Last year, I found I could just not chant the Akedah—the binding of Isaac, a traditional reading for Rosh Hashanah morning—life seemed too challenging to go there again, and instead, we read, on the birthday of the world, the world’s birth story. This year, as I cried over the creation of baby prisons for ‘tender age’ children separated from their parents at the border because of the Administration’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy for refugees, I realized the Akedah was the only possible text to chant.
One of my beloved congregants in North Tahoe, a psychologist, asked me one year whether we weren’t being triggered year after year with this story of near child sacrifice, and I responded that I think it must have lessons we have to mine each year to make it relevant.
And the moment I watched Rachel Maddow break down as she broke the news—to me at least—about the worst of the worst kids in cages, I knew that I had to brush up on these 22 verses.
The crisis on the border is still far from over…around 500 children and their parents remain separated in our names, with no apparent plans to reunite them, most of them because the parents were deported without their children back to a place called home that was so horrific that they willingly brought their children thousands of miles to a land they did not know, seeking refuge.
Which brings us back to Abraham and Isaac and God. Abraham has been a faithful servant and God has been good to Abraham. God sent Abraham from his land, his home, his father’s house to the Promised Land, and, despite more than a few twists on the way, and sorrows, and tsuris, including infertility, war, pimping out his wife to save his skin, circumcision late in life, Abraham and Sarah did well—a son in their old age, wealth, the ear and respect of kings. Not a bad life. But Abraham had also witnessed God destroying whole cities—wicked ones, to be sure, but entire populations of people who did not listen to God perished in fire and brimstone.
So that’s where Abraham was when God decided to test him yet again—the tenth and final time. (Maimonides liststhe ten.) I’m not sure that Abraham passed all the tests—as these include the two times Sarah was taken into kings’ harems, and the time Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away, but this is the final one.
The story is told in a tight 22 verses. We have to imagine Abraham’s feelings and inner turmoil from his words.
God calls out to Abraham, and Abraham’s immediate response is Hineini—here I am, God, at your service. Always at the ready for service. Will this time be reward or test?
A midrash (Sanhedrin 89b, Genesis Rabbah and Rashi) imagines God’s instructions as a conversation in which Abraham tries to clarify God’s intent.
God pronounces, “Take your son.”
Abraham responds, “I have two sons.”
God replies, “Your only one.”
Abraham answers, “Each of them is the only child of their mother.”
God pushes, “The one you love.”
Abraham pushes back, “I love them both.”
And finally, God makes the choice crystal clear, “Isaac.”
Abraham still doesn’t know if this is reward or test.
But God continues, “Take Isaac to the land of Moriah and sacrifice him there.”
And the text continues that Abraham gote up early the next morning and did as God commanded.
Do you ever imagine what that night was like for him? Did he tell Sarah, did he sleep at all, did he cry, did he argue, did he try to figure out what to do, did he assume God wouldn’t let this play out to its horrible conclusion?
Imagine refugees on our southern border trying to make the decision to pack up and take their children on this journey. What was it like the night before they left? Had they or their child been threatened with violence, rape or even death at the hands of gangs? Had they watched someone they love die? Was there no hope left in their village or city? Would God watch over them?
So Abraham, Isaac, the two servants, with the mule, and the wood and the fire, set out on their journey. They walked for three days until Abraham saw the place God spoke of in the distance. He told the servants to stay with the mule until he and the boy returned from bowing down to God. Maybe he did not want witnesses—or possibly anything or anyone to come between him and his task. Surely the servants would have stopped him, he might have thought.
This is a key question for me. How could ICE—who apparently willingly showed up—Hineini—willingly take children from their mothers’ and fathers’ arms, and the contractors ICE handed them over to do this to children? The contractors put them in cages,druggedthem, abused or neglectedthem, traumatizedthem potentially for life. For what reason? How did they justify it to themselves? How did—do—they sleep at night? How did they face their own children or their neighbors? Their own reflection in their mirrors?
As Abraham and Isaac climbed the mountain together, Isaac carrying the wood on his back, and Abraham holding the knife, Isaac asked his father, “Dad, I see the fire, and the wood, but where is the sheep for the sacrifice?” And Abraham looked at him, I imagine tenderly, and reassured him, “God will see to that, my son.” And they continued together.
