Rosh Hashanah Morning 5779
The Torah portion that we will be reading this morning is Genesis 22.1-19, the story of the binding of Isaac (Akedat Yitzhak). God tests Abraham and asks him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac on the mountain that he will show him. With great alacrity Abraham agrees and travels with Isaac to Mount Moriah. There he binds him to the altar and stands with knife poised, ready to sacrifice his son. An angel intervenes, and calls to Abraham that a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns, should be sacrificed in the place of his son. Abraham’s future is blessed, the pair go home, the test is over, and we have been blowing our shofar – the ram’s horn - ever since.
Much of the power of the story lies in the ambiguity around the relationship of Abraham and Isaac as father and son, and whether the latter understands the intent of the former to make him the sacrifice. As they walk together on the mountainside, a snippet of their conversation is recorded:
“Then Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he answered, “Yes, my son.” And he said, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”
And Abraham said, “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them walked on together.
The word order of Abraham’s reply, “haolah, bni” – the burnt offering, my son, is grammatically unclear – things hinge on punctuation – where is the comma placed? Rashi comments that this demonstrates that “God will look out for and choose a lamb for Himself, and if there will be no lamb for a burnt offering, then, בני MY SON will be the offering. So, for Rashi, Isaac then understood that he was travelling on to be slain, yet they travelled on together.
The midrash is even more dramatic. As Isaac asked the question, it is written in Bereshit Rabbah that “in that instant, fear and dread terror fell upon Isaac, when he saw in Abraham’s hand nothing at all fit for an offering. So he suspected what was intended, and Abraham understood this, and the Midrash offers a more clear reply from Abraham “God has chosen you.” At this point, Isaac answered: “If God has so chosen, my life is given to Him, but I grieve for my mother.” Nevertheless they both of them went on together – one to bind, the other to be bound; one to slaughter, the other to be slaughtered.”
Isaac is often taken to be a naïve lad, aged anywhere between 16 and 37, but accompanying his father, going on with his plans, playing along with the old man, humouring him, and perhaps blindly misunderstanding his father’s intentions until the very last, when he sees the shadow of the knife fall upon him as he lays bound on the altar. That’s one reading. This midrash prefers another, that Isaac acquiesced to or even colluded with his father in agreeing his own sacrifice. And such a knowing reading raises profound questions about how far we are prepared to go to give ourselves up for our parents, or indeed for our children.
There’s a poem by Hayim Gouri, the Israeli poet who died in January this year. Gouri was born in Tel Aviv in 1923 under the British Mandate, and participated in attacks against the British who were trying to prevent Jewish immigrants from reaching Palestine by ships. In 1947 he was sent to Hungary to help bring Holocaust survivors in displaced-persons camps to Palestine. After Israel’s creation, in the War of Independence he served as a deputy company commander in the Palmach’s Negev Brigade. One of the themes throughout Gouri’s poetry was the terrible sacrifice that war brings. In modern times, due to the age of the soldiers who guard Israel, the sacrifice of the young has often been compared to the story of the Akedah. And Gouri also addresses his own words to this question in a poem entitled Heritage – in Hebrew, Yerusha:
“The ram came last of all. And Abraham did not know that it came to answer the boy’s question – first of his strength when his day was on the wane.
The old man raised his head. Seeing that it was no dream and that the angel stood there – the knife slipped from his hand.
The boy, released from his bonds, saw his father’s back.
Isaac, as the story goes, was not sacrificed. He lived for many years, saw what pleasure had to offer, until his eyesight dimmed.
But he bequeathed that hour to his offspring. They are born with a knife in their hearts.”
To be born with a knife in your heart (hem noladim uma’achelet b’libam), what does it mean? On the one hand it expresses the genetic trauma that has been embedded in Isaac’s DNA, passing from one generation to the next. And while he lived out his own days peacefully enough, the heritage of his children would be cut from his experiences. And at the same time the wound of this congenital knife could also be utilised to strengthen and steel the hearts of Isaac’s descendants. In the context of the birth of the State of Israel, Gouri may be representing Abraham as the last of the passive, diasporic ancestors, whose sacrifice – and in particular the Holocaust – gave birth to a tougher kind of Israeli Jew who unlike Isaac, would no longer be led like a sheep to the slaughter.
I have been thinking about this story this year with a different eye, conscious of my own looming parenthood. What kind of father do I want to be to my own son? At the moment it is still hypothetical but it will not remain that way for very much longer. How trusting should children be of their parents, and at what stage should they come to understand that each of us is a fallible human being. Should is perhaps the wrong word – at what stage do they come to understand their parent’s foibles.
I’m sure many of you can give me an answer to this, and I am under no illusions – I imagine it comes quite quickly. Thinking about parenthood has made me reflect on my relationship with my own father, who passed away eight years ago, shortly before Rosh Hashanah. He was a kind and loving man but his life and our relationship was complicated by the fact he suffered from being bipolar, or as it was then known, from manic depression. Mental health issues have been somewhat taboo in Jewish communities, as they have been in wider society, but I am sure that there are some of you here who know what it is like to encounter a family member, a sibling, a parent, with a similar illness. And maybe some of you suffer from such a malady yourselves.
As a child with a manic depressive father, there were certain things that were “normal” in my family life that probably weren’t so normal to other people. My father could enjoy stable periods that were punctuated by bouts of illness. It was often a worry that he was “on the turn”, and there were warning signs for this. At manic moments he was capable of surprising things. And while I don’t think he would ever have sacrificed me or my sister on the top of a mountain at God’s call, I think I was sufficiently mistrustful of him that I would not have accompanied him on this kind of trip in the first place.
That does him an injustice. And eight years after his passing I can see more clearly and more generously how his illness ravaged his whole adult life, and that he was much more the victim of this than we were. It’s easy to blame someone from their actions, especially when they seem to enjoy the flamboyance of their highs and are reckless as to their consequences. But once your parents have passed away then you wonder why you argued with them and criticized them quite so incessantly. Presumably it’s the love wrapped up with the expectations – you want to maintain the myth of your parents omnipotence, even as you begin to understand the reality of their humanity.
Reading the Akedah remains a challenge to all of us. My tendency is to see Abraham as my own father, which means I become Isaac. Becoming a parent will hopefully give me the opportunity to shift the lens a little, and to try to behave differently with my own son. And yet, I’m with Philip Larkin on parenthood – albeit with the expletives deleted:
They mess (fuck) you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were messed (fucked) up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Larkin’s answer to this situation comes in the third and final verse:
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
But as Jews this is not an answer - we remain more optimistic. Where Larkin sees misery, we see meshugas. We know we are going to make our children crazy, in fact there’s a whole brand of Jewish humour that positively thrives on this. The jokes are usually about Jewish mothers, but I’m sure they apply to dads too - so let me end with one of the kinder one
“My son Bernie,” says Mrs. Kaplan to Mrs. Bernstein, “is in psychoanalysis.”
“Really,” says Mrs. Bernstein, “and what does the psychoanalyst tell him?”
“He tells Bernie that he has an Oedipus Complex.”
“So what’s an Oedipus Complex?” asks Mrs. Bernstein.
“I don’t know,” says Mrs. Kaplan.
“Oh, well,” says Mrs. Bernstein. “Oedipus, schmoedipus, the main thing is that a boy should love his mother.”
So going back to the Akedah – Akedah, Shmakedah – forget Abraham, the main point to take from the story is that Isaac still loves his mother, Sarah.