Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Father and Son - A follow up to my Rosh Hashanah Sermon on Parshat Vayera

Father and Son - A follow up to my Rosh Hashanah Sermon on Parshat Vayera

            I hope you remember my sermon on Rosh Hashanah. It was on the possible interpretations of the Binding of Isaac, which is part of the Torah reading today, Vayera, as well as the core of the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading.
            As you know, the function of the reading is to reassure us that God will hear us and pardon us and save us, just as he saved Isaac from death. Hence, the Ram’s horn, the Shofar, as a reminder of the Ram offered in Isaac’s place.
            A friend of mine asked me, quite rightly, how can it be possible to test Abraham’s loyalty as the expense of Isaac? It is, to borrow a metaphor,” I will fight to the last drop of his blood. “Extreme ideologists seem to adhere to this, as Hamas left the children on the rooftops to face Israelis missiles  while they themselves sat in their bunkers in safety.
            However, as we see, God spares Isaac and Abraham is stopped, with the message that it is all a test and the test can never come at the expense of an innocent’s life.
            Still, we have a legitimate concern. Doesn’t Abraham care for the life of his son Isaac? Doesn’t he care for the anguish and terror that Isaac suffers? He cares for the wicked of Sodom and Gomorrah, but not a bit for his own innocent son?
            I can only think that to understand this reading calls for a suspension of disbelief. In other words, we must assume, for the sake of the argument, that the issue of Isaac’s life and suffering is put aside, that for the sake of debate, at this point, Isaac is a cipher, an inanimate object, or at most, another sheep (which  is offered in his stead). It is a test of Abraham, not whether he will kill his son, but whether he is willing to lose the very promise of the future that God gave him, for the sake of faithfulness to God. Faithfulness to God leads him to plead on behalf of the wicked and faithfulness to God leads him to be willing to lose all that he has, Isaac.
            We can allow ourselves this luxury as, from the hindsight of history, we are descended from Isaac, and we have read the book, so we know the happy ending. After all, it is a test of Abraham, not Isaac, not whether he is willing to murder, but whether he is willing to lose it all.  
            I want to take this Shabbat to read with you some ancient and modern variations on the story of the Akedah, as each generation saw itself in the account as either Abraham or Isaac.


I turn first to the Midrash

The Torah tells us that God called to Abraham,”Take your son.”
“ But I have two sons! Which son?”
Your only son!
“But both are the only son, one for one mother, one for the other mother.”
The one whom you love!
“Are there limits to my love? I love both.”
,Abraham and Isaac approach the selected sight of the slaughter.
Isaac says to his father:” My father, my father.” What prompted it after 3 days of silence?
The angel of death approached Abraham:” Old man, old man, have you lost your heart? The son who was born to you at the age of one hundred--You are about to slaughter him!”
“Even so.”
“Isn't he testing you beyond your Iimits?”
“ I can stand even morel!”
“If tomorrow, he accused you of murder, for murdering your son?”
“Even so!”
The angel of death realized that he could get nowhere with Abraham and  proceeded with Isaac.
“ Son of the poor, saddened woman, this man is going to slaughter you!
“Even so!”
But think of all those trinkets and goodies your mother made for you. Your hated brother, Ishmael, will inherit them all, and you will get nothing !
At this point Isaac began to have his doubts. Then he said “My father, My father.”

How willing was Abraham to commit his deed?
When God said “Do not set your hand on the lad, Abraham was stunned!”
“Yesterday you promised me that my descendants would come through my son Isaac! Then you told me to take my son for an offering! Now you say do not do them any harm! What is going on?”
God replied,” I do not annul  my covenant nor change my words. When I told you to take your son I did not say “Kill him”! I said “Bring him up to me!” I told you to bring him up and you followed my directions. Now you bring him down.”
The midrash continues. To what can this be compared? To a king who told his dearest friend, “Bring me your son to my table. He brings him his son and brings his knife as well. Says the King.” Did I tell you to bring him here in order to eat him. I told you to bring them here because he is dear to me!”

Thus, Abraham was never asked to kill Isaac—it was the fruit of his own over-eagerness to please God!
During the Crusades, nearly a millenia ago, would-be-heroes discovered
that it was far easier to gain glory and honor by killing Jews at home than by traversing thousands of miles of sea and land to face the powerful Moslem armies in the land of Israel.
Entire Jewish communities were surrounded, locked into their synagogues, and were offered the choice of conversion to Christianity, or death.
They chose death, in sanctification of God's name, and saw themselves as the real Isaacs being offered on the altar. In many cases, entire communities committed suicide, and fathers literally drew the slaughterer's knife across the necks of their own children.
These are the words of those who witnessed it:
0 Lord, mighty One, dwelling on high!
Once, over one Akedah, Ariels cried out before Thee. But now how many are butchered and burned?
Why over the blood of children did they not raise a cry? .
Before that patriarch could in his haste sacrifice his only one,
It was heard from heaven: Do not put forth your hand to destroy.
But now how many sons and daughters of Judah are slain—
While yet He makes no haste to save those butchered nor those cast on the flames.'

