The Akedah - a D'var Torah for Rosh Hashanna 5768

John Fuerst

 

            When Reb Laura asked me to present this year's d'var on the binding of Isaac, the Akedah, my first reaction was to feel honored - we have had many thoughtful d'varim over the years on this difficult piece of Torah.  My second reaction was hesitation - nay, fear - what can I say that will help us understand God's command to Abraham to sacrifice his son and Abraham's apparent willingness to go about it?  So I went to the sources - to the never ending body of commentary on the Akedah, to the men of the Grind (that is, the coffee shop on Main Street and not the path up Grouse Mountain) with whom I have meet over coffee and Torah on Friday mornings for just about three years now and to Reb Laura.  I thank them all for their guidance. 

 

            Let me start off by admitting my difficulties with the Akedah.  Here, in the binding of Isaac, I find myself in a double bind. 

 

            Abraham is our model for chesed - for lovingkindness. 

            He is gracious to strangers.  When he sees three men standing next to his tent in the desert, he immediately gets up and runs to greet them -  even though he must be sore, having just been circumcised at the age of 99 - and orders up a choice meal for them.

            He bargains with God over the destruction of Sodom, getting God to agree to save the city if just ten innocent residents can be found.

            He is distressed when Sarah wants him to cast out Hagar and Ishmael - he only does it when God tells him that He will make a great nation of Ishmael as well as of Isaac.

            What sort of chesed - of lovingkindness - does Abraham exhibit when he appears willing to sacrifice his son - "his favored one, Isaac, whom he loves" - solely on God's command, with no reason or explanation?  As Rabbi Hirsch pointed out in his commentary, God does not even request that Abraham offer Isaac as a sacrifice to God.  Just offer Isaac as a sacrifice - is it too strong to say, a senseless killing?

 

            And what of God?  Up to this point, God has not condoned the murder of innocents.  He banished Cain from his fields and sent him wandering over the earth after Cain murdered Abel.  When God blesses Noah after the flood, he makes a clear prohibition of murder.  And He let Abraham bargain Him down to saving Sodom if just ten innocent residents could be found. 

            We began the Torah service this morning by opening the ark and proclaiming Adonai Adonai el rachun v'hanun - God, God is gracious and compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, assuring love for a thousand generations.  

            Is this a god who would suggest - even as a test - that Abraham sacrifice his son?  Is this a god who would ask Abraham to do something that not one of us would consider for a moment?  Is this a god who plays around with the strongest ties that bind us to each other, parents to children, much less brother and sister to brother and sister, friend to friend?   Do we owe God a greater loyalty than we owe each other?

 

            And thus my double bind.  If Abraham sets out, intending to sacrifice Isaac, how can he remain a model for me?  And if God demands obedience to a command that goes against his own Torah, our deepest love, our consciousness of how to act in a moral way, how can this be my god? 

            Isaac was released from his binding by an angel of God.  For release from the double bind that the Akedah puts us in, we can only rely on our reading of the events. 

 

            For me, the heart of the matter lies in intention - God's intention when He puts Abraham to the test of sacrificing his son and Abraham's intention when he goes through the actions to fulfill God's command.  I thank Lippman Bodoff, an assistant general counsel for AT&T Technologies who retired from the business world to pursue his Jewish scholarship, for two things - proving that there is hope for all of us when we retire, even for the lawyers, and for providing many of the insights that follow.

            What is God's intention - or better put, what is God's test for Abraham?   Does Abraham have to be willing to sacrifice his son to pass the test?  I would prefer seeing the test differently, turning it around a bit - does Abraham have enough faith in God, does he know God well enough, to obey Him, all along knowing that God will not let this sacrifice come to pass?  Rather than testing Abraham's obedience, God is testing Abraham's knowledge and secure faith that He (that God) is gracious and compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness and faithfulness.  To put it more strongly, God is testing Abraham to see whether Abraham will remain faithful to God's moral law - which precludes child sacrifice - even if commanded to abandon the law.

            And Abraham?   At the same time, Abraham is testing God.  Think of it from Abraham's viewpoint. 

            God told me to leave my native land, my father's house, and travel to a land I have never seen.  All on the promise that He will make a great nation of me. 

            To carry out His pledge, He even gives me a son by my wife Sarah, when I am 100 years old and Sarah is 90, and promises to maintain His covenant with that son, with Isaac, as an everlasting covenant with Isaac's offspring.

            Then He tells me that I have to exile my first son, Ishmael, in order to make room for Isaac.

            And now He wants me to kill Isaac?  Have I entered into a covenant with a god who breaks his promises - what of Isaac's promised offspring?  With a god who desires child sacrifice?  With a god who does not want me to exercise my free will in carrying out his moral commandment against senseless murder?  What have I gotten into?

 

            So, Abraham sets out to test God.  He takes his time, giving God every chance to back off.  Bodoff compares Abraham to a bureaucrat who sees his superior making a bad decision but knows that rather than directly questioning his boss - who might dig his heels in -  it is better to stall, hoping that the boss will change his mind when he has had an opportunity to consider the full ramifications of his decision.

            So, Abraham breaks up the job into numerous steps - he saddles his ass, then he wakes up Isaac and his two servants, then he splits the wood and only then does he set out for the place that God will show him.  He travels for three full days before he finally looks up and he sees the place.  Then he tells his two servants to stay with the ass, then he puts the wood on Isaac, then he and Isaac start walking to the place, then he has a conversation with Isaac (more of this in a moment), then he builds an altar, he lays out the wood, he binds Isaac, he picks up the knife - and finally God blinks, God comes through with the right decision. 

