Philip Cushman on Rosh Hashanah 2016

Rosh Hashanah, 2016

Philip Cushman


       The Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, is one of the most disturbing stories in the Hebrew Bible.  In it, Abraham was instructed by what he thought was God’s voice to make a human sacrifice of his son, Isaac.  At the last second, God interceded, speaking through a malach, an angel, to stop him.  Predictably, the midrashic rabbis of late antiquity devoted many stories to its interpretation.  What are we to make of it?  And why was this passage of all passages chosen, on this the beginning of the Days of Awe, for us to read and wrestle with?

         Erich Fromm, a 20th century philosopher and psychoanalyst ¾ and not coincidentally a former yeshiva buchar ¾ reminds us that the stories in the Hebrew Bible are not prescriptive, they are descriptive; they describe and demonstrate understandings of God, humans, and the relation betweeen the two.  For instance, the Garden of Eden story is not in Jewish tradition a theory about Original Sin, and it is not thought to be a Fall (as it is in Christian traditions).  Instead, Fromm teaches, it is a story about how animals became human: in some mysterious way, humans gained the capacity to be conscious, to know the difference between good and evil, thus aquiring the ability to notice the separateness between people, feel vulnerable, and make moral choices.  Similarly, the Akedah can be interpreted as a story about how humans came to confront and then forbid  the hideousness of human sacrifice.   There are, of course, many many prescriptions in the Torah, but for the most part, mercifully, the mythopoeic stories in Beresheet are not.

         The Akedah to this day has much to teach us about the folly of communities and parents who sacrifice their children because of some well-meaning but tragically flawed fantasy. WW I, for instance, was one of the most hideous examples of modern day sacrifice, justified by grand narratives about God and country.  The following poem is from the great British anti-war poet Wilfred Owen, who wrote it in a military hospital while being treated for shell shock and then sent back to the front, where in the last days of the war he was killed.

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.

And as they sojourned both of them together,

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,

And builded parapets and trenches there,

And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo! An angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him.  Behold,

A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;

Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.    [1]

But war is not the only time we sacrifice our young.  Indeed, we parents to varying degrees sometimes sacrifice our children at the altar of our good intentions, built on the mistaken, anxiety-driven idea that there is obviously but one correct, unswerving way for our children to live.  Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, we do this unconsciously, unaware of how we move our children down paths that fit with our own unexamined ¾ and sometimes harmful ¾ family roles and political ideologies.

By doing so we create in our children not only obedience, but in some sadly perverse way also an ability to do to themselves what has been done to them. They learn to limit themselves, deceive themselves, shape themselves into the form that their parents, in our unexamined certainty, are so sure they should resemble.

We do this in wartime, we do this in peacetime.  We do this when, like Abraham, we think we hear a god telling us to sacrifice in some way our beloved ones.  But the Akedah shows us that in fact it is not the one, invisible, nameless God who wants us to misuse our children.  No, it is the dynamic of idolatry that does so.  Every year on Rosh Hashanah we read this story and wonder, “Could God really mean it?  Does God really want us to sacrifice our children in order to satisfy Him?”  And every year, while studying this parashah, we learn that, in the end, God always stays the hand that is poised to kill.  God wants us to live and love, not hate and destroy, not even for what might appear to be the grandest of motives.

It is not the Jewish God ¾ the one who describes himself as yud hay vav hay  ¾ who requires death.  No, that is the opposite of the Jewish relation with God ¾ it is idolatry that calls for legions of children to be slaughtered.  I am referring as much to suicide bombers, Stalin’s gulag, Hitler’s death camps, the obscene number of young African-American prisoners in American jails, and yes, the Jewish Settlers Movement, which is today one of the greatest impediments to a peaceful solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  It is idolatry of all kinds that requires unlimited obedience and murder, that values nationalism over human life.  It is the allure of absolute certainty, the magnetism of slogans such as “blood and soil” or “law and order,” the seductive possibility of what Fromm called the “escape from freedom,” that creates the kind of monsters that demand the blood of the innocent.  It is in fact the idol that is dead, and in turn the worshipful dynamic that humans have with idols is itself deadening in the extreme.  It is the horrific combination of both the absolute obedience to unquestioned authority and the confused emptiness of a society bereft of moral guidance that makes contemporary idols.  We choose market forces over a sane health care system, a flag over the lives of the young, easy answers and authoritarian posturing over complexity, self-reflection, and intellectual rigor.  Three thousand years ago Jewish Prophets first began denouncing the dynamic that causes humans to worship our own dead creations and produces in us eyes that cannot see, hearts that cannot feel, minds that cannot think.  Today it is up to us to withstand the seductions of idol worship and carry on our prophetic tradition that above all things rejects the dynamic of idolatry.

One of the midrashim about the Akedah adds extra nuance to the story.  It tells us that, contrary to what we usually think, Isaac was not a small, innocent boy when Abraham took him up to Mt. Moriah.  On the contrary, this midrash tells us that Isaac was 37 years old at the time of the Akedah!  Thirty seven ¾ too mature and physically strong to be tricked or forced into being sacrificed.  No, this midrash tells us that he went willingly, he was pleased to be killed, because that was what he thought God wanted.  In this interpretation we see the damage that is already done to our offspring, the training already accomplished, that turns the young against themselves.

However, even with this most willing of victims, still God does not want his blood.  He says no, self-sacrifice is not a sign of religious conviction, neither does blind obedience make a person virtuous in the eyes of our Jewish God.  What is required is the sacrifice of the ram of pride ¾ the awareness of our uncertainty and fallibility.  In a second midrash, at the crucial moment, Abraham’s tears well up and fall in a great stream.  The angels witness Abraham’s grief and are deeply moved by it, and then they begin to cry.  Their tears mingle with Abraham’s and they splash onto the knife that is to kill Isaac, and the knife dissolves.  This midrash suggests that parental awareness, and the tears that follow, can defuse the dagger that resides at the heart of idolatry.  Even the willingness of a 37 year old Isaac cannot make God into a heartless, dead idol.  God wants vibrant, critical, humble living; He wants humans to argue with him when we think He is wrong, like Abraham did about Sodom and Gomorrah, and admit and repent when we are wrong, which might be what Abraham’s tears meant.  And God wants us to rejoice with Him when the sun rises each day upon a caring and thoughtful community and the beauty of our world ¾ and this new year ¾ is revealed anew.

The invisible, nameless God of the Jews refused to allow the sacrifice of Isaac.  Throughout history He has encouraged us all to rise up from the makeshift altars of our idols and embrace life, even in all its uncertainty and confusion and ambiguity.  At this Rosh Hashanah, let us make a new year that honors life, a year marked by the courage to say no to hatred, death, destruction, deceitfulness, and authoritarian arrogance and posturing, a year distinguished by the ability to give our children the opportunity to be free from idolatry and the collusion with self-defeating family roles and empty, mean-spirited, revenge-inspired politics.  Let us be able to notice the difference between the sour echoes of an idol and the music of God, who wants vibrant partners engaged with Him in a collaborative, life-affirming covenant.

Let us say yes to this new year, to 5777, and let us fill it with kindness, compassion, critical thought, and honesty.  Let us embrace life, in all its mystery, uncertainty, and yes, its stunning, everlasting beauty, which we can glimpse when we gaze into the face of the other.  Amen.

[1] Lewis, C.D. (ed.) (1963).  The collected poems of Wilfred Owen.  New York: New Directions, p. 42.  First published 1920.

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