The Akedah

A D'var Torah for Rosh Hashanah, 5766


Good morning.

I want to acknowledge those who have helped me shape this dvar Torah  - Reb Laura, Reb Hillel, my friend and colleague Eric Stephanson, and the families that I work with.


The Story of the Akedah has been told and re-told through countless generations, seen and re-seen through countless lenses. Fortunately it is a story that is always alive and continues to be re-interpreted in ways that we cannot even image in the generations ahead.


The oldest interpretation  - and I am certain it is the oldest because it is the first one that I can remember  - was taught to me when I was about 7 years old - is that the Akedah is a test of Abraham's faith. G-d poses a test, which Abraham passes because he "obeys" and is "a man of faith".


Like many of the "old fashioned" interpretations this one has been set aside in favor of newer, seemingly more sophisticated versions. And yet, when I considered the Akedah in preparation for this dvar Torah I saw that there is a kernel of truth in that interpretation   - that it is Abraham's faith that enables him to survive this ultimate test.


So G-d puts Abraham "to the test". And what is this test? It is the test of all tests, the ultimate test. Is it the test where we put our own life on the line? No, it is even bigger, it's the one where our child's life is on the line. "Hineni"  - "Here I am" Abraham says.  And with these words Abraham is about to take the test, about to begin the journey, of a parent whose child is going to die.


It is at this juncture that the story of Abraham and Isaac intersects with my work. I am a physician, a pediatrician, and much of my work is in the practice of pediatric palliative care. My colleagues and I care for children who live with, and die from, progressive lifethreatening diseases. Fortunately, in the Industrialized countries, the experience of caring for a dying child is rare and unusual. Unfortunately, it is far too common in other parts of the world. But working in this field has brought me some insights into the experience of Abraham.


My field is palliative care and I work in a hospice, Canuck Place Children's Hospice, which was the first hospice for children in North America. The word palliate means to take care of symptoms, or to cover them and it comes from the Latin term pallium, which referred to the warm cloak that Roman soldiers wore in cold weather. The term hospice also derives from Latin  - it referred to places of rest and refuge for pilgrims and other travelers. From that we get hostel, hotel, and ultimately hospitality, hospital and hospice.  We know that people on journeys need warm coverings and places to rest. As I will say in a moment, the Akedah teaches us that they need other things as well.


Let me digress for a moment. It may be helpful for you to know that there are great differences between the common image of adult palliative care and what we see in pediatric palliative care. The diseases and conditions are quite different; some of the diseases are those, which at times can be cured, but not always; some of the diseases are those where we can prolong life for many years but never cure; and finally, some of the diseases have relentless courses that we cannot change. It is important for you to know that cancer is by no means the largest group. It is also true that for many of these children and families the conditions are chronic and we therefore work together for many years. Nevertheless, it still remains a journey that no one wants to be on.


The experience of the families that I know has given me fresh insight into the meaning of this parsha -- and Abraham's experience as the father of a son who is going to die has given me, in turn, fresh insight into the families. The Akedah teaches us four things: that there is a journey to be reckoned with, that companions are needed; that we can face the unknown; and finally, that we can do so with resolution that comes with grace through faith.


First, the Journey. Abraham and Isaac are on a journey  - we are told it is 3 days long. One commentary says that 3 days is needed so that Abraham is not thought to be doing something rash or impulsive. But a 3-day journey is also a metaphor for the fact that this experience is not sudden  - this particular journey takes time.  The parents that I work with have often said that they see themselves on a journey  - those are their words.  So now, when we meet new families at Canuck Place we share that metaphor with them.  We specifically use the image of a journey on a river. The only problem, we tell them, with this particular river is that we do not have a chart or a map. We do know some things about it: We know that the current is powerful and you cannot paddle against it.  We also know that the river has calm stretches and whitewater rapids and even tumultuous waterfalls  - but that is all we know. Because we do not have a chart, we cannot tell them the course of the river, or where the waterfalls and quiet pools are. We cannot even say accurately that rapids precede every waterfall, or that still water always follows danger. All we can say is that these things exist, and we will recognize when we see them.


So the families I meet at Canuck Place are on a journey  - forced on to it against any of their wishes. And how is that different from our ancestor Abraham whose son is going to die and who also is put on this journey by a power that surrounds and commands?


