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Isaac and the Akedah

A Rosh Hashanah D’Var Torah by Leslie Dolin

 

I have been puzzling over something in our morning prayers for the last few years. I’d never really noticed it, but once I did, it stopped me every time. We read it this morning, near the beginning of the morning blessings, in the meditations right after we recited the blessings upon arising. …

 

”in Your sight, all that we do is meaningless, the days of our lives empty. Human preeminence over beasts is an illusion, for all is futile.

But we are Your people, partners to Your covenant, descendants of Your beloved Abraham to whom You made a pledge on Mount Moriah. We are the heirs of Isaac, his son bound upon the altar.”

 

I don’t remember seeing our forefathers referred to in this way anywhere else in our prayers. In Shir Tikvah’s siddur, the Hebrew of this meditation is translated a little more freely, but it still refers to Isaac as bound on the altar. And if you were using an Orthodox siddur, you would likely find the whole story of the Akeda in that spot, all 19 lines. The Conservative movement and liberal movements took the Torah reading out of the morning prayers, but left this reference to the story. Why is this in our prayers? And how can I manage to see myself as an heir of Isaac, bound on the altar? Can I find any way to look at this that will enhance my prayer experience instead of stopping me cold?

I’ve heard this reference to the Akeda is supposed to remind us to follow G-d’s commands as our forefather Abraham did, but being reminded of Isaac bound on the altar certainly doesn’t make me think of those things.

So today, let’s look at Isaac’s role in this difficult story that we will soon read.

How do you see Isaac in this story? Is he young? Adult? Does he look forward to spending time with his father, or is he wary at the suddenness of the journey? At what point does he realize what his father plans to do? Does he talk to his father on the days-long journey to the mountain beyond the few words written in Torah? Does he fight? Or does he allow himself to be tied and placed on the altar? At the end, Abraham returns alone to the young men at the base of the mountain, and Isaac is not mentioned. What happened to Isaac? Where did he go? Did he ever speak to his father again? Was he mentally or physically damaged by this event, or could he have been proud of his role in it?

No matter how you answer these questions, you can probably find support in rabbinical commentaries on this story. There is no one way to view Isaac, of course. But to help me figure out how I feel, I like to look first at some of the things our tradition has to say. Take Isaac’s age, which seems like a simple thing. Nearly all artists who have painted this episode paint a young Isaac, usually from 9 to 12 years old or so, and there is evidence in the Torah text for this, because we don’t know how many years passed between Isaac’s birth and his near sacrifice. Ibn Ezra puts his age at about 13. He might have been even younger, but he did have to be old enough to carry the wood for the sacrifice. But many rabbinical traditions put his age at 37, because Sarah’s death at 127 is written about immediately after this incident, and they assume she died reacting to this horrible event. She was 90 when Isaac was born, so that would make Isaac 37. At that age, could Abraham have bound Isaac without Isaac’s consent?

There are many midrashim, ancient stories about our text, that talk about how Isaac suffered being bound and put on the altar. We could look on this as an example of an abusive family situation. We could go through the rest of Isaac’s life and look for evidence of mental and physical problems resulting from this trauma, and I’m sure we could find it. Just one example is the midrash – the ancient story – that Isaac’s poor eyesight near the end of his life came from the tears of the angels who were crying when they saw Abraham about to sacrifice his son. Some stories say the tears fell into Isaac’s eyes; some that the tears melted the knife in Abraham’s hand, which dripped into his eyes. Some even say it was his father Abraham’s tears as he grasped the knife. It is also not hard to imagine the emotional and mental trauma this incident would have on Isaac. But there is another side to the story, one that says Isaac was actually willing to be sacrificed. There are a number of stories in this tradition, especially among those who argued that Isaac was 37 at the time. These stories were a surprise to me.

Like this midrash from Bereshit Rabbah from some time before the 10th century: Yishmael (Abraham’s older son, who had been banished from Abraham’s household with his mother Hagar) said to (Isaac), I am more beloved than you, for I was circumcised at the age of thirteen (when I had the chance in maturity to protest, but did not), but you were circumcised when you were small, without the ability to protest.

Replied Isaac, “All that you loaned to G-d was three drops of blood. However, now I am thirty-seven years old and were G-d to ask me to slaughter myself, I would not refuse.

Said G-d, Behold, the hour is at hand. “And G-d tested Abraham.” In other words, Isaac would have his chance to prove his words were true.

Or this one from Midrash Va-Yosha, cited in Shalom Spiegel’s book, The Last Trial: While Abraham was building the altar, Isaac kept handing him the wood and the stones. Abraham was like to a man who builds the wedding house for his son, and Isaac was like to a man getting ready for the wedding feast, which he does with joy.

On the other hand, Ibn Ezra rejects the idea that Isaac was 37, or that he was bound willingly, for if that had happened, his piety should have been talked about in our Torah reading, and his reward should have been double that of his father for having willingly submitted himself to be sacrificed. He also reminds us that Abraham didn’t tell Isaac ahead of time what would happen. When asked, Abraham told Isaac, “G-d will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

I kind of agree with Ibn Ezra, that it is a bit hard to see Isaac as willingly giving himself up for this sacrifice, no matter how old he was. But perhaps that is just my modern mindset.

Our tradition goes even darker than this. There is even a side tradition which says that Isaac actually did die, either being stabbed with the knife by his father, or burnt on the altar. After all, the angel of G-d says to Abraham: because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son… And at the end Abraham goes back down the mountain alone. Where was Isaac?

