Rosh Hashanah morning, 5780
Many synagogues have a high percentage of members who are High Holydays Jews, or as they are otherwise known, twice a year Jews. We have a few of you in the UHC – naming no names – but in fact we see a remarkable number of you on a much more regular basis. Some of you we see every week, and I am sure for some of the board and leadership it seems like we see each other pretty much every day.
I mention this because if you only come to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, you probably get the impression that we only ever read and talk about the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, which we will again be reading this morning. It is, of course, a seminal text for our self-understanding as Jews, a short and laconic story, much-interpreted, one that has inspired many readings and artworks throughout the ages, both Jewish and non-Jewish.
However it is also the great unmentionable of the Torah. After the ram is sacrificed in the boy’s stead, and Abraham and Isaac wend their way down the mountain, there is a great deal of silence. Abraham and Isaac never speak again. Isaac’s mother, Sarah, dies in the very next chapter, and the rabbis suggest she dies of shock, or even grief, at learning about what her husband had done to their son. God stops speaking to Abraham from this point onwards. And throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible, none of the other books, whether in the Torah or the Prophets or the Writings, none of the other biblical books ever refer back to the incident. This is somewhat surprising. Now if you are a twice a year Jew you will know that our other great foundational story is the one we read at Passover; the Exodus, yetziat mitzrayim, with Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt. Forty years in the desert and all the rest. Unlike with the Akedah and today’s story, the other books in the bible frequently remind us of this story. We were strangers in a strange land, and God rescued us with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. When we make Kiddush on a Friday night, the two stories we recall in the blessings are the Creation story – God resting on the seventh day and the Exodus story – zecher litziyat mitzaryim - the memory of the coming out from Egypt. The same too at Sukkot – why do we build Sukkahs, our booths – because the children of Israel stayed in booths when they traversed the wilderness on their way towards the Promised Land.
This silence about the Akedah perhaps has something to do with it being the story of an individual, or two individuals, Abraham and Isaac, father and son, rather than the shared narrative of the collective people migrating en masse from one country to another. We know so many stories from those who moved from Eastern Europe to New York for example, the tefillin thrown into the Hudson River by immigrants as they rejected the Old World and entered the golden medinah. Or the name changes as the old surnames were Anglicized, or perhaps I should better say Americanized, all the jokes about how a Jew from Poland could end up being called Shane Ferguson – do you know this one? His cousin told him to say his name was John Smith but he told him “ich hob sheyn fergessen” (that he had forgotten what to say). These stories are etched into the Jewish collective memory way beyond their own descendants.
Not everyone could make the journey. Three friends once sat together in the shtetl. Their names were Beryl, Peryl, and Shmeryl. They talk together about their dreams, about the time they will be able to go to America.
Beryl explains that one of the first things he’ll do when he goes to America to become Americanized will be to take a Yankee name. He’s decided he will change his name from Beryl to Buck. Peryl thinks that’s a good idea and he’s going to change his name from Peryl to Puck. And as for Shmeryl, well he ponders for a moment and says, “Ich for nit kin America” – I’m not going to America – and gets left behind.
Refugee stories become the stuff of legend. Individual stories can, of course, become legendary too – think of the homecoming of Odysseus in Greek culture, or the works of Heracles or the quests of King Arthur. Heroism has traditionally been something of a male genre, although of course there are exceptions, think someone like Boadicea or Catherine the Great or even Florence Nightingale, and I am sure you can think of more heroines as well.
The question of course is whether there is a hero in this story of the Akedah. For a modern poet like Yehuda Amichai, perhaps the most famous Israeli poet of the twentieth century, the real hero of the story was ram. Let’s remind ourselves of his famous poem on the Akedah:
The real hero of The Binding of Isaac was the ram, who didn’t know about the collusion between the others. He was volunteered to die instead of Isaac. I want to sing a memorial song about him—  about his curly wool and his human eyes, about the horns that were so silent on his living head, and how they made those horns into shofars when he was slaughtered to sound their battle cries or to blare out their obscene joy.
 I want to remember the last frame like a photo in an elegant fashion magazine: the young man tanned and pampered in his jazzy suit and beside him the angel, dressed for a formal reception in a long silk gown,  both of them looking with empty eyes at two empty places,
and behind them, like a colored backdrop, the ram, caught in the thicket before the slaughter, the thicket his last friend.
