Seeing Ourselves in the Story
Like any two-year-old, my daughter, Eliza, loves stories. Recently we have been reading a great deal of Dr. Seuss, but other things always make it into the mix. She finds these stories exciting and engrossing. But the one thing that she loves more than anything else is when we add her to the story. Suddenly the story isn’t something that happens in the book alone, but it happens to Eliza, and she is a part of it.
When we tell her the story of the 3 Little Pigs and the Big, Bad Eliza, she starts to huff and puff and blow down the flimsy homes built by those silly little pigs. When I sing to her about Puff the Magic Dragon coming across a little girl named Eliza, she immediately chimes in “I’m right here!”
Eliza is demonstrating a fundamental truth about us as people. We connect to the stories in which we can see ourselves. When we read books or watch movies, we love to imagine our responses to the challenges faced by the characters, what we would have done in that situation, how we would have reacted, what we would have said. Television and movie creators know this, and will generally add a character whose purpose is to be our touchstone, our connection to an otherwise fantastical world.
Connecting with Biblical Narratives
The Torah provides us with countless opportunities to see ourselves in the narrative. We can see ourselves in the sibling rivalry that plagues the book of Genesis – although hopefully no one here has actually sold a brother into slavery, only dreamt about it. Many of us have felt the challenges faced by the matriarchs and patriarchs when trying to start and grow a family. When we read the story of Purim, we all ask the question: what would you have done if you had been Queen Vashti? And who hasn’t felt the frustration of the Israelites in the desert when their national leaders seems completely unresponsive to their needs?
Seeing ourselves as part of the story reaches its pinnacle in the narrative of the Exodus. We are told every Passover that we each must view ourselves as if we had personally left Egypt. We are commanded to imagine ourselves as part of the story. The Torah goes one step further at the giving of the commandments at Mount Sinai. We are told that the covenant with God was made not only with the Israelites who were present, but also those who were not present; with us. We are told: you were actually there at that moment. You were a part of this grand revelation.
All of these narratives are powerful, in large part because we can see ourselves as part of the story. We could have been Joseph, we could have been Sarah, we could have been Vashti. We can connect with these people, and the message of the narrative is therefore a message that applies to us.
And yet, today, one of the most important days in the Jewish calendar, we read a story that I struggle to see myself as a part of. Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac is so completely foreign to me, that I have trouble learning any positive lessons from it. I certainly can’t imagine doing what Abraham did, and attempting to kill my own child.
The Rabbis on Abraham
So, I did what any good rabbi should do, and took a look at what our tradition has to say on the subject. Abraham is the founder of our faith, he is the first monotheist, the progenitor of the Jewish people. He wasn’t the first “Jew,” but that’s a different sermon. If we are going to hold Abraham up as the paragon of our faith, then the rabbis must be able to give me some way to view this story differently.
However, it seems that like me, the rabbis prefer to focus on different moments in Abraham’s life. He had many wonderful qualities, which we love to hold up. Abraham argued with God on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. From this we can learn that it is our duty to help others, even when they don’t merit our help. We can learn that questioning authority is a very Jewish thing for us to do. But this makes the narrative of the Binding of Isaac all the more perplexing, because why would Abraham stand up for the people of Sodom, but not for his own son?
Another aspect of Abraham that we like to talk about is his legendary hospitality. We read about how, immediately after he circumcised himself, he sat outside of his tent hoping for visitors that he could welcome into his home. A few weeks ago, in our weekly discussion of Pirkei Avot during Friday night services, we read Yosi ben Yochanan’s belief that “יְהִי בֵיתְךָ פָּתוּחַ לִרְוָחָה, וְיִהְיוּ עֲנִיִּים בְּנֵי בֵיתֶךָ” “Your house should be open wide, and the poor should be members of your household.” Commenting on this passage, the 15th century Italian rabbi, Ovadiah Ben Avraham of Bartenura – known just as The Bartenura – wrote: “כביתו של אברהם אבינו עליו השלום שהיה פתוח לארבע רוחות העולם, כדי שלא יצטרכו האורחים להקיף למצוא הפתח” “Like the house of our father Abraham, which was open to the four winds of the world, so that the guests would not have to walk around in order to find the door.” Abraham was a gracious and considerate host. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for his guests, but apparently he was perfectly willing to sacrifice his son.
