Friday, November 18, 2016

Now What? / Parshat Vayera 2016-5777

Many people have remarked that the recent presidential election is unprecedented. In the past week I’ve heard: “I’ve never seen anything like it.” “This is terrifying.” “We’ve never had a candidate or a campaign like this one.” “I’ve never felt this awful after an election.” (I also heard many unprintable comments.) Several people have reported that they are wondering if they should move to another country.[1] This election is a first in many ways.

On the Torah front, in contrast, you might be having a sense of deja vu: This week’s parashah is Vayera and includes the Akeidah (the Binding of Isaac). Yes, we’re reading Genesis chapter 22 again, just six weeks after reading it on Rosh Hashanah. What can it teach us now, in the wake of the presidential election, and in the face of the fear and despair gripping so many and a political divide greater than any most people alive can recall in their lifetimes?

The harrowing and terrifying tale of the Akeidah is told in only nineteen verses, yet it is anything but simple, and the many interpretations that have been layered on top of it elevate it to one of the most complex biblical stories of all. Scores of interpreters have sought to make sense of a deeply troubling and frightening story.

The bare bones of the story are: God instructs Abraham to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice on a mountain God will specify. Abraham unhesitatingly complies and surrenders the child for whom he waited and longed and who was born when he was one hundred years old. In an act of complete self-effacement in the face of the divine, Abraham binds Isaac to an altar and prepares to slit his throat to please God. But God not only does not want this sacrifice, God forbids it. A ram is sacrificed in Isaac’s stead. Isaac lives to inherit the covenant from his father, and passes it on to his son, Jacob.

For many of the Chachamim, the story is a paradigm for what they understand to be the ideal divine-human relationship: Abraham completely subjugates his will, and even his moral compass, to obey the divine command of God. Imagining the thoughts and feelings of Abraham and Isaac, traveling together for three days to Mount Moriah, the Rabbis introduce Satan, the prosecuting attorney in the heavenly court, into the drama. Satan prods, pokes, provokes.

And rose up, and went (Gen. 22:3). On the way, Satan ran ahead of Abraham, appeared before him in the guise of an old man, and asked, “Where are you going?” Abraham: “To pray.” Satan: “Why should one going to pray have fire and a knife in his hand, and kindling wood on his shoulder?” Abraham: “We may stay there a day or two, and we will have to slaughter an animal, bake bread, and eat.” Satan: “Old man, do you think I was not there when the Holy One said to you, ‘Take your son’? Old man, you are out of your mind. A son who was given you at the age of one hundred and you are setting out to kill him!” Abraham: “Even so.” Satan: “And should God test you even more severely, will you still stand firm?” Abraham: “Yes, even more and more severely.” Satan: “But tomorrow God will call you murderer for shedding the blood of your son.” Abraham: “Even so.”[2]

Satan’s attempts to dissuade Abraham from obeying God and to convince him that God will accuse him of murder on the day after he slaughters Isaac fail. Abraham is steadfastly determined to obey God.

Satan next appeals to Isaac’s love for his mother, Sarah, and tells Isaac that he will break his mother’s heart if he goes along with Abraham, who is a deranged old man.

Seeing that his efforts were in vain, Satan left Abraham and, disguising himself as a young man, stood at Isaac’s right and said, “Where are you going?” Isaac: “To study Torah.” Satan: “While still alive or after your death?” Isaac: “Is there a man who can study after his death?” Satan: “O hapless son of a hapless mother! How many fasts did your mother fast, how many prayers did she utter until at last you were born! And now this old man has gone mad in his old age and is about to slit your throat.” Isaac: “Nevertheless, I shall not deviate from the will of my Maker and from the bidding of my father.” [3]

Like Abraham, Isaac remains adamantly determined to comply with God’s command. Casting morality aside, Abraham and Isaac follow a path of destruction. Only God’s intervention prevents Isaac’s death. As dramatic as these midrashim are, blind obedience does not seem to shed constructive light on our current situation.

Another rabbinic interpretation suggests that Abraham was either clueless, or a fanatic who misinterpreted God’s command:

…take your son, your favored son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moria and offer him up (והעלהו ve’ha’aleihu) there. They recited a mashal (parable): It is like a king who said to his admirer, “Offer up (העלה ha’alei) your son on my table.” The admirer, a knife in his hand, brought his son. The king said, “Did I tell you to offer him so as to eat him? I said, ‘Raise him up [exalt him] in love!’” Nimshal (application of the parable): this is what is written: …it never occurred  (עלי עלה לא lo alah alay) to Me (Jeremiah 19:5) – this verse refers to Isaac.[4]

While “cluelessness” and “fanaticism” have been applied to the recent campaign and election, this doesn’t seem to be a constructive line of analysis. And it certainly does not raise our mood, engender hope, or foster a constructive engagement with the issues at hand.

