From Bat Mitzvah to Marriage: Reconsidering the Akeidah

Rachel Petroff Kessler
September 5, 2011
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When I was thirteen, I stood on the bimah in front of my community and chanted from the Book of Judges about Jepthah’s sacrifice of his unnamed daughter after promising to offer to God the first thing that came to greet him when he arrived home victorious (I’m sorry but really, did he think his goat was going to lead the welcome wagon?). I then railed against a God, and a parent, who could allow such a thing to happen. I recalled the story of the Akeidah and wondered what kind of God could create such a terrible test for Abraham. I spoke as a child appalled and frightened by the idea of a parent who could turn so violently against his own child. I spoke as child who had been raised to understand God and Torah as representing all things good and kind and possible in the world and who could not reconcile those texts with that truth.

Today, I read the Akeidah with the perspective of a newlywed. More than a decade has passed since my Bat Mitzvah, and now instead of identifying most strongly with Isaac, I find myself drawn to Sarah. This does not make the tale any easier to stomach I am troubled by the silence between Abraham and Sarah, and the chasm I can imagine opening in their relationship. A wife who has followed her husband and his God on so many journeys has been left behind. A mother who hoped for a son for so long has been completely pushed aside. I do not know how she could have continued in such a relationship, and it is perhaps no surprise that the next we hear of Sarah is her death.

At my Bat Mitzvah, I argued against reading the Torah too literally. Abraham must have misunderstood God in his zeal to carry out God’s wishes (a veritable Amelia Bedelia with a nearly tragic ending). I asserted that the Torah served to teach us love, kindness, and respect, and to find anything other than that within it was to be reading it incorrectly. In this way I could engage without really engaging – easily brush past challenging texts with a dismissive, “that isn’t what it really means.”

I am profoundly moved by the story of the Akeidah whenever I read it, but it is best when I do not examine it too closely. Better to see it from a distance, to imagine the harsh landscape where Abraham and Isaac journeyed with their servants. To hear their sparse dialogue loaded with meaning and unsaid feelings as they walked up the mountain. To see the ram, appearing like a bright light in the dark thicket. In this way, the text is beautiful.

But the Torah is not just a collection of short stories I have picked up from the library, to be absorbed and then forgotten when the last page is turned. The Torah is my story, and I am no longer as quick to disregard the sticky bits as I was when I was 13. Even as I ask my students, what can we learn from this story, I must ask myself, what does this text ask of me? How does this text demand I relate to my husband, to my community, to my God? Today I have no answers (apparently I am no longer as self-confident as I was at 13!), but I feel blessed to have so many questions and even more blessed to be part of a community that will journey deep into the text, even when it is murky.

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Rachel Petroff Kessler is the Family Educator at Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Maryland. Originally from upstate New York, Rachel has worked as a Jewish educator in a variety of settings, including Hillel at Binghamton, Kutz: NFTY’s Campus for Reform Jewish Teens, and Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan. Rachel graduated from HUC-JIR’s New York School of Education in April 2010 with a Masters in Religious Education and was a summer fellow at Yeshivat Hadar in 2009.

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