Turning to this passage, there is one lesson that the rabbis do derive. After God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, we read “וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר” “Abraham woke up early in the morning. Why does Abraham wake up early in the morning? The Talmud answers: “זריזין מקדימים למצוות,” “Because zealous people hurry to perform the mitzvot.” This is the reason why a bris happens first thing in the morning, why morning services are often so early, and why we shake the lulav and etrog in the morning on sukkot. Again, while this is an interesting piece of halakhic exegesis, it certainly doesn’t help me connect with the narrative here.
Lessons from Kierkegaard
In my senior year of college, I was introduced to Fear and Trembling, a book written by the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard. I was so taken with this book that I spent much of the next semester reading it – instead of working on my senior thesis. This book is Kierkegaard’s take on the Binding of Isaac. In his understanding, this story demonstrates that Abraham’s complete faith is something that very few people in this world can achieve. Kierkegaard himself was clear that he could only vaguely understand what this means, and could never achieve such faith himself.
Kierkegaard goes on to explain the problem with this narrative very clearly. He imagined a situation in which a pastor spends all Sunday exhorting his congregation to have the faith of Abraham. “Look at Abraham, who loved and trusted God so much that he was willing to sacrifice his only son. If only we all could have that faith.” The next day, the pastor is told that one of his congregants is planning on sacrificing his son, in imitation of Abraham. The pastor rushes to his house. Using every tool at his disposal, he convinces the man that he should definitely not sacrifice his son. This pastor is completely unaware of the contradiction between his actions on Sunday and on Monday, unaware that the man was only following the advice that the pastor himself gave in his sermon. The pastor is proud of himself, but Kierkegaard is clearly faced with the same problem that I am. The narrative of the Binding of Isaac seems to be teaching us a lesson that we would find abhorrent.
Over the course of the book, Kierkegaard explains his belief that this is a narrative of faith, and should not be something that we turn to for worldly lessons. He writes: “Abraham I cannot understand; in a certain sense I can learn nothing from him except to be amazed.” This places Abraham off to the side. It says: Abraham was a man of perfect faith, but don’t look to him to see how to act in the world, instead, focus on your own faith. That leaves me…unsatisfied.
A Terrible Mistake
Maybe what we are missing is in the conclusion of the narrative. After all, Abraham doesn’t go through with the sacrifice. After he demonstrates to God that he would be willing to kill his son, God stops him, and replaces Isaac with a ram – whose horn we symbolically blow today. God tells Abraham not to sacrifice Isaac, and from that, we learn that human sacrifice is not acceptable to God – even though God asked for it. God was making a point, although God chooses a strange way to do it.
Rashi proposes a revolutionary understanding of this entire passage. He argues that Abraham completely misunderstood the command that God gave him. Instead of offering Isaac as a sacrifice, Abraham was merely supposed to bring Isaac up to the mountain – and then bring him back down again.
Building on this understanding, Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam, reinterprets a word from the first verse of the chapter. נסה, which we commonly translate as “tested” could also mean “rebuked.” God scolded Abraham for his actions. He was never meant to sacrifice Isaac, and it was his own failing that almost led to the murder of his son. This entire chapter is a terrible misunderstanding, and a terrible mistake.
It is this possibility that finally gives me a way to connect with the narrative. As we all know, a major theme of the High Holidays is clearly acknowledging our failures and our mistakes, and seeking atonement for them. And then, after we have sought atonement, we move on with our lives. This can be a major challenge. If we are successful in these holidays, we will have spent a week and a half engaging deeply with all of our shortcomings, with everything that we have done wrong over the past year. This practice could easily lead me to feel like I am not worthy of forgiveness, that I am not worthy to continue to be a rabbi, not worthy at all.
Abraham was Forgiven – We can be, too
It is in this light, that we are meant to read the story of Abraham. Because, I can't connect with Abraham on the basis of his faith. I can't stand here, and tell all of you to be more like him, more willing to sacrifice everything. Because I don't think that Abraham was right to do what he did. I don't think we should try and model ourselves on his faith. I think that when we look at the world around us we see what can happen when people suspend their rational minds and blindly follow.
No, I cannot see myself in Abraham's actions in this portion. I can't see myself in this story. But I can connect with the idea of doing something wrong. I can see myself as the person in this story who needs to be forgiven for hurting those who matter to him the most. And through that connection, I can be reassured. Abraham is clearly forgiven by God for his actions. Abraham does not lose the covenant that God made with him. Abraham’s children survive and have children of their own. Abraham becomes the father of many nations, not because of his faith, but in spite of his faults.
Abraham can move past his mistakes. And if Abraham can move on, if he can continue with his life after this disaster, then maybe there is hope for us as well.