Several modern interpretations have criticized Abraham for failing to refuse God’s immoral command. Abraham, who negotiated with God over the fate of the innocent in Sodom and Gomorrah, betrays the very principles of justice and compassion that God taught him when it came to his son. These interpretations suggest that it is little wonder that God never again speaks directly with Abraham again. While some political leaders have been condemned for betraying their values to support their party, this interpretation does little to help us a chart a course for the challenges facing our nation.

Given so many dead ends, I turn in another direction, not toward a midrash or interpretation of
the Akeidah, but toward a poem which draws on the imagery of the Akeidah. The poem is by Israel’s poet laureate, Yehudah Amichai. Amichai was born in Germany in 1924; his family made aliyah in 1936 and he lived in Jerusalem until his death a week prior to Rosh Hashanah, 2000. Amichai served in the British Army and the Israeli Defense Forces for wars of 1948, 1956, and 1973. He longed for peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, and was a founder of Peace Now. In 1982, he was awarded Israel’s highest honor: the Israel Prize.

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
And on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy.
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
Both in their temporary failure.
Our two voices met above
The Sultan's Pool in the valley between us.
Neither of us wants the boy or the goat
To get caught in the wheels
Of the "Chad Gadya" machine.

Afterward we found them among the bushes,
And our voices came back inside us
Laughing and crying.

Searching for a goat or for a child has always been
The beginning of a new religion in these mountains.

Both the Arab and the Israeli are searching for those who have gone missing in the same area around Mount Zion: the goat of the one and the child of the other. Two people engaged in the same activity of searching and worrying, both calling out for their missing one, both feeling vulnerable and frightened. One can easily imagine that the Israeli father feels that the Arab poses a danger to his son, and the Arab feels that the Israeli poses a danger to his goat. The image of a father and his vulnerable son on the mountain evokes the image of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah—will Isaac survive and return home with his father?

Both the Arab and the Israeli fear the “Chad Gadya” machine, a reference to the Aramaic song sung at the end of the Pesach seder about a cascade of devastating and linked events: the goat is eaten by the cat that is devoured by the dog that is beaten by the stick that is burned by fire that is doused with water that is drunk by an ox that is killed by a slaughterer who is cut down by the malakh ha-mavet (the angel of death). Finally, in the end, God destroys the malakh ha-mavet—but by then everything is dead or has been destroyed. The Chad Gadya cascade of violence and retaliation, reprisal and retribution, becomes Amichai’s metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it also evokes what has recently passed for public discourse in our own country (political gut-punching is perhaps a better description): two sides talking past one another, thinking the worst of one another, fearing one another, demonizing one another.

In the end, the goat and the child are found together in the bushes—evoking an image of the ram, caught in the thicket by its horns (Genesis 22:13). The search is over, and its conclusion comes with insight and understanding between the Arab and the Israeli, who have shared comparable experiences. Amichai’s commentary closes the poem: “Searching for a goat or for a child has always been the beginning of a new religion in these mountains.” This is a reference to the three “Abrahamic” religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam[5] whose differences have led to hatred, atrocities, and wars, overshadowing the much they share in common.

The Arab and the Israeli, in their vulnerability and fear, have come to understand something significant about one another. They have heard one another’s voice in the valley between them, and this has brought them together to the spot where the child and the goat sit under the bush.[6]

Each side of our political divide needs to seek an honest and non-ideological understanding of the “Other” that will allow us to chart a path forward that addresses the needs of those whose vision and viewpoint we do not share. Perhaps if we begin by trying to understand one another’s fears and vulnerabilities—these brought the Arab and the Israeli together—we, too, can meet in the valley. We need to listen, to learn, and to reflect on the perspective of a great many people in this country whose experience is not our own. And then we need to engage in every way we can to promote justice for everyone and protect those who, in this new age, are most vulnerable.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


[1] You may have heard that the Canadian immigration web site crashed just after the election results were announced.
[2] From The Book of Legends: Legends from the Talmud and Midrash, ed. by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky.
[3] Op. cit.
[4] Genesis Rabbah 56:8.
[5] Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah, understood to be the same as the Temple Mount. Jesus took his disciples Peter, James, and John to pray on a mountain (Matthew 17:1ff). Muhammed is believed to have ascended to heaven from Jerusalem (this is known as the Night Journey).
[6] Perhaps also an allusion to Ishmael (viewed as the progenitor of the Arab nations), whom Hagar left sitting alone under a bush so she wouldn’t see him die.

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