The Generation of Isaac

September 9, 2011
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Michael Berenbaum

As I was beginning to write on the Akedah, I was finishing Esther Farbstein’s fascinating book, Hidden in Thunder: Perspectives on Faith, Halachah and Leadership during the Holocaust, which depicts the experience of the Shoah and its implications for the Haredi Jews. Meticulously and exhaustively researched by a woman who bridges the world of academia – she was trained at the Hebrew University by the secular humanist Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer – and the Haredi world in which she dwells – her husband is a widely respected Rosh Yeshiva — the book treats the issue of Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name – with depth and respect,

Each year in preparation for Rosh Hashanah I reread Shalom Spiegel’s masterpiece The Last Trial, which examines the Akedah story from the perspective of Rabbinic commentary throughout the generations. His majestic work serves as an introduction to a poem by 12th century Rabbi Ephraim ben Yaakov of Bonn that radically rewrites the Biblical text. In this poetic rendition of The Akedah, Isaac is actually killed by Abraham and the Angel’s assignment is not to stop the sacrifice of Isaac but to resurrect him, to bring him back to life. The deed is not interrupted, uncompleted, as in the Biblical account, where a Ram offered in place of Abraham’s beloved son. Written in the Middle Ages it spoke to the need of parents who had sacrificed their sons [and daughters] rather than have them undergo forced apostasy and who, never expected their resurrection in this world but had complete faith of vindication in the world to come.

It was perhaps then that the Biblical story that is introduced as the last trial of Abraham became known as the Binding of Isaac, a reference in the actual story so minor that one could easily miss it.

As I reread the story, I am disappointed in Abraham. I would have preferred that he contend with God in the manner in which he argued for the city of Sodom: “will the Judge of all the world not do justice?’ I would have preferred that he draw the line and speak back to God: “Until now I have followed You, abandoned by homeland, my birthplace, the house of my father and followed You – only You. But this is too much. Take me, I am an old man, but not the child.” Which parent would not be willing to step in and take the blow for their child? Which old parent would not prefer death to the loss of their beloved child.

Or perhaps Abraham should have taken the simple step and spoken to Sarah – the mother who so desperately wanted this child and who do deliberately protected – overprotected — him. Immediately after the Akedah, the Torah writes of Sarah’s death. Rabbinic tradition links the two. According to a Midrash, when Sarah heard what Abraham was about to do, she died.

But Abraham would not be deterred; he set out on the journey early in the morning, saddling his own animal, preparing his own provisions, departing before bidding farewell to his wife. As he saw The Place from afar – Rabbinic legend places him on Mount Scopus with its commanding view of the Temple Mount — Abraham left his two men behind so that there would be no one to stop him, no one to shake his from the deed he was about to do. It was a promise he did not keep. He went when off with the lad together. The world together appears again and again. The word “Avi” [my father] and the word “bini” [my son] appear again and again as if Abraham knew that after sending away one son and sacrificing the other, he would never dare say bini again.

Each generation reads a classic text anew, seeing something that had never been seen before, finding something that allows the story to be retold in a new way to meet the needs of its time and thus to speak to all times. And so it is with this story.

“And Abraham returned to his lads” – Abraham alone, Abraham without Isaac. Where was Isaac in the years – perhaps according to Midrash as few as 3, according to one tradition he was 37; or as many as 37 because according to another Midrash he was but 3 at the time — between his aborted sacrifice and when we next encounter Isaac as he meets his bride Rebecca?

Isaac is absent at the death of his mother; Abraham alone buys the cave as a burial place; he alone mourns his wife. And Abraham is absent from Isaac’s marriage, the love and consolation that Rebecca brought into his life after the death of his mother. The Torah depicts the instructions that Abraham gave Eliezer his faithful servant as to returning to his father’s land to procure a wife for his son, but when Eliezer returns, he happens upon Isaac in the field and Abraham is not present at the encounter; he is absent at the wedding. Father and son do not again meet.

Later in life Isaac goes blind, which is why he could not distinguish between Esau and Jacob and gave the blessing of the first born to the younger of his twin sons. Perhaps he had seen too much that he could not clearly see the destiny of his descendants or perhaps he had seen so much that he did not want to see what he could avoid seeing.

For our generation, which has seen so much death and so much sacrifice, we can respect but not exalt Abraham who is willing to offer his son onto God. How do we avoid finding ourselves in a situation in which Kiddush Hashem is the only alternative? Is there not another way, a better way, a way which has an integrity all its own?

And we are Isaac, searching for a way a back saved from the edge of death, having seen cruelty in humanity and in divinity. How do we heal? Our world is too dangerous: we dare not go blind.

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