            God is testing Abraham to see if Abraham will carry out this immoral act - Abraham is testing God to see if God will require him to carry it out, to see whether God himself is subject to the requirements of justice and righteousness, to see if he, if Abraham, has the free will to act as he knows in his heart he should act.  And God breaks first, sending his angel to stop Abraham.  

 

            In a book published this summer, Integral Halachah, by Reb Zalman - that is, Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, Jewish Renewal's founder and continuing guide (our rebbe) - and Daniel Siegel, Or Shalom's founding rabbi, Reb Zalman talks about where we anchor our halachah - our Jewish law and practice.  He says that the past model was to anchor the halachah outside of ourselves - God, who lives outside us, descended on to Mt. Sinai and gave us the Torah.  Today we look inside of ourselves for God - we ask God to be a part of us as well as for us to a part of God.  When we daven together, when our voices and our hearts are joined together, we are seeking to make a space for God among us.  And, as so many of our b'nei mitvah children make clear in their d'varim - in their thoughts on their Torah portions - as we make a space for God, we do not hesitate to raise questions on Torah, to make our own tests. 

            How do we reconcile the detailed instruction in the Torah on carrying out animal sacrifice with our respect for animals?

            How do we reconcile commandments like those which tell us to stone Jews who do not keep Shabbat with our respect for human life? 

            How do we reconcile being picked as a chosen people with living in a multicultural society?

            Like Abraham, we are not hooking ourselves up with a god who expects us to follow blindly.  All of us, like Abraham, are looking to experience God congruent with what we know, congruent with the values and moral judgments that well up from our hearts and minds.

 

            We can let Abraham's actions speak for themselves - and serve as a model for us in our spiritual lives. 

            But Abraham also speaks in the Akedah.  Twice he says no more than one word - hineini - here I am.  And once he prefaces his remarks to Isaac with the same hineini - yes, here I am.  We can also learn from Abraham's words, brief as they are to take us on a passage from awareness to trust to revelation.

            The portion begins - "Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, 'Abraham,' and he answered, 'Hineini - Here I am'."  This can be called the hineini of awareness, the hineini of attention.  It reminds me of how I would answer the phone at work - a habit you might have caught when you called me at home.  "John Fuerst here."  Here, now, focused, with all my attention on what you are about to say, with all my thoughts on how I can serve you.  One of my first bosses in public accounting did this so well - he could have me in his office, harassing me for some mistake I made, or struggling to get to the bottom of a problem I brought him, or rifling through the heap of papers on his desk to find a lost document - but when his phone rang with a client on the other end of the line, hineini.  He was all attention to that client. 

            This is a hineini I can learn from.  I admit, my attention wanders.  I can be listening to a person, listening to you - and all along thinking of what I have to do next, what I should be doing now, what's for dinner, where did I leave my keys, did I lock my door when I left home, what should our mission be in Afghanistan?  A host of random thoughts, when I should be listening to what is being said to me.   I should add a new sin to the list we recite in the al heit prayer on Yom Kippur - for the sin we have sinned by our inattention.

            Abraham's second hineini comes when he and Isaac are walking on their last leg to Mt. Moriah.  "Then Isaac said to his father Abraham, 'Father!'  And he answered, 'Hineini, yes my son'.  And he said, 'Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?'"  This is the hineini that asks for trust.  It may be a hesitant hineini - like Abraham, you may be asked to answer a question you wish had not come.  And you may only be able to answer it with a trust like Abraham's, that God will provide, that your moral vision will carry you through.  I can think back to my daughters' teenage years.  So many questions that I could answer only out of trust in myself, in my judgments.  And so many questions that I left unanswered, lacking Abraham's clarity and assurance that God will provide the sheep for the burnt offering.  Why can't I take the car out on a rainy winter Saturday night with a half dozen or more of my best friends?  Will I succeed if I challenge myself with a more rigorous course in high school?  Why shouldn't I drop out of school and join the renaissance fair circuit?  I hesitated more frequently than I should have, that I often didn't trust my own judgment.

            And Abraham's third hineini.  "And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. Then an angel of God called on him from heaven.  'Abraham! Abraham!' And he answered 'Hineini.  Here I am'."

            What can this be but the hineini of revelation?  Revelation does not come on the cheap -  this is the only time that Abraham has to be called twice before he answers, called twice before he realizes that yes, my God passes the test, He is not a god who requires me to sacrifice my son, He is not a god who stands outside the moral bounds of His own law and outside what I know in my heart of hearts must be right, that yes, He is "gracious and compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness and faithfulness." 

 

            We sit here today on Rosh Hashanah, on the beginning of the New Year, thinking of the year that has past.  We know of the times we missed the mark, perhaps acted wrongly or perhaps neglected to act when we should have acted, perhaps spoken cruelly or with negligence or perhaps not spoken at all when we should have spoken.  We acknowledge these times to ourselves, we set ourselves on paths of correction - and we know that next year we will be back here again.  But, perhaps, with the hineini of our full attention, and with the hineini of our trust in God and in ourselves, we will come back next year with just a bit of that hineini of revelation that yes, we have walked through a new year with graciousness and compassion, patient with each other, abounding in kindness and faithfulness to our family, our friends, our community and our planet.

            La shana tova.  May we all be written in the book of good life for the coming year.

 

 

 


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