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Our sense of the passage and rhythm of time is certainly heightened during the High Holy Days. Everything around us speaks of the ebb and flow, the closure and renewal, the departing and the returning of our days. We pause annually if briefly, to become aware of the seasons, the celestial bodies, the cosmos of which we are a small part. And by the second day of Rosh Hashanah, it has begun to be much more familiar—the melodies, the sections of the liturgy, the pages of the Machzor, when we arrive for services, even where we sit. We begin to feel a part of the pattern, and we knew that today’s Torah portion would treat the Binding of Isaac even before we left home this morning. The story is in some ways like a tallit—made with care, to be treated with reverence, a mixture of the known and the new, the same garment as a whole but with a slight texture or cast we hadn’t noticed before, in today’s light.
There are the same characters: the angel, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, the servants, the ram. The same events: the commandment to Abraham, his unquestioning obedience, the trip, the uplifted arm with the blade glinting in the sunlight, the angel’s voice and the relief of the last minute
reprieve. The family rent asunder is made whole again, those who were about to lose everything are rewarded; the covenant is established.
And yet, each year, the account presents us with some concepts which we find difficult. Abraham’s virtues are basically so unsympathetic to us! We don’t really like any of his three praiseworthy actions—he listened, he obeyed, he sacrificed. We are accustomed to interrupt, to pay little attention to words we don’t want to hear, and to make our own decisions about the content of messages. Listening is what other people do to us, not vice versa. As for obedience, well, if the directions are clear, if we agree with the directions, and especially if someone is watching, Okay. Blind obedience is something we mistrust, as a people and as individuals, and for good reason. As for sacrifices, especially giving up something precious, in the 1980s that is both incomprehensible and unworthy of contemplation.
And yet we do listen—maybe not to the still small voice, but to other voices, those who tear down communities instead of building them up and to those who ridicule or nay-say. Many of us in this congregation are associated with the university, and our community, along with many institutions across the country, will be facing the issue of racism, either perceived or actual, in the days ahead. Like many of you, I marched in the streets during the 1960s and I feel that I wrote the book on civil rights. It is not going to be easy for me to listen, to take directions, and to make sacrifices of time, energy, and resources. But that is exactly what I will be called to do in this year to come. Perhaps I, like Abraham in his old age, on the day before the test on Mt. Moriah, thought my position was clear. Many of us here today may indeed be called to listen, to obey, and to sacrifice in the days ahead.
But the story is not only Abraham’s, and the Machzor makes it clear that we are supposed to relate to Isaac. We are even called “Heirs of Isaac” on several occasions.
The binding of Isaac took place in an ancient culture where ropes and knots were a major part of daily life. If housing was a tent, the tent is held up and together by knotted ropes. When one sailed the seas, one embarked on a craft whose manipulation depended on ropes and knots. Transportation of food and materiel, on beasts of burden involved ropes and knots. Any citizen in biblical times had to be competent in the manipulation of knots and ropes.
Not only were knots a concrete part of the real, ancient world, they were given a symbolic role at an early point in our history, a role which we recall at every service. One of the most frequently recited passages concerns the fringes on the corners of garments and the thread which is bound into the fringe of each corner. We recite that by binding the blue thread, we will remember and observe the commandments. The knot will remind us and help us to be holy before our God.
Although we, in the twentieth century, don’t really deal with ropes and knots very often, we have had the experience of feeling a knot take hold, or the opposite, feeling the rope or the string slip and slide away. Most of us have at one time or another made a knot, pulled on it to test it, and felt the security, the strength of the Good Knot. And that is what the Binding of Isaac represents: the Good Knot. Isaac was bound, yes, but even more so, we are bound in the Akedah. The knot is strong, the covenant holds true, and today we feel its solidity and security.
Yes, the High Holy Days are like a tallit. On Erev Rosh Hashanah, we picked up the tallit and murmured the brakha over it. Yesterday, we draped it over our shoulders and began to settle comfortably into its folds. Today, our hands dropped to our sides, and we fingered the knots in the fringes, remembering the Covenant, how it came to be and its continuing importance for us.
October 1, 1989
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