The Story of the Akedah

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September 26, 2011
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Janet Hadda

Once upon a time, in the old country, there was a magid, an itinerant preacher, who went from shtetl to shtetl making his living with his spellbinding rhetoric.  This magid was unusual, though, in that he only had one drash: the story of Korakh.  A rebel against Moses and Aaron’s authority, Korakh was punished by God when the earth split and literally swallowed him up, together with his followers.  Over and over again, the magid told this story, expounding on the need to respect authority.  As you might imagine, the magid’s fans eventually started to get bored.  So, they tried to distract him and they encouraged him to find fresh material.  All to no avail.  One day, they, like Korakh, rebelled, demanding that the magid think of something new to say.  The magid agreed to present a drash on another subject.  He worked and worked and was finally ready to deliver his talk.  Filled with anxiety, he took out a handkerchief to wipe his sweating brow.   But his hand shook and the handkerchief fell onto the muddy ground.  In rage and frustration, he swore at the handkerchief: Ayngezunken zolstu vern! [May you sink into the earth!]  Then he paused for a moment, brightened up, and continued: Azoy vi es handlt zikh vegn ayngezunken vern, lomikh redn vegn koyrekhn [As long as I’m talking about sinking into the earth, let me tell you about Korakh].

It’s the second day of Rosh Hashana.  Once again we daven, mostly the same as yesterday.  Again we think about the awesome days that comprise this time of year.  Again we read about the Akeyda.  And again, Janet Hadda will talk to you about the emotional side of yontev. As I stand before you today, I hope I won’t remind you of that magid.

So why do we read the story of the Akeyda?  The drama of Avrom and God jumps out as central: God tests Avrom in perhaps the most extreme manner possible:  Kill your son to prove that you love me, God demands.  And Avrom sets out to comply.

Surely, there can be no more powerful lesson for us in this monumental trial.  We must, we learn, face God’s will and God’s commands with total and unquestioning obedience.  From this perspective, Tshuva is about confirming our commitment.  Each year, we must return because, inevitably, we have erred and transgressed.   Tshuva is always necessary because we are imperfect.

But the Akeyda also teaches that God will provide, that there is a divine presence watching, considering, deciding, and even helping out, whether with a ram or with rakhmones.  As we read today’s Torah portion, we recall that God decided the fates of both Avrom and Yitskhok during the dramatic events of the Akeyda.  Security flows from accepting the order of God’s universe.

Avrom, as the parent and the one who knows the score, is usually taken as the subject of the story.  He is certainly easier to consider than Yitskhok, the Akeyda’s unprotesting object.   Avrom grabs our attention because of his terrible dilemma.  And because he acts: he gets on with dong what God commands him to do.  He is fully aware of his conflicting responsibilities and of his perceived lack of choice.  In this reading, Yitskhok’s presence merely allows Avrom to fulfill his mission; Yitskhok is neither the moral nor the spiritual center of the drama.

Avrom’s giant stature notwithstanding, I can’t help thinking of Yitskhok as the central figure in this demonstration.  How would it feel to be taken by a silent father on a puzzling journey into unknown territory?  How would it feel for Yitskhok to recall that this father had already sent one son into the wilderness, where, short of the miracle that we read about yesterday, he would certainly have died?  We might agree with Kierkegaard that Avrom made the leap from the ethical demand that he not murder his son to the religious demand that he be willing to sacrifice this son.  But where does that leave poor Yitskhok?

I put to you that Avrom did, indeed, sacrifice Yitskhok, but not in the way that Richard Friedman has argued in Who Wrote the Bible? Friedman starts with the idea that our current Bible is actually a combination of four documents.   And he draws attention to the fact that, in the E, or Elohim, document, Yitskhok never appears after the Akeyda.  The notion that the sacrifice actually took place is intriguing, especially since our text reads: vayashav Avraham el-naarav va-yakumu vayelkhu yakhdav el ber sheva “Avrom then returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beer-Sheva.”   Where’s Yitskhok?  I put to you, however, that the sacrifice of Yitskhok lies not in his literal death, but in the sort of life he led from the moment of the Akeyda on.  And that life suggests how we might understand today’s reading in the context of the yamim noraim.