 The angel went home. Isaac went home. Abraham and God had gone long before. But the real hero of The Binding of Isaac is the ram.
For Amichai, the story was a giant collusion – a divine and human stitch-up of an innocent animal. An animal with quiet horns on his head through which we would later force our human breath to produce the ethereal blast of the shofar, “our battle cries” and “the blare of our obscene joy”.
In the modern state of Israel this story has taken on a critical tinge. With national service in Israel it’s teenagers that go to war. The loss of young soldiers in battle is read in the sacrifice of Isaac. We have known since Herodotus that, in the words of King Croesus: “No one is so foolish as to choose war over peace. ἐν μὲν γὰρ τῇ οἱ παῖδες τοὺς πατέραςθάπτουσι, ἐν δὲ τῷ οἱ πατέρες τοὺς παῖδας. In peace sons bury their fathers, in war fathers bury their sons.” Isaac became a symbol for every young person killed in battle, sent their by the older generation of generals and politicians.
Was Abraham a hero? Martin Luther praised him for his uncritical obedience to God – for the “blind faith” exhibited by his refusal to question whether it was right to kill Isaac, for the alacrity with which he answered the call. Immanuel Kant took the opposite view, arguing that Abraham should have reasoned that such an evidently immoral command could not have come from God. Thus the philosophers argue about which has a higher claim: divine authority or reason and moral law. In his book Fear and Trembling, the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard follows Kant in emphasising how Abraham’s decision be morally repugnant and rationally unintelligible. But in doing so he shows how such a Kantian view makes belief in God dispensable and secondary to human reason. For Kierkegaard in a nutshell, the reader is forced to participate in a dilemma: either Abraham is nothing more than a wannabe murderer, unworthy of any heroic status, or morality has not the highest claim on human beings. The question always lingers: would you do what Abraham did? By answering this with a vehement no – and I hope none of us would sacrifice our children – we challenge the notions of our own faith. What would you do, what do you do, and where are the limits of your own religiosity?
Abraham was perhaps a hero – if not for being prepared to sacrifice his son – but for his simple act of keeping going in a terrible time of trial. Some of the Jewish commentators have put stress on how his actions were designed to drag out the process, delaying tactics as it were. Unlike the Amichai reading – also found in midrash – that somehow he knew all along that things would work out and that Isaac would be replaced – on this reading Abraham was caught and accepted that bad things happen in this life, and that we have to get on with it. If this is too supine and passive and obedient for you, then I would certainly agree this does not sound very heroic, unJewish even. This is Abraham as God’s victim and not a hero – and victims are so easy to blame, just as soon after the Shoah, people have found it so easy to read Holocaust victims into this story – going to the gas chambers without resistance like lambs to the slaughter, faithfully expecting a miracle – a switch – until their very last breath. Such an attitude to the victims assumes a criticism of faith. But for a while this became such a dominant narrative, as post-war Jews struggled to comprehend the enormity of the Shoah.
Each year we re-read this story at Rosh Hashanah. It touches us on so many levels. As a family psychodrama it hints towards the struggles of intergenerational relationships, parent and child, father and son. But we also read it at Rosh Hashanah as the beginning of the Yamim Noraim – the High Holydays. It should thus prepare us for the annual cycle of teshuvah, repentance and forgiveness. And so I wanted to finish with a quote from the twentieth century Canadian author Aidan Nowlan, who said:
“The day the child realises that all adults are imperfect, he becomes an adolescent. The day he forgives them, he becomes an adult. The day he forgives himself, he becomes wise.”
I like this quote. It helps us understand that heroes have their flaws, something we know only too well from all our Biblical ancestors. But more importantly, we have to let go and forgive them their faults. The same too for the heroes in our own lives and families, it is a sign of maturity to be able to come to terms with them not being the people that we would like them to be. But taking this further – wisdom comes when we can give that slack to ourselves as well.
As we read the story of the Akedah this morning once again, let us consider not just whether Abraham passed or failed the test that God had set him. But let’s also think about our own actions from the year that has passed. We may hold ourselves to the highest standards of behaviour and as good Jews we should, but at the same time – go easy on yourselves too. There are some things that we just have to let go of, in order to renew ourselves for what lies ahead.