Parsha Vayera: [Spoiler Alert!] Isaac Survives

The amount of pain we can carry with us on our everyday journeys is astounding. Everywhere you go, people are in pain -- physical pain, emotional pain, psychological pain, financial pain. For the past week I've had intermittent jaw/ear pain that makes me want to stab myself in the head with a screwdriver. (I won't.) Then I take some more ibuprofen, get out the heating pad, and it recedes to a dull ache. At times I even forget the pain unless I think about how the pain is gone. Thanks, brain, for that trick.

It's been six weeks since Rosh Hashanah, Day II, when we came together, stood in synagogue and literally knocked on our hearts, banging them open with our fists. We called out our sins, and our pain, and we were surrounded by others undergoing the same process -- releasing the same demons.

We also read "The Akedah," the near-sacrifice of Isaac, from the Torah. Our pain and their pain inevitably mix.

"The Sacrifice of Isaac" by VALDÉS LEAL, Juan de 1657-1659

Why?

For this post, I am not interested in the rabbinical, traditional reasons for including this story in the Torah or highlighting it in our High Holiday services. There are thousands of pages of explication of those ideas. Reading them is kind of like watching player interviews on sports channels:

  • We're really proud of Abraham. He knew what he had to do and went out and did it.
  • Abraham needed this adversity/reality check/loss in order to keep him on target/track/goal oriented/focused on what we’re trying to do.
  • Abraham and Sarah have overcome a lot of adversity. This team shows a lot of character. This team shows a lot of poise. This team shows a lot of pride. This team shows a lot of resiliency. This team shows a lot of heart.
  • Couldn't have done it without God, man. Could not have done it without God. All praises to Him

A Human Story

Boring lives make for terrible literature. If Adam and Eve never got kicked of of the Garden of Eden, would we care who they were? If Odysseus had a pleasant sailing trip and returned on time and happily to Penelope, would we still be telling the tale? What if Hamlet had just shrugged and said, "Meh. To be."

When we read Shakespeare and other works of literature, we put the characters to our own tests. We question motives, look for symbols, and rant and rave about inconsistencies and dismiss the works completely when they falter.

Torah complicates those interpretations because it contains the founding stories of  us. Our people. Our God.

We are stuck with all of it, and there is no tossing it aside. Even if you try -- even if you're a "High Holiday Jew," The Binding of Isaac will come and find you.

Torah is greater than the sum of its parts and greater than us as well. There are prices to pay for holding a book in such esteem. We have to dig deeper.

Text to the Test (Genesis 22:1-19)

