By Professor Arnold M. Eisen | Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary
posted on September 23, 2006 / 1 Tishrei 5767
One of the things we look forward to as the holidays approach is the renewed encounter with melodies and rituals, texts and tastes, which we have developed great affection for over the years. It's like the feeling one has at the sight of old friends coming down a path to greet us, prompting recollections of the good times we have enjoyed together. I feel that way about the Torah portions that we read on the two days of Rosh Hashanah. I know them well, after all these years, but as with good friends I still wonder what they will have to say to me this year, and I to them. I am eager to find out.
Here is Sarah, laughing with delight at the birth of a son in her old age, and then turning around in anger and demanding the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael. There is Hagar in the wilderness, unable to look at what she fears will be her son's imminent death from thirst and starvation — only to have God hear his cry, open her eyes to the water nearby, and promise that Ishmael will become a great nation. An interlude of negotiation between Abraham and the local chieftain follows; the Philistine king desires a covenant with the Israelite because he recognizes that "God is with you in all that you do." Abraham learns immediately that having God near at hand does not always make things easier. In the second day's reading we confront along with him God's difficult and baffling command to take "your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love," and offer him up as a burnt offering. We tremble anew each time — or at least I do — despite knowing that it is going to turn out okay. Once again the angel of the Lord will appear at the last minute to save one of Abraham's promised offspring. And as if that were not enough of a triumph for life, the portion concludes with mention of the many children born to Abraham's extended family.
On one level, the Torah's strategy in telling these stories — and the rabbis' wisdom in having us read them on Rosh Hashanah — seems straightforward. It is hard for mere mortals to grasp the enormity of the world's creation — one of the things on which we are meant to focus on these days. It is not much less difficult to make sense of God's sovereignty, given all that happens in the world against God's will, or to plumb the depths of the assurance that God will "remember us to life." So the text comes along with narratives on the human scale that we can appreciate — parents and children, family tragedies feared but averted. This we can relate to, and each year we do so anew.
The rabbis teach us to ponder the wonder of Creation with a big "C" by conjuring the laughter of parents who live long enough to see promises of new life miraculously fulfilled. They encourage us to doubt the certainties of what cannot possibly come to pass, and to "feel God's pain" — I follow Abraham Heschel in daring this analogy — at the death of God's creations. The stories are rendered all the more universal, all the more human, because the Abraham and Isaac tale so closely follows the one about Hagar and Ishmael. The latter trauma is bound up with the former — and thus binds us to human beings outside the limits of our particular family saga. This story belongs to all of us. That is why we breathe a real sigh of relief when things turn out all right, even though we knew from past readings that they would. These are not just recitals of events that happened long ago. They tell our lives. And our stories, like the Torah's, do not always end so well.
I confess that I am confounded by the "Binding of Isaac." The fact that we cannot comprehend it is part of the story's point, I think, and certainly one key to its power. Its meanings are many and, for me at least, ever changing. Year by year we puzzle over it, the Akedah, again and again as we puzzle over so much else in life, and try to make it fit. Jews whose children were martyred in the Middle Ages sometimes retold the story's ending to make it fit the awful facts. In their accounts Isaac does get sacrificed. Anyone attentive to the liturgy of the days of awe, a liturgy in which we ask God repeatedly to "remember us for life," cannot but realize — if only momentarily — that the children whom we bring to life will (like ourselves) get to hold onto life only briefly. This too figures in our reading. It is hard to dismiss entirely the traditional notion that the story comes to teach and extol submission to God's will.
But I know that there is more to life than how it ends. Acceptance cannot be all that the story teaches me. I have a hard time, on most encounters with the text, believing that Abraham went up that mountain intending to sacrifice his son. I have never experienced God or Judaism (or my father!) as hungry for such sacrifice of life. So I can't possibly read the text that way. Abraham had not left his homeland, contended with Pharaoh, argued over Sodom and Gemorrah, etc. — all in accord with the will of his sometimes inscrutable God — just to lose his blessing, his future, his Isaac, in a barbaric act of slaughter. His God knew the plots that entertained ancient Near Eastern divinities and had entirely new story lines in mind. Each year I seize hold of Abraham's word to the servant boys that "we will return to you" and envision him — a man grown somewhat wise by chapter 22 of Genesis in the ways of his Lord — waiting with one ear cocked for the angel's call all the while he saddles the asses, climbs the mountain, binds the cords, and lifts the knife. We humans often have tests we do not need. Abraham — more intimate with God than most of us — had learned long before this how to endure them.
But that reading too does not satisfy me. It certainly does not exhaust the story's depths. There are many layers to these narratives. That is why they make such good companions on our life journeys. And if we have to face the hard parts, let it be in the context of melodies sung and blessings recited before, during, and after our readings from the Torah. Let us be surrounded by friends and family sitting beside us in synagogue as we read.
These encounters with Torah affirm that life is good, very good. Abraham and Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael, surely felt that way as they left the scenes of our annual visits with them, children in hand. God had remembered them for life. So may it be for us.
L'shanah tovah u–metukah,
Arnold M. Eisen
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