Reflections on the Binding of Isaac

I made my way to Jewish services this afternoon, happy after a wonderful visit. I look around me, at the grassy hillside beside the road, at the wild flowers sprouting as the sun breaks through the last of the rain clouds. Even after all these years, there is always something new within this bounded familiar terrain. Always, in this season, approaching Rosh Hashannah, I try to remind myself of that, and remind myself that time, seemingly a burden, is my ally, in my own long journey toward teshuvah.

We will be reading the Torah portion on the story of the binding of Isaac, the traditional reading for Rosh Hashannah, about to arrive. It is a story I have hated, and identified with. It is a story of men and zealotry and the sacrifice of innocents, of old men sending young men to die in the name of their god. And then the murmured echo — a postscript, and afterthought, after Abraham’s lineages have been named, seemingly disconnected from the whole story, but how could it be: “Sarah died in Kiriath-arba…”

Why do we celebrate this story, giving it such significance that we begin our High Holy Days, reading it? How can we call Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son an act of faith? How can we believe that god would reward him? How can any twist and turn of this tale actually produce an acceptable interpretation?

I have heard many. That this story marks the end of the ancient practice of human sacrifice, and thus represents a break from a more primitive past. That God tests Abraham and he fails the test. That it is metaphor and shouldn’t be taken literally; it is, like so much of Torah, a mythological reflection on the human condition. That it is really a cautionary tale, warning against the human propensity for destructiveness in the name of God.

But none of this has worked for me. I am still left wondering, why do we celebrate this particular reading, set it off and begin our most high holy days with it? How can we redeem this narrative? Indeed, should we even try to?

But here I am, again, closing in on our new year, our high holy days, facing the challenge of this story and the ensuing journey toward Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement. Each year, as I approach this climb, I feel the weight of my load, my bundle of sticks, as great as ever.

But this year, I am caught by surprise. I had not planned to come to services because I was awaiting a visit. And, it is still two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, so I did not expect to read the binding of Isaac today. Moreover, we have a new, woman rabbi, bringing her own angle of vision. Perhaps because I am caught by surprise, I was not able to assemble my usual bundle of sticks: my history, my crime, my aching mother-heart, my hatred of the imperial wars our country has and is waging. I haven’t even had time to ask myself what I carry these days.

The first hint that this may be a new reading comes from where Rabbi Winnig begins the story: not with Abraham, but with Sarah. Sarah was barren for most of her life and then, long after her menopause; she is blessed with a baby. We discuss how this phenomenon crops up several times in the Torah: with Rachel and Rebecca, as well as Sarah, and we explore what this might mean to us.

Then we go on to read aloud Genesis 22. And we are on that dreadful climb. The first three days take but a sentence. They get to the mount, where Abraham leaves his servants, promising that he and the boy will return. Is this a lie? Or his faith and hope? Now it is the two of them and Isaac calls to him, “Father.” And Abraham answers tenderly, “Yes, my son.” How can he love him so and yet keep going? Then Isaac asks, “but where is the sheep?” and Abraham answers, “God will see to the sheep for his burnt offering, my son.” Again, that tender phrase, and yet he continues.

Now they are at the appointed place, and time has slowed to an excruciating pace. Each step of the ritual is tolled, horrid detail etched so vividly: the firewood, the binding, and then the raised knife. Finally, finally, finally, the voice of the angel halts the impending slaughter.

As we finish the chapter, my mind travels back to the earlier interchange between father and son, walking together. Imagining Abraham, his breath caught in his heart, taking one step in front of the other, I think about one of the nursery mothers.

There is a nursery program in this prison, which enables some women who give birth during their incarceration to live with their babies for a year. This mother’s newborn son has been in the outside hospital, in critical condition, for the last two weeks. Each day since the baby was rushed to the hospital, the mother and I sit and talk. She talks and I listen. Each day, she hopes to go out to see her baby and on the days she gets out, she comes back and tells me about her visit. Some days, the news is hopeful and other days, bleak. Some times she weeps and some times, she wonders. But always, she stays focused on her baby and her conviction that eventually, somehow, she will be caring for her baby again, no matter what her condition turns out to be.

Often, I wonder how she can hold it together. I watch her, walking painstakingly through each day, keeping to all the prison’s schedules and demands, asking little of anyone, beyond getting back out to her baby as often as possible. She too, like Abraham, was concentrating, taking one step after the other, holding on to a faith that if she did so, something good would happen, for her and her baby.

And this image brought me back to Abraham. For the first time, I saw him and the nature of his faith in a new light. Perhaps he never intended to sacrifice his son. Perhaps his faith lay in a God that would not allow such a sacrifice. Rather, his faith commanded him to keep walking, one step in front on the other, focused on his belief that indeed, as he told Isaac, God would provide the sheep and that he and his son would return to his servants at the bottom of the hill. Perhaps Abraham was not lying, but walking in faith, walking through his fears and his questions, walking slowly up the mountain, one step in front of the other, holding on to his belief that something would change the dreaded outcome.

Perhaps now, after so many years of railing against this story I am able to receive it in a different light. Perhaps it is not about a violent man and a violent faith. Perhaps the reason that Abraham doesn’t argue with God in this instance, as he did in the earlier story of Sodom and Gomorrah, is because here he is not so much Abraham the patriarch, but Abraham the father: his heart both open and vulnerable. Perhaps I too can approach my challenges, my fears of what the future holds, with enough faith to just keep climbing, one step in front of the other, faithful and hopeful of what lies at the other end.

15 September 2005