On the merit of the Akedah at Moriah once we could lean,
Safeguarded for the salvation of age after age—
Now one Akedah follows another, they cannot be counted."
How the outcry of the children rises!
Trembling, they see their brothers slain.
The mother binds her son lest he be blemished as he startles,
The father makes a blessing before slaughtering the sacrifice.
To their mothers in grief the tender children say,
Offer us up as a whole burnt offering! We are wanted on high!
With their fathers the sturdy young men plead,
Quick! Hurry to do our Creator's will! . .
His father tied him who was offered on Mount Moriah,
Who prayed he should not kick and disqualify the slaughter.
But we without being tied are slain for His love . ( From Spiegel, The Last Trial)

 In the lifetimes of many of us here, the entire Jewish people was once again confronted with an Akedah—the destruction of one third of all Jewry during the nightmare of the Shoah. This Shabbat is also the 76th anniversary of Kristallnacht, so this is an appropriate theme. This experience set the tone for modern Jewry's view of the Akedah-for a Jewry no longer willing to see itself as sacrificed by God's will.
The following is the interpretation by the Israeli poet, Amir Gilboa, who wrote Isaac in 1953
Toward morning the sun strolled in the forest •
Together with me and with father.
My right hand was in his left.
Like lightning flash, a knife between the trees
And I fear the terror of my eyes opposite the blood on the leaves.
Father, Father, come quickly and save Isaac
That no one may be missing at the noon meal.
It is I who am slaughtered, my son,
And my blood is already on the leaves.
Father's voice choked. His face grew pale.
And wanted to scream, writhing not to believe
And I opened my eyes wide
And I awoke.
Bloodless was my right hand.
(Translated by Miriam Arad)
Veteran’s Day leads us to  a contemporary version, written in the shadow of the Vietnam War era by song writer and  poet, Leonard Cohen.
The door it opened slowly
My father he came in
I was nine years old
And he stood so tall above me
Blue eyes they were shining
And his voice was very cold.
Said, "I've had a vision,
And you know I'm strong and holy
I must do what I've been told."
So he started up the mountain
I was running he was walking
And his ax was made of gold.
The trees they got much smaller
The lake a lady's mirror
We stopped to drink some wine
Then he threw the bottle over
Broke a minute later
And he put his hand on mine.
Thought I saw an eagle
But it might have been a vulture,
I never could decide.
Then my father built an altar
He looked once behind his shoulder
He knew I would not hide.

You who build the altars now
To sacrifice these children
You must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision
And you never have been tempted
By demon or a god.
You who stand above them now
Your hatchets blunt and bloody,
You were not there before.
When I lay upon a mountain
And my father's hand was trembling
With the beauty of the word.

And if you call me brother now
Forgive me if I inquire
Just according to whose plan?
When it all comes down to dust
I will kill you if I must
I will help you if I can.
When it all comes down to dust
I will help you if I must
I will kill you if I can.
And mercy on our uniform
Man of peace or man of war -
The peacock spreads his fan.
The last selection of readings for the Akedah deals with the psychology of feelings rather than faith. It looks at the Akedah as a personal familial event which every father and mother, daughter and son, passes. Hence the following interpretation of the Akedah by by the contemporary American Jewish poet Ruth Brin
I dreamed that my first-born of Sara
would be the father of a great nation,
a nation as numerous as the sands of the sea,
as bright as the stars of heaven.
I taught him to be a chieftain
but I forgot that God demands of us our first-born.
It is easier when they are infants,
but now I know the lad, slender and quick;
he leans against me and my hand rests on his
curly head.      
How can I do what I must do?
Oh my God! I would give back every promise
Thou hast made me
for the life of my son, my only son, Isaac!
My father led me up the mountain,
tied me down on the uneven faggots
with my head thrown back.
I saw his hand, the knuckles white,
clutching the knife with the jagged edge:
I knew that when my throat was cut
and my blood running out on the ground
death might not come before the burning.
But then my father's hand stopped in mid-air,
and I heard the angry bleating of the ram.

Oh God, I know Thee now,
not as a maker of covenants,
but as the giver of life.
I pray to Thee:
Let my son dream his own dreams, not mine.
Let him make his own promises to Thee.
Let him live the life Thou hast bestowed upon him
as Thou and he see fit.

My father used to teach me many things
so I could learn to be a great chieftain,
but since we went up on the mountain
he is quiet and gentle and only tells me
that as I grow older I, too, will speak with God.
When I wander in the fields at eventide
and sometimes watch a caravan pass by
I think about my father finding the ram
and I wonder what God will require of me.



  1. I love the poetry you also bring down. I especially like the explanation from the Midrash where G-d answers Abraham. Bring Isaac up, but not to kill him. There are some beautiful Modern Hebrew prayers I remember from the Conservative Siddur about Kiddish HaShem about the Middle Ages and the pogroms of later centuries, and the Holocaust of the 20th Century. These don't exist in the Siddurim of most Orthodox prayer books. I am thinking of getting a siddur from the Rabbinical Assembly for the beautiful poetry.

  2. Unfortunately, one of the problems of Orthodox Jews is a fear of introducing new material to the siddur, although the great paytanim were constantly inventing new texts for the service.