א  וַיְהִי, אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וְהָאֱלֹהִים, נִסָּה אֶת-אַבְרָהָם; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי.1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him: 'Abraham'; and he said: 'Here am I.'
ב  וַיֹּאמֶר קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר-אָהַבְתָּ, אֶת-יִצְחָק, וְלֶךְ-לְךָ, אֶל-אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה; וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם, לְעֹלָה, עַל אַחַד הֶהָרִים, אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ.2 And He said: 'Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.'
ג  וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר, וַיַּחֲבֹשׁ אֶת-חֲמֹרוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-שְׁנֵי נְעָרָיו אִתּוֹ, וְאֵת יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ; וַיְבַקַּע, עֲצֵי עֹלָה, וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלֶךְ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר-אָמַר-לוֹ הָאֱלֹהִים.3 And Abraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son; and he cleaved the wood for the burnt-offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.
ד  בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי, וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם--מֵרָחֹק.4 On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.
ה  וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֶל-נְעָרָיו, שְׁבוּ-לָכֶם פֹּה עִם-הַחֲמוֹר, וַאֲנִי וְהַנַּעַר, נֵלְכָה עַד-כֹּה; וְנִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה, וְנָשׁוּבָה אֲלֵיכֶם.5 And Abraham said unto his young men: 'Abide ye here with the ass, and I and the lad will go yonder; and we will worship, and come back to you.'
ו  וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֲצֵי הָעֹלָה, וַיָּשֶׂם עַל-יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ, וַיִּקַּח בְּיָדוֹ, אֶת-הָאֵשׁ וְאֶת-הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת; וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם, יַחְדָּו.6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife; and they went both of them together.
ז  וַיֹּאמֶר יִצְחָק אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אָבִיו, וַיֹּאמֶר אָבִי, וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֶּנִּי בְנִי; וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה הָאֵשׁ וְהָעֵצִים, וְאַיֵּה הַשֶּׂה, לְעֹלָה.7 And Isaac spoke unto Abraham his father, and said: 'My father.' And he said: 'Here am I, my son.' And he said: 'Behold the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?'
ח  וַיֹּאמֶר, אַבְרָהָם, אֱלֹהִים יִרְאֶה-לּוֹ הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה, בְּנִי; וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם, יַחְדָּו.8 And Abraham said: 'God will provide Himself the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.' So they went both of them together.
ט  וַיָּבֹאוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אָמַר-לוֹ הָאֱלֹהִים, וַיִּבֶן שָׁם אַבְרָהָם אֶת-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, וַיַּעֲרֹךְ אֶת-הָעֵצִים; וַיַּעֲקֹד, אֶת-יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ, וַיָּשֶׂם אֹתוֹ עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, מִמַּעַל לָעֵצִים.9 And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built the altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood.
י  וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יָדוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת, לִשְׁחֹט, אֶת-בְּנוֹ.10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
יא  וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה, מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַיֹּאמֶר, אַבְרָהָם אַבְרָהָם; וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּנִי.11 And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said: 'Abraham, Abraham.' And he said: 'Here am I.'
יב  וַיֹּאמֶר, אַל-תִּשְׁלַח יָדְךָ אֶל-הַנַּעַר, וְאַל-תַּעַשׂ לוֹ, מְאוּמָה:  כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי-יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים אַתָּה, וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ, מִמֶּנִּי.12 And he said: 'Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him; for now I know that thou art a God-fearing man, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me.'
יג  וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה-אַיִל, אַחַר, נֶאֱחַז בַּסְּבַךְ בְּקַרְנָיו; וַיֵּלֶךְ אַבְרָהָם וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הָאַיִל, וַיַּעֲלֵהוּ לְעֹלָה תַּחַת בְּנוֹ.13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt-offering in the stead of his son.
יד  וַיִּקְרָא אַבְרָהָם שֵׁם-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא, יְהוָה יִרְאֶה, אֲשֶׁר יֵאָמֵר הַיּוֹם, בְּהַר יְהוָה יֵרָאֶה.14 And Abraham called the name of that place Adonai-jireh; as it is said to this day: 'In the mount where the LORD is seen.'
טו  וַיִּקְרָא מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם, שֵׁנִית, מִן-הַשָּׁמָיִם.15 And the angel of the LORD called unto Abraham a second time out of heaven,
טז  וַיֹּאמֶר, בִּי נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי נְאֻם-יְהוָה:  כִּי, יַעַן אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת-הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה, וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ, אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידֶךָ.16 and said: 'By Myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son,
יז  כִּי-בָרֵךְ אֲבָרֶכְךָ, וְהַרְבָּה אַרְבֶּה אֶת-זַרְעֲךָ כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְכַחוֹל, אֲשֶׁר עַל-שְׂפַת הַיָּם; וְיִרַשׁ זַרְעֲךָ, אֵת שַׁעַר אֹיְבָיו.17 that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;
יח  וְהִתְבָּרְכוּ בְזַרְעֲךָ, כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ, עֵקֶב, אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַעְתָּ בְּקֹלִי.18 and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast hearkened to My voice.'
יט  וַיָּשָׁב אַבְרָהָם אֶל-נְעָרָיו, וַיָּקֻמוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ יַחְדָּו אֶל-בְּאֵר שָׁבַע; וַיֵּשֶׁב אַבְרָהָם, בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע.  {פ}19 So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beer-sheba. {P}
This story demands an active reader. I encourage you to engage with the it and the story on whatever level you can. Even if you don't know Hebrew. Even if you don't believe Torah is "true," and even if (especially if) it puts your current view or faith to its own test.


Isaac survived The Akedah...but


God never spoke to Abraham again.
Abraham never talked to Sarah again.
Isaac doesn't speak to Abraham or Sarah again.
Sarah died.

So much died.

"Old Man in Sorrow" -- Vincent Van Gogh
Abraham did what he was told, what he thought was the right thing, and he lost all he had gained -- his wife, his son, and his closeness to God.

Alone in the world, he is left to "Lech Lecha" all over again. Get up and go... to a new wife, a new family, and maybe even a new God, one he has not known before.

Try to see Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac as real people.
See them also as an amalgamation of all the Jewish forefathers and foremothers.
See them as us.

My Religious School students often asked me why Abraham didn't argue with God. I don't know.
  • Is it because Isaac had given his consent? 
  • Is it because Sarah had given hers? Abraham was, after all, told to listen to all that she said, and she was a powerful woman. If she had said, "Abraham, don't do it!" would he have listened? Did she say, instead, "Abraham, you must do it."
  • Does Abraham have no argument to offer?


Sit with this family in their pain.

Sit with yourself -- the self who goes up to the top of the mountain and has to make a choice.

Think about who we have already tied to the rock.

Who have we sacrificed in service of the higher powers of money, success, work, popularity, peer pressure, and society's concept of "normal"?

What things have we done in the name of God that he would not want his name associated with?

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