The Ties That Bind (RH 5768)
Growing up, I always felt uncomfortable with the Binding of Isaac. After all, as a child, I had the distinctive experience of sitting in the front pew and listening to my own father read the story of another father who felt called to sacrifice his beloved son. A selection that oddly enough is one of his favourites. The mere concept that a parent would be willing to tie up his or her child with the intent of sacrifice chilled me to the core. Certainly there might have been occasions where it would have been no true sacrifice on the part of my parents to offer me up to the heavens; my behaviour calling for drastic actions. On a more serious note, I could not understand why Isaac would not have said anything as his father Abraham was raising his hand against him. Why didn’t he struggle? Why didn’t he question his father more intensely? And why is Sarah’s voice missing from the text?
For the longest time, I had assumed that once I became a parent, I would feel these emotions more keenly. I thought that once I had given birth, I would be repulsed by Abraham’s actions. That I would not be able to understand how he could have come so close to destroying his favourite son, the one whom he loved. And I never understood how Sarah, the one who had yearned to keenly to become a mother, could stand by while her husband played Russian roulette with the life of her child. Where did she think Abraham was taking Isaac? On a little camping trip?? And I was perplexed by Abraham’s silence, having been used to an Abraham who was quick to question God’s judgment in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Where were Abraham’s questions now?
The practice of human sacrifice was well known to our Biblical ancestors, as it was a common cultic rite amongst their neighbours. Perhaps due to the framework of his time and experience, Abraham considered the command to sacrifice his beloved son to be legitimate. What other explanation might be given for his lack of protest? After all, this was the same man who had fought so insistently for the lives of strangers in Sodom and Gomorrah, and yet he did not appear to question God’s request to sacrifice his own son. A closer look at the text seems to support this idea. The command to sacrifice Isaac is made by Elohim, which is a generic term for God or gods. As mentioned, the command to sacrifice one’s child is one that other gods could and regularly did make. However, it is Abraham’s God, Adonai, who stays the hand of Abraham just as he is about to take the life of his son. It isn’t that Adonai doesn’t ask for complete devotion. Rather, Adonai never asks for devotion to take this abhorrent form.
This entire chapter seems to be in direct conflict with God’s earlier promise to Abraham regarding the promise of descendants being as numerous as the stars in the sky. Other issues seem to be at hand such as Israel’s rejection of the local practice of child sacrifice. Ironically placed just one chapter after the birth of the long-awaited son, the true horror of this story might be seen in the marked contradiction of what occurred immediately before.
The most noticeable aspect of the story, however, is Abraham’s silence. Not only does he mutely accept God’s command, he seems to approach the task with energy, as the text points out with verbs such as: arising, saddling, taking, hurrying, going. Nowhere do we read of sleepless nights or any attempts at bargaining with God for the life of his son. Dr. Richard Elliot Friedman (Commentary on the Torah, pp. 75-76.) points out that Abraham’s silence is consistent with any personal action he was called to do by God. Anything commanded by God, he will obey without question. Leave your land. Leave your birthplace. Leave your father’s house. Circumcise yourself. Even if he is commanded to sacrifice his beloved child, he will do it without question or argument. In the case of Sodom and Gomorroah, however, Abraham is not commanded to do anything. God shares the information with him in order to clear the way for Abraham to object. When it comes to commands, there is no room for discussion.
There was silence. Deafening silence. Where were the cries of the child who had struggled towards life? “What’s his name?” someone asked. I mutely shook my head, fearing that he would be snatched from us if I uttered his name aloud. The NICU team moved with calm determination in some sort of painstakingly exquisite dance. And all I kept thinking was “I am supposed to be planning a bris. I have to enter my son into the covenant. I am not supposed to be planning a funeral. O God, how can I plan his funeral?” The team continued their work and a few moments later, I heard the sweetest sound; the whimper of my son.
The cry is a basic non-verbal method of communication. It can also be the most raw and most real form of emotional expression, coming from our deepest, simplest, most human place. Not unlike the call of the shofar. According to Rabbi Shimon Felix (Executive Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel) , the shofar sound comes from a pre-verbal, deeper place, in our being. With the moan of the shofar we simplify, and strip down to essentials. According to the Midrash (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 31) , when Sarah learns what Abraham had done, she began to cry, and moan the sound of three wails, which correspond to the three blasts of the shofar, and her soul burst forth from her and she died. How fitting, then, that today is know in the Torah not as Rosh Hashanah (the beginning of the year), but as Yom T’ruah – the day of groaning or wailing.
I had been through this before, nearly seven years earlier when we brought our first son Beernut into the covenant on his 8th day. This time, it was different. As Dr. P. began the preliminary preparations, I tried to explain to my almost 7 year old son – in an age-appropriate fashion – what was about to happen to his little brother:
Today will be one of the most important days in your brother’s life – just as it was one of the most important days of your life. Today we will welcome Peach into the Jewish people the same way that God has commanded we welcome all of our sons since the time He spoke to Abraham. We do this because it is what God wants us to do.
