On Illness, the Akedah, and Struggle

Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler
August 31, 2011
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“Why should we want to have anything to do with the God portrayed in this story?” he challenges, left hand folded limply in his lap. We sit at his sunny kitchen table: my cane tucked under my chair and his wheelchair parked slightly askew beside me. I breathe into the heavy silences, laden with burdens we carry.

He is visibly weary, like a warrior pausing to reflect on battles past and those yet to come, perched uncomfortably between a life past and a future unknown.
“People all seem to want to wrap this story up with a ribbon and bow, explaining its difficulties away with an apologetic or pithy truth that we’re all supposed to learn from,” he continues, “like it’s just about having faith and no matter what, everything will work out in the end.” His sentence trails off and I can almost see the ellipsis floating into the ether.

We discuss poetry: that of Mary Oliver and of Emily Dickenson; he likens them to messengers of hope and despair. I remark on the continuous challenge of maintaining a tenuous balance between expressing gratitude for what is and mourning the loss of what was.

He, a poet and administrative coordinator of Performance Studies at a Big 10 university is midway through the latest cycle of five days of chemotherapy followed by 20 days of rest for a malignant brain tumor. I, a writer and ordained rabbi, am in my ninth year of recovering from the effects of a ruptured brain aneurysm.

We are Isaac?

Maybe. But my friend reminds me that we are also Abraham. We, too, rise early to face seemingly insurmountable challenges to our faith. We are pressed to make choices and follow courses of action never considered before (many times, we wish we didn’t have to consider them at all). We follow the often painful and always exhausting directions of seemingly benevolent and well-meaning Doctors; we swallow our own desires and instincts to please the One; we walk in the path of Faith because it is frequently the Only road before us. We sacrifice the comfort of our known and rehearsed schedules, we question that which was obvious and sure. We carry burdens far heavier than those which can be seen by others.

I want to believe in a God who walks beside us as we ascend the mountain, prepared to make our Offering: a God who could have offered an alternative or accepted a refusal to engage in the Offering, allowing us the freedom to opt out of our own suffering. Like in the Akedah, everything is on the line.

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Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler works at the Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. She also serves as the Director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism. She received master’s degrees from the University of Judaism and from Harvard Graduate School of Education and was ordained as a rabbi by Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in 2006, where she found deep meaning writing and researching her Rabbinic Thesis on the Book of Job: "Talk to Me: (Or, When More Bad Things Happen to Good People)." She is married to Rabbi Amitai Adler (also an S Blog contributor) and this year became Michael Zachary Joel Adler's mother.


  1. I personnally follow Rashi” interpretation about the misunderstanding by Abraham of God’s order.
    And the cantilation signs , the Téamim are another proof of this opinion.

    Take a precise look to the teamim under the words “ale” and “ola” in the Text. They are always disjunctive Except at the end of the story when the ram comes into play and at that moment only the téamim under these words “ale” and “ola” become conjunctive.
    It is a very discreet almost secretive sign but yet the teamim can also be meaningful and not only musical notes.

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  2. David, I like this interpretation very much. Do you feel it substantively changes the fact that to be Abraham is to be tested, to feel conflicted, etc.?

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    Julie Pelc Adler
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  3. I enjoyed reading the September issue. A lot of food for thought. Good articles and very appropriate for the holidays. Mariana.

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