You may think that the idea that Abraham actually sacrificed Isaac is an idea from our past that we don’t see any more. But Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem (composed in 1960) has this poem by Wilfred Owen, written in World War I. The beginning retells the story briefly, and this is how it ends:

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him. Behold,

A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;

Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so,

but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

 

You might remember that some time after this, Abraham arranges for his servant to find a bride for Isaac, so it seems obvious, to us anyway, that Isaac didn’t die. But in some stories, Isaac, gravely wounded or even burnt to ash, was brought to the Garden of Eden to recover until he was ready to be married.

Where did this idea that Isaac actually was sacrificed come from? Some of this trend may have developed at times of severe persecution of our people, such as during the Crusades, when there are stories about parents killing their children and then themselves to avoid being captured or killed by crusaders. Some say these stories go back much further. But either way, Isaac has often been associated with our people’s martyrdom.
The Tzemach Tzedek cites a question asked by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk: At first glance, this appears to have been mainly a test of Isaac, for he was the one to be giving up his life al kiddush Hashem (in order to sanctify God’s Name). However the Torah states (Gen. 22:1) that God meant to test Abraham, not Isaac? Rabbi Menachem Mendel answers that although it is a very great Mitzvah to give up one’s life, it is unremarkable in the annals of Jewish history. Even the most unlettered and “ordinary” Jews would surrender their lives in martyrdom. Thus, as great a Mitzvah as [Isaac’s sacrifice] is, this test is considered trivial for someone of the spiritual stature of Isaac…

One of the more gruesome martyrdom stories is associated with Hanukkah, though we don’t often tell it. You remember Antiochus, the Hellenistic king who banned the Jews from practicing their religion, until the Macabees rose up against him? During this time, the story goes, a woman named Hannah (or in some versions Miriam) and her 7 sons, were arrested and brought before the king. One by one the sons were tortured in very gruesome ways, and the details are all in the story. (And if you want to know the details, check the Chabad website) But the mother quietly encourages her sons to sanctify the name of G-d with their death. And the sons, tortured one by one in front of their mother, all spoke to the king of the honor of serving G-d. When the 7th son dies, she whispers to him to tell Abraham, that while Abraham had been willing to sacrifice his one son to prove his loyalty to G-d, his son lived, but she had sacrificed 7, who actually died. Then she too died, in some versions by throwing herself off the roof of the building.

Today we don’t look so positively at such martyrdom, but many more recent interpretations continue to look at our people, at all people, as still sacrificing our children. We may sacrifice them when we encourage them to follow our own ambitions for them, which may not be what the children want for themselves. And you can find many modern rabbinic and lay commentaries, here and in Israel, that compare Isaac to the children we sacrifice, sometimes but not always to death, by sending them off to war as soldiers. Here is Leonard Cohen’s take on the Isaac story. His song Story of Isaac starts with details of the trip to the mountain, and then:

Then my father built an altar,

He looked once behind his shoulder,

He knew I would not hide.

You who build these 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 a 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.

 

Well, you can see how a little research is a dangerous thing. Now the story, and the image of Isaac bound on the altar, seems even worse than when I began. This is not a very comforting way to start this season of repentance, not to speak of morning prayers. Where can I go to find a more engaging way to deal with this image?

Just in time, in the middle of the September Forward Magazine, were several essays about Pachad Yitzchak, the Fear of Isaac, which is a phrase Jacob uses in his dealings with Laban. I thank Rabbi Ilana Golhaber-Gordon and Josh Gressel for starting me off in a different direction, to think about fear and the binding of Isaac in a different way.

I’ve been looking at Isaac from above, seeing the story from the outside. But perhaps I ought to change my perspective, even though it is painful to think of myself as Isaac bound on the altar. Yet all of us have probably been there, brought to a place of fear, probably through no fault of our own, trembling in terror at something that might happen, and bound by our fear to a place we think we cannot escape. Some may have, like Isaac, faced an unpredictable parent. Others may have felt the fear of unwanted change at the death of a parent, child, partner or friend. We might have faced the fear of mental illness, or physical illness in ourselves or others. We might be tied down at the seeming impossibility of moving forward after the loss of a job. We might be bound by hopelessness as we see what is happening around us in our communities and in our country.

But remember, Isaac did not stay bound. He survived (even in those midrash that say he actually was killed). We don’t know how Isaac managed to overcome this incident. Perhaps he sat in shock under a bush until his father had gone home, or maybe he got right up when the ram was found and ran down the mountain, thankful this was over and eager to get away. Perhaps he wandered the land aimlessly, or stayed in his deceased mother’s tent for some years attempting to get over this trauma. Perhaps he studied (some midrash say he was at a yeshiva during this time!) looking for answers. But eventually he was able to get on with his life.

Now at last I can see a way to enhance my morning prayers with this image of Isaac. I can think about what it is that binds me today, that keeps me from moving forward. This might be as simple as a task I don’t want to do, or as difficult as a death of someone I know, or an injustice that needs to be put right. Many things might come to the surface as we prepare for Yom Kippur.

I can see myself now as an heir to Isaac, bound on the altar, that image of Isaac in our morning prayers. And our people, all of you, are also heirs to Isaac, and we have survived. We have survived personal traumas, and we Jews have survived many a holocaust. We remember that we have been bound on the altar, but we live on, as Isaac did. But it is not only survival we should seek. Isaac found love and family with Rebecca, and our lives too should include joy, love, beauty. Look to the natural world around us, look to families and friends, and to our communities.

It may take us time to recover from the binding, but recover we will, and we will thrive, working to remove our bindings and those of others, in memory of our forefather Isaac.

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