Already at the time of the Akeyda, Yitskhok reveals that he may know more than he lets on.  For starters, Biblical scholars have pointed out that the Hebrew words for knife, slaughter and bind that are employed in the story are more appropriate for ordinary murder than for sacrifice.  Ma’akhelet, the knife, is used elsewhere in connection with human dissection and as a parallelism with “sword.”  The verb lishkhot means “to butcher.”  The Hebrew stem ayin kuf daled, from which the Akeyda gets its name, appears nowhere else in Biblical ritual vocabulary.   Yitskhok certainly understood that something untoward was happening on this errand.  Therefore, when he asks about the fire and the wood, and the lack of a sheep, but pointedly omits mention of the knife—or, more likely–cleaver, he evades the looming awareness that this is no sacrifice as usual.    Yitskhok is widely thought of as the passive patriarch, and his behavior during this scene is the prooftext for his subsequent reputation.

Let’s look at Yitskhok’s life post-Akeyda.  We learn that Avrom initiates finding a wife for him from among Avrom’s own family in Ur–Rivke is actually mishpokhe.  She is Yitskhok’s first cousin once removed.  The events transpire during what Robert Alter has termed a betrothal type-scene, complete with travel to a foreign land, a fateful meeting at a well, and the future bride’s hurry to announce the stranger’s arrival at home.  Yitskhok’s own son, Yaakov, for example, meets his beloved Rokhl under these circumstances.  But, in Yitskhok’s case, it is a representative, his father’s servant, rather than Yitskhok himself, who meets the future bride at the well.  Yitskhok appears to be completely uninvolved in the planning and execution of the shidekh expedition.   We learn, too, that Yitskhok is comforted by Rivke after the loss of his mother, Sore.   But at the time of Sore’s death, Yitskhok remains on the sidelines as Avrom buries his wife alone.  Imagine barely escaping murder at the hands of your father, only to lose your mother almost immediately thereafter, as the Torah’s chronology seems to suggest.

Later, when Yitskhok and Rivke find themselves in the midst of Abimelekh and his people in Gerar, Yitskhok fears that he will be killed because the local men will desire Rivke.  Like his father before him, Yitskhok passes off his wife as his sister, in order to protect himself.  Yet, the context of Yitskhok’s deception is different than that of his father, for—unlike Avrom– Yitskhok has not just witnessed the sexual depravities of Sdom.  And Avrom, unlike Yitskhok, did not have the threat of murder as an active memory.  Avrom fears the results of corruption.  Yitskhok fears being snuffed out on a whim.  While in Gerar, Yitskhok must negotiate over wells, as his father had done before him.  Yet, in high contrast to Avrom, Yitskhok flees confrontation, preferring instead to dig in a new spot rather than stand firm in his claim.

Still later, Yitskhok is famously “fooled” by the presence of Yaakov disguised as Eysev.   Even though he recognizes Yaakov’s voice, and even though Eysev, the earthy hunter, is his favorite, Yitskhok does not dare to give credence to his doubts.  He is still the same person who avoided the incriminating question at the Akeyda.   He is blind in that bedside scene, but is he any more blind than he was as a lad, when he could not see a cleaver in his father’s hand?  And is he tone-deaf as well?

Yitskhok’s fate in life is to exist on the margins and with half a heart.    We cannot know whether his behavior is catalyzed by his experience at the sacrificial altar or merely crystallized there after he has already witnessed the murderous banishment that Ishmael and Hoger endured.  But we do know that Yitskhok lives out his days trying not to get killed, trying not to be the object of controversy or conflict, trying to pretend that he is not about to be betrayed at the end of his life as well as at the beginning.

Given his experiences as pawn of both God and people, is it any wonder that Yitskhok eschews the world of spirituality, leadership, and patriarchy in favor of more simple and reliable pleasures, that he favors the undistinguished and rustic Eysev over the ambitious and crafty Yaakov?  At the same time, is it not tragic that this patriarch has been so reduced by his human and superhuman trials that many of us today cannot look to him as a spiritual, ethical, or philosophical guide?

