As I began thinking about this d’var this past summer, I spent a little time considering not only today’s Torah portion but also the one from yesterday as well as the culminating reading for the High Holidays, from the Torah more largely defined, namely Jonah.
I was struck by what we might call the different faces of God that we, and the human protagonists, encounter in these 3 stories and also how these three stories provide an emotional counterpoint to the arc of our High Holy Days.
We celebrate the rebirth of the world on Rosh Hashanah. We feast. We buy new clothes. We greet each other with hopeful reference to being sealed in the Book of Life: Leshanah tova tikatevu. “May you be inscribed for a good year!” Some of us grouse about the discomforts of long services in a steamy, un-air-conditioned shul, but in the larger scheme of things, and there is no larger scheme than the rebirth of the world and inscription in the Book of Life, these complaints are addressable.
And yet, right at the heart of the service on Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading, we are confronted on both days not only with death, but the impending death of a child, apparently sanctioned by God, and today even ordered by God. Yesterday Hagar and Ishmael were cast out into the desert, scapegoat-like. Today, we are forced to contemplate the sacrificial killing of Isaac, and, what’s more, the extinction of the most important line of descent in Judaism. Really the line of descent of Judaism. In the Torah stories of yesterday and today, for a time at least, neither Hagar nor Abraham can be contemplating the prospect of a good and sweet year, let alone Isaac and Ishmael. Both of these stories “end well” through the intervention of God, but they remain dark and bitter reminders not only of mortality but also of the fundamental unfairness of life, how sudden the final ‘cutting-off’ can be, even in a God-filled world. And more complicating than that universal concern, today’s story in particular is evidence of the uncertain rollercoaster nature of the life of faith.
And then, 9 days from now, as the emotional arc of the High Holy Days reaches its darkest and most uncertain point, as we move through the afternoon toward sunset, when the Book of Life will be sealed, as we repeat the penitential prayers and pleas for forgiveness, along comes Jonah, the would-be prophet of vindictiveness and punishment and excision who is thwarted by a gentle God who not only wants to save all the 120,000 Ninevites, not one of them Jewish as far as we know, but also the cattle. And also, I think, Jonah. It has been a Sabbath of Sabbaths, we haven’t eaten or washed. The shul is still un-air-conditioned. And we get a comic story. Comic in the usual sense of amusing but comic also in the way that literary critics sometimes use the term. A community under threat is saved and reaffirmed. Life, as mortal and precarious as it may be, will go on, just as it will for us, whether this individual or that is sealed in the Book of Life, or not. On the evening of Yom Kippur, the God of Jonah makes us feel like we have a chance. And the misanthrope – that would be Jonah – who would disrupt the community becomes a figure of fun, is perhaps even exiled. Or self-exiled. Another scapegoat?
With that., let’s have a look at the central events of today’s passage.
Elohim neesa et Avraham. God tested Abraham. What does that mean? At the beginning of the Book of Job God allows the Satan to test Job, who God regards as an exemplary believer, a man of faith. You will recall that God himself recommends Job as the subject for the Satan’s test. I am sure much has been written comparing these two tests, the test of the Akeidah and the test of Job, but one important distinction between the two is the relative lack of intimacy in the Job story. At the beginning of Job, God is a distant figure in his court when the Satan drops by; it almost has the feeling of Greek myth. The decisions about Job’s fate are made in a Mt. Olympus-like world, a place about which man can only conjecture. And the decisions that set the narrative moving are made because of some sort of relationship between 2 supernatural beings, God and the Satan, essentially unknowable to us. But in our text from Genesis we have no framing story, no explanation. Elohim neesa et Avraham, and a way we go.
Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great 19th century commentator on the Torah says the following: “The term neesa, when used with reference to physical or moral energies, denotes ‘to try or ‘to test’; that is, to present these energies with problems such as they had not been called upon to deal with before. Accordingly, a cable that has already withstood the strain of carrying 50 pounds is said to have been ‘tested’ when it has been given 51 pounds to hold, but in the case of moral and spiritual powers, ‘testing’ serves to strengthen and to enhance these energies still further.”
It is a neat explanation. Abraham, like some sort of tool or servant, is just going to be pushed a bit more. As much as I respect Hirsch, it is too neat to be satisfying, either in terms of the test itself, or the relationship between Abraham and God. Because there is a relationship between Abraham and God. There is no framing story as we have in Job, but we do have a ‘back story’.
To put is bluntly, God and Abraham have a deal. We call it the Covenant. “Walk in my ways and be blameless” God says in Chapter 17 of Genesis, in the second iteration of the Covenant. That is Abraham’s responsibility in this deal. Your descendants will outnumber the stars in the heavens and sands by the sea and they will inherit the land. That is God’s part of the deal. And the lynchpin of this deal is Isaac. No Isaac: no deal. Abraham is not a tool nor has he shown any cause to be tested in the manner that Hirsch implies. He walks in the ways of God and is blameless. This Covenant, this Brit, is assuredly not struck between equals, but neither is this relationship between Abraham and God one of Master and Servant, or more pointedly, Master and Slave. When one is a partner to a deal, one is, after all, a partner.
So I want to suggest that God’s test of Abraham becomes a con-test between them. Abraham will not try to run away, like Jonah. That is futile. Nor will he give up in the face of apparent implacable inevitability, like Hagar. Why not? For one thing, Abraham’s faith is unbreakable. He is determined to walk blamelessly in God’s ways. But he also he has a deal. And he, Abraham, has done nothing to violate that deal. So God’s test becomes a contest between God and Abraham, over Isaac, the embodiment of the deal and over God’s willingness, not Abraham’s, to abide by its terms. And I think Abraham wins. Thank God!