What was Abraham feeling at the moment? Tenderness pervades this scene—when Isaac finally spoke, Abraham’s answer was again, “Hineini”—“here I am b’ni, my son, here to serve you.” Was he filled with terror and fear? Was he holding it together for Isaac’s sake? Was he calm because he so completely trusted God? Some combination?
And I imagine what the parents at the border must have felt as ICE or Border Patrol agents took their children away. Actually, I try really hard not to imagine it, because after my first breakdown when I joined Rachel in tears, I find I can’t quite bring myself to be open to that level of pain. Did they hold it together for the sake of the children, not let them see how scared they themselves were? Did they make sure that their children know their mother or father will always love them? Or did they cry alongside them, from terror, from exhaustion from the journey, from defeat and hopelessness? Or did they have faith (in too many cases unfounded or unrequited) that God would take care of them? Or did they believe, somewhere in their hearts, that as long as their child was in the United States, the child was safer than at home?
So Abraham built the altar, and loaded the wood, and bound Isaac to it. Then he took the knife in his hand to slaughter his own son.
It’s a very dramatic moment in the text, and the trope—the punctuation—is quite emphatic and filled with tension.
WHAT. WAS. GOING. ON. IN ABRAHAM’S HEAD?
And in Isaac’s?
Books written on this fill libraries.
To slaughter his son. Slaughter his son. His son. The one he loves.
He could stand up to God for people he didn’t even know. But his own son?
Was he worried about the fate of the Sodomites and Gomorrans—that this would be his fate if he disobeyed? Was he so used to following God’s bidding that he did it mindlessly, without thinking, while his son lay on a pile of wood? Did he move slowly thinking at any moment what did finally happen would indeed happen and God would rescue them?
A voice called out—“Abraham, Abraham, stop! Don’t hurt the boy! I see that you wouldn’t withhold even your son from God.” It’s all good. You’ll be blessed and indeed the people of the world will be blessed through you. And then God makes the covenant in which Abraham’s seed would be as many as the stars in heaven and sands at the shore.
Isaac was probably never the same, and he wasn’t the strong character of either his father or his sons—he was always more withdrawn.
So I wonder this year, what makes someone do something that is so antithetical to their belief system? (I also realize that for some people, separating brown children from their parents isn’t as antithetical as I would like to imagine.)
Whom do I listen to such that I would do something as horrific as sacrifice my beloved daughter or put a terrified child in a cage away from all affection and motherly or fatherly love? If God came down from heaven and spoke to me, would I do such a thing? If my boss did? My husband? My best friend? My mother or grandfather?
What about you? Have you ever done something at someone else’s behest that you knew at the time was just plain wrong, but you did it anyway? (I’m not talking about sacrificing your child or putting a baby in prison, just something that you knew was wrong…) So many reasons might pull us into such a situation. Maybe you held that person—or God—in deep respect. Maybe you wanted—needed!—to keep your job, or get that promotion. Maybe you didn’t want to disrespect your parents or teacher or rabbi—or you didn’t know how to say no. Maybe it seemed like a good idea at the time, and it wasn’t until later you realized that that discomfort in your heart or gut meant you knew it was wrong.
If you agreed to do it, were you as blessed as Abraham that the worst didn’t happen, or were you like the contractors at the border, dragged down into a mess?
There is a story about Rabbi Zundel of Salant, when he was a student at the yeshiva of Volozhin. One Purim, that holiday when we are supposed to drink until we can’t tell the difference between Mordechai and Haman—between a hero and an evil being—anyway, one Purim, a close friend of his became drunk. When that student’s drunken behavior became disruptive, the Rosh HaYeshiva, Rabbi Chayim of Volozhin, told Rav Zundel to tie him up. Which he did. Fifty years later, Rav Zundel wrote to his friend, who had become the menahel ruchani [spiritual director] of Volozhin, and asked forgiveness for having caused him embarrassment on that Purim. (Hatzadik Rav Zundel, p. 29) That’s an example, I think of doing wrong because someone you admire, or maybe fear, tells you to…And it’s an example of teshuva—even if it took 50 years…
I think revisiting our texts allows us to reflect on the major questions of our times. And this—can I stand up for what I know is right, even if it’s difficult, even if I love or respect or fear the one who is asking me… is one of them.
What have you said? What are you saying now?
May we all be blessed with courage and strength, but may we also be blessed with compassion and empathy. May they be balanced in our beings so that we may be the people we want to be in our hearts.