There are few rituals that bind us so intrinsically to our ancient past. In a time when we feel far from hearing God’s voice, fulfilling the act of brit milah brings us that much closer to the Divine.
Just as Abraham prepared Isaac for sacrifice, I too rose early to prepare my son. Arising,
taking, hurrying, going. Dressing him in a gown prepared by his great-grandmother, and binding him, not with harsh leather bindings but with the silkiness of his wimple, Peach was ready to meet his God. Unlike Abraham, I knew with certainty that my son would not be physically harmed by God’s Call. I knew that our experience would transform him as a Jew and transform us as a family.
The events of Genesis, Chapter 22, have come to be known by the shorthand term, the Akedah, which means ‘binding.’ It comes from the verb form akad, meaning “to bind with thongs,” like verse 9, which reads: “Abraham bound his son Isaac.” A word not used elsewhere in the Torah but reserved for this unique narrative. How interesting that this was the term used to identify this scene. It just have easily could have been called the Sacrifice of Isaac, the Ordeal of Isaac, or the Deliverance of Isaac. Or, it could have been known as the Test of Abraham. And yet, the tradition of referring to this narrative as the Binding of Isaac is at once a brilliant and complex act of interpretation.
On the pshat, or simple, level, Abraham actually bound his son up on the altar, where he (Abraham) was actually prepared to sacrifice him. The binding refers to the leather strips with which Isaac was held still. It is impossible to imagine how a father could bind his son without the closeness of touch. There is a physical intimacy involved in the binding of another human being, an intimacy which we witness when we come in contact with this story.
The English word “binding” has numerous meanings which the Hebrew term “akedah” does not. The English allows for that which binds us to make our bonds. In being bound by his father, Isaac is bonded both with Abraham as well as the Israelite nation. Just as with circumcision, a new bond is forged between the baby and his parents as well as the baby and his community. What we did as a family, formally bound us together with our community and our heritage. What we did as a family, bound our son to God.
As he looked up at me with those beautiful blue eyes, I was overcome with waves of true love and devotion. Though he cannot yet speak, Peach is able to communicate volumes with his eyes. As he gazes at me, I see that he has utter trust in me. He knows that I will always care for him, feed him, clothe him, protect him, shield him from harm. That was the way he looked at me on his 8th day. Gazing up at me, Peach was saying, “I trust you with all of my being. I know that you would never let harm come my way.” Isaac too must have gazed up from the altar at his father in just the same way. With complete trust and utter devotion, knowing that his father would never allow harm to come to him. Akedat Yitzchak is thought to be a story of faith – Abraham’s faith in God. It is clear to me that we are to understand this story as one of Isaac’s faith in his father.
As I was preparing Peach, he began to whimper. Not from any pain, but because he was cold and a little uncomfortable being bound is his wimple. Reacting to his cry with “Here I am. Mommy’s here,” I was keenly aware that Abraham too responded to his son with the same phrase. Hineini b’ni – Here I am, my son.
According to the Brown, Driver, and Briggs lexicon, hineini is understood as a “response to a call, indicating the readiness of the person addressed to listen or obey.” It is the classic response of Biblical heroes, uttered by others such as Jacob during one of his dreams about God and Moses when God first addressed him through the Burning Bush.
Abraham does not wait for instructions. Rather, he shows his willingness to follow God’s command even before he know what God will ask of him. Hineini can be rendered to reflect this interpersonal relationship, as noted by Rabbi Norman Cohen, who teaches that hineini can be understood as “being ready to respond within the context of relationship, regardless of the nature of the request. Hineini can teach us about the very essence of relationship; about our relationships, not only with God, but with other human beings.”
Abraham uses this term in response to Isaac during their ascent up the mountain. He responds with the same word he used in response to God – hineini, here I am for You. We learn from this that when we respond to those we love, it is equally as important as responding to the Divine Call. And it does not matter what the request is to which we must respond. With Abraham, there is little that he can do for Isaac other than reassuring him of this constant presence.
In the stillness of the night, I am awakened for the umpteenth time by the cries of my son. Hineini b’ni – here I am for you, my son. For five months (five months this very day), I have staggered through my daily activities. Hineini b’ni – here I am for you, my son. I am blessed to have the opportunity to respond to his call. I have spoken often of the many opportunities I have had to respond to the calls of others as well as my own personal calling to do God’s Holy work. And as a parent, I do the same for a little one who has put his faith in me that his cries will not go unanswered.
May we learn to heed the calls of those who have put their faith in us and respond as quickly to them as we pray God responds to us on this Rosh HaShannah.
Keyn y’hi ratzon – May this be God’s Will!