The spareness of the narrative. The familiarity that characterizes the dialogue. The dramatic irony owing to Isaac, and the two servants, not knowing the former’s apparent fate. All of these characteristics of the narrative have been remarked on by every commentator. The apparent acquiescence of Abraham and the coldness, the remoteness, the cruelty of God, have also been frequently remarked upon, not the least in this synagogue. I want to suggest that Abraham is not as acquiescent as he is often regarded, and that God is not at all remote. (In fact, if it were staged in an Elizabethan theater, I think God would be in the onstage balcony looking down on the action, in easy earshot of everything being said.)
So when Abraham says to his servants “Wait here with the donkey. I and the boy will go up to that place to worship and we shall return to you,” it is NOT a statement heard only by the servants nor primarily said to them. (And I must point out that finicky and old-fashioned grammarians, like me, would be struck by the decision of our translators to use ‘will’ in the first clause, simply denoting a future action, but ‘shall’ in the second clause, denoting a degree of determination that the described action will indeed occur. Not in the Hebrew, I know.) Does Abraham make this statement only to keep the rest of his group quiet for a time? Possibly. Is it bravado? Coming from Abraham, not likely. Assertion of how this episode has to come out, unless the other party wants to void the deal? Yes. Why not? Abraham has the courage to speak directly to God, and to bargain with God. Witness the back and forth regarding the fate of Sodom that occurred a little earlier in Genesis.
What is he really saying? Is it: “We have a deal and unless you are going to break that deal, the boy, Isaac, will be coming back here with me.”
When Isaac asks his question about the very apparent lack of an animal to sacrifice, once again, to whom is Abraham speaking when he responds, “God will provide the lamb for the burnt offering?” I think we tend to regard this statement as a flat response, filled with pathos, or maybe resignation. It could be that, but God is always listening to Abraham. And I think and contend that Abraham knows that God is listening when he says these words. Again, what is Abraham really saying with these words? Is it: “I know you see me. You have searched for me, and I you, and we found each other. So is this how it ends? Is this how you are going to make it end?”
Abraham knows that God sees, as he binds his son to the makeshift altar and then reaches for the knife, or cleaver or whatever it is.
And then focus shifts, and it is God through his messenger who is doing the talking. “Abraham! Abraham!” He responds “Hineni”: I am here. With what tone does he say this word?
And the silent one in the drama now becomes Abraham, not God. The instrument for the destruction, of Isaac, of the deal, of the whole Torah, of us, is in Abraham’s hand. The whole episode is a crisis of faith, but this is the most intense moment. Stop for just a minute and imagine if it were Jonah with that knife in his hand: what would he do? Would he put down the knife? Would he overcome his anger or would it overcome him?
We have to believe, of course, that Abraham does not want to kill his son. It is an intense human drama as well. But this is the voice of God. As intense as the human drama is, the drama between man and God rivals it. Abraham decides that he wants, that he needs – and indeed we need – this deal, this Covenant, even with this God whose face continues to shift, whose face is ultimately inscrutable, unknowable. You don’t always get to pick your partners. Maybe that is God’s view as well. I don’t think that Abraham is simply let off. He is dealt in. He deals himself in. And following the sacrifice of the ram, what does God do? God reiterates the Covenant again, for the third time. There a few add-ons, but essentially it is the same deal offered twice before and accepted. Abraham hears but says nothing. Isaac says nothing. Does he hear the voice of God as well? He is there. He witnessed the miracle of the ram. It is his deal too. But we learn nothing from the text about Isaac’s response to this ordeal. In fact, the text tells us that Abraham returns to his servants, but Isaac is not mentioned.
Abraham, we are told, names the place Adonai yireh. God sees. Once again, with what nuance of meaning does he choose this name?
In his book God in Search of Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel makes the following statement:
The term ‘God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’ is semantically different from a term such as “the God of truth, goodness, and beauty.” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob do not signify ideas, principles or abstract values. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are not principles to be comprehended but lives to be continued. The life of [one] who joins the covenant of Abraham continues the life of Abraham. For the present is not apart from the past. “Abraham is still standing before God.” Abraham endures forever. We [says Heschel] are Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (201)
And, I would add, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. It is our deal too, this Covenant.
Does this deal ‘only’ promise us a geographically specific share in a land? Perhaps. Power and wealth? Perhaps. Or is it the promise of a better future, a fairer, safer, and more fulfilling future? Regardless, it binds us to a prospective Judaism of future potential available to us if and only if we do the work to hold up our end of the bargain. Do we ever cross the Jordan?
For some, traditionally for most, holding up our end of the bargain is the challenge of faith, and it is not such an easy or popular path as some imagine. And today’s Torah portion makes abundantly clear that faith is not for the simple or the simple-minded. Faith, in fact, is a risky behavior. But if we are going to contemplate a life of faith, continuing thereby the life of
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah (and you can do what ever you wish with that order), this is certainly the time of year for such activity. A time of soul searching, you might say. I invite you to participate.
But to bring us back to a different plane, let me also say that here at KI we are entering a period of profound transition as Rabbi Zimmerman prepares to leave us. If we are truly in the Covenant, in the deal that Abraham has with God, we need to show it. This year and going forward into the future. We are a small synagogue, and that is fine. But we can’t suffer too much diminishment. Our commitment and our resolve to be part of the KI deal must remain strong, if not increase. I invite you to participate in that as well.
Lashanah tova tikatevu.