Torah from Around the World #139

By: Rabbi Tirzah Ben-David,

Shir Hatzafon Progressive

, Copenhagen, Denmark

The Edge of Understanding

Whether we are Reform or Orthodox, or
anything in between, the Jewish Bible is the raw material of our religious
imagination, and Genesis in particular is our great storybook. This week’s


Vayera, narrates the key story of the struggle and near-tragedy of Abraham’s
family concerning the conception, birth and destiny of Isaac (and the possible
competing claim of Ishmael). What is at stake is the Promise that God made to
Abraham, and who is the legitimate bearer of that Promise to the next
generation. We all know it’s Isaac; God tells us so, and we all breathe a sigh
of relief when he’s finally born. But the


culminates in what is
probably the most perplexing and challenging story in our entire literature,
where the whole enterprise is nearly thrown away.


Akedat Yitzhak

, the Binding
of Isaac, is an extraordinary narrative that leads us to the edge of
understanding – and leaves us there to find our own way back. We accompany this
father and his son; we experience their loneliness, their suppressed terror.
Not a single emotion is described, but we feel them all, and of course on top
of that we have our own emotions: of bewilderment and anger and maybe even
shame, that


God would play a game like this. Children in
Western society, and particularly Jewish children after the Holocaust, have an
almost sacred status: offenses against them are severely punished; numerous
institutions exist to protect them. We can’t imagine doing what Abraham did –
was willing to do. We must remember that it is God who halts the ordeal, not

Isaac of course is the greatest enigma of
all: Abraham knows what he has to do, but Isaac has to guess, he has to read
between the lines, just like us. We


he knows who the
sacrifice is going to be, but we can’t be sure. At the final moment of course
there’s no longer any way that he can kid himself: he’s trussed up like a
chicken on a pile of firewood. How do you live afterwards with a father who was
prepared to cut your throat?

Our discomfort isn’t new: rabbis and biblical
commentators throughout the ages have had difficulty with it. The death of
Sarah, which begins the next parashah, was attributed by them to the trauma of
discovering what had happened, and Isaac’s strangely colorless, passive
personality was also explained as the lasting effect of his ordeal. They
acknowledged that he was permanently damaged in some way.

So should we find Abraham’s stoic obedience
admirable or appalling? Is it a pious example or a dire warning? He doesn’t


the outcome will be, any more than we would know if we were reading the story
for the first time. We have to follow him and his son up Mount Moriah, one step
at a time: it is an act of faith for all of us. If we were writing the story,
would we have such nerves of steel, such self-control? Or would we have Abraham
argue with God, as he did over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? Would we
have Isaac making a heroic speech about his willingness do die, if that was
God’s will? Anything rather than this terrible silence. I think that it is only
by imagining other possible scenarios for this story that we can bring into
focus what’s actually told, and what is not told.

People who believe that every word of Genesis
is divine revelation may not feel they have this option of considering other
versions, because this is the one that God wrote. This is not a viewpoint that
I personally agree with, but in the long run it doesn’t matter very much; we
all end up in the same place. We can’t have the story we want – just as we
can’t necessarily have the life we want – we have to manage with the story
we’ve got, and keep pondering its many possible meanings. The Bible is a
work-in-progress, and so are all of us who read it. It’s a two-way street:
every time the Bible is read it grows richer and more complex – it’s expanded
inside another human mind. And every time we are the readers, our minds grow
richer and more complex – they’ve been expanded by the infinite possibilities
of the text. And somewhere in that mysterious exchange is God.

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