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D'var Torah: Rosh Hashanah II

Like so much of the ritual of the High Holy Days, the Torah portion is well known to us, and with each re-reading of the familiar story come memories of earlier readings, earlier commentaries, observations, and d’rashot from childhood, from times when the text seemed to hit us in a particularly vulnerable moment. And surely it is an arresting parashah. No segment has received more critical attention or analysis from the rabbis through the ages, and few segments are more baffling to modern sensibilities. The Akedah is a scholarly and a personal challenge.

This year, for a change, I would like to focus on Isaac, for it has seemed to me that he is, in some sense, the overlooked participant in this drama of family and community life. Isaac, the beloved son of his parents’ old age; Isaac whose name means laughter; Isaac the sacrificial lamb who walks three days to his own sacrifice. What does Isaac have to say to us this yontif?

It may be well to begin with a quick look at Isaac’s life as a whole, for this episode is only one event over a very long span of years. When we reflect on what we know of this patriarch, we surely remember his remarkable birth, about which we read yesterday. His mother’s laughter, his father’s pride, the joy of their old age when he was born. In a sense Isaac is every child, the incarnation of the hopes and dreams of his parents’ generation.

Then, we also recall his childhood, being raised with his brother Ishmael, and the rending of his family circle by the conflict between Hagar and Sarah with the resulting expulsion of Ishmael and Ishmael’s mother under what must have been very sad circumstances, difficult for the child Isaac to witness much less understand.

Next, the Akedah experience.

There followed the death of his mother Sarah, and then his marriage to Rivka, one of the strongest of formidable biblical women. Although that account begins with Abraham’s desire to find a wife for Isaac and Isaac’s centrality in the quest, our interest swiftly turns away from this enigmatic, silent young man to his poised and interesting young bride, and in the stories associated with this couple, it is she who directs events, not Isaac.

When they have children they also have problems. Esau took two wives from the Canaanites. And Rivka arranged the deception of her aging husband to deprive Esau of his birthright. Esau then planned to kill his brother and Jacob had to leave. His family took advantage of Isaac’s blindness and Isaac was faced with the fact that his beloved wife had torn the family circle asunder. Jacob had to go from home and he did not return for years, years when his father had remained blind, infirm, and aging.

Finally, Isaac’s own burial by Jacob and Esau occurs after Jacob has come home and before the story of Joseph.

When we bring back to mind these various stories, we note that in every instance, Isaac plays the same role: he is necessary to the narrative, without him it cannot function, but he does and says very little, and his utterances are only the minimum of what is required. He does not speak to us clearly out of the text, he does not share his feelings, he does not inspire us, he does not instruct us. He is described as doing what is needed, and in every instance, our focus is elsewhere, not on Isaac.

One modern commentator sees Isaac as the quintessential second generation member. Everett Fox calls him “a transmitter and stabilizing force.” Isaac holds things together. His is the task of helping fulfill the destinies of others, whether those others be Abraham his father, Rivka his wife, Jacob his son, the nascent Jewish people, or divinity and the evolving relationship between heaven and earth.

In the Akedah, Isaac is told by Abraham to come with him on some kind of expedition to Mt. Moriah. The young man does not press for any details of the venture: why are we going? why do I have to go? what are we going to do there? From our twentieth century point of view, such a compliant teenager is a being devoutly to be wished, but within the narrative, his silence allows us to concentrate on Abraham, the dilemma he faces, the core problem of obedience to God’s every command. We see Isaac less as a fully articulated adolescent than as a typical sacrificial victim, of whom there were many in neighboring cultures. (Such a potential victim might well have been docile.)

As the moment of sacrifice draws near, Isaac asks his telling, his only, question: Where is the lamb for the burnt offering? a question both innocent and sensible. Knowing the purpose of this mission better than he does, we shudder at the question, we blanche at the thought of having to provide an answer to it, and we grow pale at the image of this child, this wonderful heir to be made victim to his people’s God. And Abraham’s answer is so much better than anything we would have been able to say; his words rise from Isaac to the very ears of God and to our own—“God will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” It is a miraculous sentence, for it tells the truth, it announces the resolution of this awful problem, and it turns our gaze to the amazing providence of God, the moral lesson of the Akedah. And it suggests the tremendous cultural change being implemented before our very eyes: the rejection of child sacrifice, once and for all, as a legitimate form of worship.

