I wonder if Isaac was feeling dread, some foreboding. What was he thinking now? God would take care of it? Really? How?
They reached the mountaintop—a clearing surrounded by some thicket. It had been a hard slog through the bramble to the clearing. Abba took the firewood off Isaac’s back and instructed him to help build the altar. They piled stone on stone in silence. Once they finished, Abba placed the firewood on top. Then he told Isaac to get on top.
Isaac did as he was told.
Isaac did as he was told.
How? What was he thinking? Was he thinking, “If this is what God wants, I guess I’m in” or “This is insane” or “I’m the heir to all Abba has, how can he do this?” or was he just so shocked he wasn’t thinking?
Was he feeling shock, fear, hatred, numbness, betrayal, faith? Some combination?
I can’t even begin to imagine—and the narrator leaves that part out. But maybe we do have to think about Isaac, because he wasn’t just a minor character—he was the much beloved son of our patriarch and matriarch. He was a full human being, with feelings and a divine spark. He was likely attached to his father—as well as to the God of his father. They had walked for so long—not as far as from Guatemala to Texas, but still, a 3-day trek. This kind of shock to his system must have done some serious psychic damage.
But still, he lay on top of the firewood—already uncomfortable. Just on a physical level. No fire yet, but lying on twigs and logs—not comfortable.
But he did as he was told, because that’s who he was.
Then he looked up and saw his father with the big knife.
Ready to slaughter him—is THIS how God was seeing to it?
Did he scream at his father? Was he able to utter a sound?
Was there terror?
Was there acceptance?
Was there confusion?
All of this and more?
How long that moment must have lasted—it must have felt like an eternity. Isaac’s entire world changed in that eternity—or was it an instant?
However long it lasted, Abraham finally put the knife down. Then he looked around and found a sheep, its horns caught in the thicket. Isaac jumped down as Abraham placed the sheep on the wood, slaughtered it and offered it to God.
Not another word was spoken. Abraham went down the mountain alone.
Where did Isaac go?
How long was he gone from the camp?
We know he never attained the eminence or success of either his father or his son. When he was threatened by their neighbors, he would shuffle on to the next well. He was conflict avoidant, and indeed was even silent as his father sent his servant out to find him a wife.
Did Isaac experience what we would call PTSD the rest of his life? Was that adverse childhood exposure to stress a life changing event for him?
We might ask what kind of God asks this of anyone—to order their father to sacrifice them? We know of it as a test of Abraham—indeed, that’s how the story opens. So was Isaac just an after thought? Was the cruelty to him just a byproduct, was he merely collateral damage? How did God consider the humanity of this boy?
Like the children of the deported poultry factory workers in Mississippi in August, left alone in the streets, school, homes, was Isaac the victim of a punishing God or a punishing person or system? Like the children kept in cages on the border, was Isaac an afterthought or part of a larger scheme of cruelty feeding an ideology?
Or was he the victim of a parent who believed something so strongly he would have been able to follow through with slaughtering his son? Or was his father afraid that if he didn’t go through with it, something terrible would happen to him? Was his father too afraid of his own mortality to consider the damage he was inflicting on his own son—as he had done with Isaac’s mother, at the hands of the Pharaoh and the king?
The pain and cruelty we inflict on our loved ones and our neighbors through our own fears, pain, unexamined behavior can be vast. Whether it’s on a personal parent-to-child level or partner level or extended family level or community or region or national level—unexamined, unresolved pain and thinking can lead to disaster, to unmitigated cruelty to others—whether our own children or partners or those in our power.
We come back to this story today—every year on Rosh Hashanah—almost as though this is the Jewish original sin, to look at it freshly, in light of what is happening in our individual psyches and hearts and what is happening around us.
Isaac was barely mentioned in this compact story, as though he were just a prop, like the donkey or the firewood or the knife. This year, in this time, in this place, he leapt into the foreground for me. As I thought about the kids in cages or the children crying in Mississippi, and my heart broke and keeps breaking, I think of Isaac, the boy or young man whose father held a knife over him, ready to kill him for either an inexplicable reason or because their God was testing him, forgetting the effect on Isaac, a real live boy.
To me, this is almost the ultimate challenge—while we are standing in our own stuff—pain or certainty of belief or mindlessness—can we remember that we are in community? Large or small? Can we feel what we do to others? Can we feel their pain? Can we stop ourselves, put a space between the match and the flame and breathe and stop? Can we see others in their full humanity, with their tzelem Elohim, their spark of the divine, and recognize our kinship? Our connection—spark to spark?
May we in this year to come do all we can to see the people close to us as full human beings, really see them, and may we see those who are not so close—at the border, or other refugees, as equal to us and as deserving of the rights we feel are endowed upon us. May we stand, like the messenger of God, who stopped Abraham from killing his son, his beloved son, Isaac, and stop slaughter, or death by a thousand indignities or life that is traumatized as Isaac’s was. May we be messengers of hope.