September 12, 2011
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Danya Ruttenberg

Today we read what may very well be the most theologically disturbing narratives in our sacred scripture—God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Yitzchak.  Whether you understand this story as a polemic against the common practice of child sacrifice, a test of Abraham’s faith, definitive evidence that God has a really bad sense of humor or something else entirely, the language within the narrative give us some clues as to how Abraham and Yitzchak themselves experienced it.

First, we see the relationships between Abraham and Yitzchak emphasized over and over again—the language of father and son is used relentlessly in this story, in places where there is no evident need for it, and Abraham and Yitzchak both refer to one and other by these relationships when they address each other.

At the same time, we have Abraham saying almost nothing in this story. The only word he really says, and he says it to God, to Yitzchak, and at last to the angel who brings salvation, is “Heneini”.  Here I am.  I am here, I am present. Moshe uses the same word when God confronts him through a burning bush: heneini.  I am ready for my Divine mission, though it be painful or difficult or cause me great personal loss.  I am here. Abraham is not able to verbalize the complexity of the situation, only to say that he is here, present for it, stepping up when called.  And despite the remarkable eloquence that Abraham displayed during the episode during Sodom, but when his own family is threatened, he can barely find words, and only manages to communicate that he is as present for his son as he is for God.    It’s a lonely phrase—here I am—and we see here, as narrative tension crackles throughout the story, the dance between Abraham’s relationship and connection with his son—the ways in which this is their journey together—and the ways in which Abraham, on this path, is utterly, utterly alone.

Further, the text uses the word “yechid” in some form four times in sixteen verses.   The root signifies singularity and unity, as well as togetherness.  God says to Abraham, “Kach-na et bincha et yechidcha”, Take your son, your unique one,” and then, as the two trudge up the mountain, “Vayelchu hasheihem yachdav”, “the two of them walked together.  In other words, in the wordplay on one root, we see several times the specialness, the uniqueness of Yitzchak in juxtaposition with the unity, the togetherness of his bond with Abraham.  Yitzchak is also both one, and together.

Abraham is with his son and alone.  Yitzchak is with his father and yet unique, one, alone.  As it is.  At times of crisis, at times when we teeter on the precipice of loss, as we lose loved ones, end relationships, leave one place for another, we find that the intensity of our relationships are heightened, that our connection to those we love is in some ways at its strongest—and yet, at the same time, we are alone.  In our fear and our grief and the strange paradox of love and loneliness, the only thing we can do is to keep our ears tuned to God’s redemptive call from the thicket.  And when it arrives—just as when God calls us to set off on a difficult journey—there is only one answer to give.  Hineni.  Here I am.

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