The first lesson is that there is a journey to be undertaken without choice. The second lesson is that there are always companions on a journey.  Abraham goes forth with his 2 servants and of course the ass. Let us not forget that the angel is there as well. "For now I know", says the angel in verse 12  - meaning, I have been with you all along in order to see what I have been expecting.  And where is Sarah, Isaac's mother  - why is she not mentioned as a companion? There are many interpretations, and perhaps the one that fits here is that this journey is one that so often breaks families apart.


The Canuck Place families sometimes ask the team, if we are on this river that has no chart, then how can we do this? And we answer, we will be your companions; sometimes we are servant, sometimes angel, and I suppose, sometimes ass, but will be there in the boat with you. Our job is to keep you away from the rocks and the shoals. We don't know where the rocks are, but we do know what they look like  - despite the darkness of this journey and the relentless course of the river, we will do our best to protect you, and failing that, to at least we will be with you.


Ultimately, we can never be more than companions  - which is why the servants wait while Abraham and Isaac climb. In turn, even Abraham, the parent, is no more than a companion, for it is Isaac, the child, who ultimately goes on alone. We know that Abraham comes down alone when we read in verse 19 "Abraham returned to his servants." Where is Isaac?  - is he dead? Is he alive? If he is alive, is it certain that he is transformed?


The Akedah is a guide for dealing with the Unknown. The image of the journey that has no map but certainly has dangers  - that particular image, while true enough, does not make a very good argument as to why one should carry on, why one should get out of bed each day and go to work. But carry on we must.


We ask people to live very much in the present, while at the same time preparing for all the possible futures. We build scenarios together  - "what if this happens, then what shall we do? What if that happens, then what?" In the face of adversity and uncertainty we ask parents and children to be prepared for any and all outcomes  - one of them is bound to come true. We are terrible at predicting - as I said, we have no map  - but we do have experience and imagination.


Therefore, the lesson is if you live a day at a time and do that 365 times, suddenly you have lived a year  - and if you do that again and again times 10, suddenly you find you have experienced a decade. The journey is not about dying, it is about embracing life. We do not ever know what the future holds- any of us  - it may hold a knife poised in mid-air, or equally well, it may hold a ram caught in a nearby thicket.


The journey, companions, preparation. Abraham shows us one more thing- his resolve and faith. Perhaps at the very beginning of the story Abraham experiences all of the phases of facing death that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross so eloquently described- - denial, anger, bargaining, depression. But we are not shown all of that  - what we see is the ultimate acceptance and then immediate resolve.


G-d calls out "Abraham", who replies "Hineni," "Here I am". Abraham is awake, alive, present - when he begins he does so with knowledge and understanding- he is not afraid to face reality. Rashi says that Hineni is the response of one who displays both humility and readiness.


And again Isaac calls out "Avi", "Father" while they climb the mountain, and a second time Abraham says "Hineni - Here I am". (Abraham must have been the kind of guy that is constantly being asked, "Hey, Are you there?")  - but each time he says, "Yes, I am here and I know exactly what is going on."


He goes forth from the beginning with the knowledge of what is going to happen with great resolve. From the very start we see no hesitation. With his resolution comes calmness and peace, and with that, grace. His grace can only be possible because of his faith.


Abraham and Isaac go on their journey  - completely prepared  - they go with servants, with the ass, with wood, a fire, a knife and of course with the angel. Probably we all travel through life so well prepared, but I suspect we are not always quick to recognize it. But most importantly Abraham teaches us to go forth with grace and calm, because the end-point of this terrifying journey may not be the poised knife, but may be the nearby ram. The future and G-d's presence take care of us, no matter what happens.


In conclusion what are the lessons for us, even for those of us who have never been on this particular existential journey? The lessons are that: life has more unknowns than we may like to acknowledge; that we are not in complete control; and that on the difficult journey we have companions and we have what we need. We can come through these challenges when we answer not with our heads but with our hearts and say Hineni.


With these thoughts I would like you to take hope despite the seriousness of the topic and go forward into a good New Year. Shana Tova.


Hal Siden

Rosh Hashanah, 5766



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