One of the reasons Isaac’s question is so poignant for me is that it forces me to see Isaac for what he is—the victim in this situation. But wait, you will say, he isn’t really a victim; he’s only an intended victim. Nothing really happens to Isaac—a ram appears, the angel calls out to Abraham, and the episode is over.

Well, the rabbis and commentators didn't quite see the Akedah that way. First of all, one rabbi wrote that Sarah died of a heart attack when she realized why Abraham and Isaac had gone up to Mt. Moriah. Which means that Isaac came down to face the irrevocable loss of his mother Sarah. Another rabbi attributed Isaac’s blindness to the brilliant flash of light from the upraised knife and the angel’s appearance. And as we ponder Isaac’s life and deeds, we might wonder what he thought about this series of events, not only the final outcome which was good, but the original commandment from God and the setting out on the route to the execution of that commandment. Although other biblical figures express their reactions to God’s actions (think of Job or Jacob), we do not know what Isaac might have thought, or what he might have told his sons Esau and Jacob about the adventure on Mt. Moriah. I think we can only conclude that Isaac, though a survivor of the event, was in fact a victim, both during the moments of his binding and afterward.

Isaac-the-Victim is a figure to whom we can relate and with whom we can sympathize, for we in our culture are surrounded by myriad victims. Just think how often the word appears in our daily lives. We hear and speak of people as “victims” of an auto accident, or “victims” of a crime, or “victims” of an illness. When we expand our thinking to the world scene, we think of “victims” of natural disasters, “victims” of massacres or terrorist attacks, and, of course, “victims” of genocide, and ultimately the “victims” of the Holocaust.

And it is not only that there are so many victims of whom we can think, just at the drop of a hat, but if pressed, so many of us, personally, would say that we ourselves, on a given occasion or moment, we were a victim. And although we may survive the experience, we do not escape unmarked, just as Isaac did not escape unscathed. The Isaac who walked down from Mt. Moriah was not the same person as the Isaac who had left home three days earlier. And one of the smaller lessons of the Akedah is the personal survival history of its victim, Isaac. It is possible to face the experience of being a victim and walk home from it. After all, Isaac did survive to live a long, interesting, and successful life. He conducted his work life with success and respect, apparently had a very happy marriage, and after a discouraging period without children, like his father and mother, Rivka and Isaac eventually did have children, the twins Jacob and Esau. As one of the three traditional patriarchs, he is remembered with honor and veneration. As soon as the Akedah incident is passed, it is even difficult to think of the esteemed and estimable Isaac as a victim.

The haftarah portion picks up this notion of the Akedah, saying those who weep will be comforted by those who do not suffer; through prayer the terrible times will be followed by a time of contentment.

We relate to the other side of the victimization coin as well. In the next ten days, as we attempt to take account of our past year, and particularly next week, as we recite over and over again the Vidui, we will be reflecting on that other side of the issue of victimization, namely those whom we have, deliberately or inadvertently, made victims, those whom we have harmed. Just as we are injured in the to and fro of life, so too we injure. For reasons of personal greed, or for obedience to the wrong directives and causes, or because of thoughtless or blind bumbling, we have made a small chaos of the lives of others around us. And unlike Abraham, we have not listened to the angel’s voice, we did not hold back the knife, perhaps because we weren’t paying attention at the time, or we didn't expect to cause the damage we did. When we think about Isaac the victim, it is important to remember that we are actors in the world, not mere spectators, and we need to be ready to spare others the pain we so needlessly inflict, here and there.

And so it turns out that Isaac may have more to say to us outside of the text than he did within the story. For our institutional life, within Kehillat Israel, he reminds us of the special, crucial role of the second generation. Very few individuals are given the task of founding something new. Most of us stand in the place of the second generation, taking on the mantles woven for us by others, trying to adapt what others made to fit our lives and our times. Think of Isaac’s challenge in this context: to take on the legacy of Abraham! An awesome burden, and one that could have been stifling. How important it is to us today that Isaac was able to be a caretaker, was able to continue and build and find satisfaction in these responsibilities.

For our personal lives, Isaac says to us that it is possible to survive potentially very scarring experiences and go on to a long and rewarding life. Although we may each be forced into the role of victim, we need not remain there forever.

And for the days of awe, Isaac points us in the direction of the intervening angel, urging us to stay the knife whenever possible, to obey the call to mercy, and to make amends.

May we appreciate what Isaac can say to us and learn yet another lesson from the Akedah.

—Ann Harrison
Rosh Hashanah II, October 3, 1997

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