The unfortunate example of Yitskhok has something to teach us as we contemplate renewal and repentance.  What would Yitskhok’s life have been like if he had noticed the cleaver, had mourned his mother, had chosen his own wife, had confronted the men of Gerar, had seen through Yaakov’s ridiculous disguise?  In order to act decisively, he would first have had to acknowledge such troubling feelings as anger, fear, sadness, and disappointment.  But since he did not actively engage in his own emotional existence, he was unable to protect himself and to thrive.

Next Sunday night and Monday, we will recite our sins again and again.  There are many of these to atone for, as you well know, but expressions of anger, fear, disappointment, sadness, and other straightforward emotional reactions are not among them.  Nonetheless, and in contrast to our ritual confessions, many of us chastise ourselves for revealing  — or even having  — these most basic and natural feelings.  Why?  Perhaps we learn shame and abnormal restraint because of early experiences where these expressions were uncomfortable or even intolerable to others.  How often do we hear a parent tell a child not to cry, not to be angry, not to be afraid?  We were all once those children.  And how often do we say such things to our own children because we cannot bear to see them saddened, frustrated, frightened, or disillusioned?

These ten days are awesome and also awful.  How can we not feel terrified during the aseret yemey tshuva?  We are asked to contemplate our deaths and to consider all the ways our death  — and the deaths of those we love  — might occur.  And how can we not feel sadness, disillusionment, anger, and horror as we realize what the last year has brought in terms of carnage and destruction?  And it is not simply the last year: the 20th and 21st centuries have been marked by global violence, unspeakable barbarity, desperate strife, and gross inequalities.  We have been shaped by these world events and we may feel personally scarred by World War II, the Shoah, the Vietnam War, the Intifada, or 9-11.  Although we are inevitably molded by our past, just as Yitskhok was, if we remain at the mercy of past fears, angers, and disappointments, our human capacities are diminished.

Anger unexpressed at its source can lead to sinat khinam, [causeless hatred] and khozek yad [violence]. Unexpressed fear can lead to khakhash and khazav [denying and lying] and honaat rea [wronging our neighbor]. Unexpressed sadness can lead to kashiyut oref [stiff-neckedness] and timhon levav [confusion of mind]. These are the underpinnings for the befuddled, unenlightened behaviors for which we must, and do, atone.

And in every case, the landscape of disclaimed emotion is our thicket.

If the Biblical ram was the external substitute for Yitskhok’s internal sacrifice, then the thicket is the tangle in which Yitskhok’s emotions caught him and held him captive.   Poor Yitskhok was not replaced by the ram; instead, he remained forever ensnared in a thicket of constricted behavior and thought.  Because he was unaware of what he felt, he could not react to his predicaments with vigor and vision.

In today’s Torah reading, the word, hineni, signals Avrom’s presence for God and also his presence for Yitskhok.  Today, and throughout the Holy Days, our sheliekh tsibur begins Musaf by saying hineni…bati la’amod…lefanekha…”Here I am.  I have come to stand before You….”

Hineni means “I am here.”  I take the word to mean as well, “ I am completely present, I can pay attention and feel, I can think clearly and evaluate what I am about to experience.”   Hineni is the opposite of being caught in the thicket.  It is a clear, direct, and simple, although profound, state from which to look inward and outward, in solitude as well as in community.  When we hide in consternation over our natural responses, when we struggle to ward off frightening realizations about our most basic human selves, we cannot be present.

Yes, we must protect ourselves in a world that can be treacherous and frightening.  But if we cut ourselves off from what we feel, we are unable to distinguish between danger and safety, betrayal and loyalty, or hate and love.

We cannot predict what this coming year holds for us.  But if we are mindful of what we are called upon to know, if we dare not to hide, not to feel shame, not to chastise ourselves for our human reactions, we will be prepared to say hineni with an open heart throughout the coming year.  Shana tova umetuka.

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