“I was so excited when Dad told me that we were going camping! A lot of years have passed since then, when I was a teenager, but I can still remember, how thrilled I was the day he told me. There would be no distractions. None of his endless meetings. Just three days of him and me.
“My Dad was a macher. You know him. Abraham. Father of the Jewish people. Talked to God. Name known to all the nations of the world. But I didn’t care about any of that. He was my dad, and like so many kids I just wanted to matter to him. Me, I’m his son, his favored son, the one he said he loved, Isaac. And I was looking forward to spending some time with my Dad.
“Dad, of course, was his usual driven self, caught up in his work until the last minute. Still talking incessantly about Adonai – Adonoy, as we called God back then. I used to joke that Adonoy was a fitting name, because it described perfectly how ‘annoyed’ Dad would get if I ever interrupted him while he worked.
“Dad had me so late in life; maybe that’s why we just didn’t click. Or maybe it was something else. He used to have a concubine, Hagar, They had a child together, my half brother Ishmael. I heard that when my mom Sarah finally became pregnant with me, everything became tense at home. Instead of trying to work things through, Dad sent Hagar and Ishmael away. You would think that a guy who spent so much time creating relationships with Adonai would be able to work it out in his own family but it doesn’t always turn out that way.
“When I would get frustrated about my relationship with Dad, my mom Sarah would try to calm me, explaining that he had so much work to do, that he was driven to succeed. Most men, she explained, found their sense of identity and self-worth through their work. Back then, I thought he just used work to avoid me because he did not know how to deal with me, or show emotion or talk about personal stuff.
“Anyway, Dad finally focused on our trip. He woke early. He saddled the donkey himself. He even gathered all the firewood and tools we would need for our wilderness hike. It was so out of character for him. We had servants to take care of the preparations. One relative Rashi commented later that for a wealthy man to engage in such menial tasks meant that he was filled with anticipation. My distant cousin thought it meant he was ready for the task ahead. I just hoped it meant that my father wanted to spend time with me.
“We set out pretty early. When my mother Sarah did not come to see us off, I knew that something was up. To this day, I am not sure if Mom knew then about what Dad was planning or if she just found out later. Whichever the case, Mom died before we returned. A relative once commented that perhaps Mom died of a broken heart, after hearing what Dad almost did to me. I think this was half right. Sarah probably did die of a broken heart, but broken because after years of working as Abraham’s partner, he made a major decision about the family, and never even talked with her about it. If she hadn’t died, I wonder how this would have affected their marriage.
“Then Dad told me that we would be offering a sacrifice to Adonai. I couldn’t contain my excitement. My first sacrifice to the Holy One! A shehecheyanu moment, if there ever was one. Dad never let me participate before. It used to make me so upset. Everyone else had a role in the sacrifices, and I was his son. Wasn’t I good enough to help him?
“My wife Rebecca tried to make me understand that many fathers have difficulty balancing career and family. Now that I’m a parent, I understand the challenge. Back then, it just made me doubt myself, made me feel like I wasn’t good enough for him. Years later I wondered if, maybe I’d have been a better father and husband myself if I could have learned how from my own dad.
“Well, we prepared to ascend the mountain. Dad told the two servants to remain below with the donkeys. I was thrilled. It would finally be just us alone! He piled the wood on my back. It was really heavy, but having the chance to be at my dad’s side lightened the burden and I carried it without complaint.
“I kept a journal of the trip. V’yeilchu sheneihem yachdav, I wrote. And the two of them – well, us – walked on together. I tried to engage Dad in conversation on the way up Mt. Moriah. I asked him questions about what we would do first. I even made jokes, saying this was the first Jewish Survivor Game. But he ignored me. Then, looking around for the animal we would sacrifice, I said, “Dad?” “Yes, my son,” he answered distantly. “Dad, here is the wood, and the knife,” I asked. “But where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” At first he was silent; his eyes were distant. Then he said cryptically, “God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering, my son.” Those were the only words we spoke as we walked up the mountain. I wrote again in my journal. V’yeilchu sheneihem yachdav, The two of them – us – walked on together.
“When I let my wife Rebecca read my journal, she laughed at how ironic it was. ‘V’yeilchu sheneihem yachdav? You two walked together? These words make it seem like you and Abraham were so close that words were unnecessary when the two of you were together. But, as you have told me time and again, the two of you were rarely together. When he was there, he either ignored you or was overly critical. Or else he was away, selling people on the One True God. And you were left alone, angry and hurting.'”
“You know, Rebecca was right. Dad may have dreamed about having a son to carry on the family business. But once I was born, he really wasn’t there for me. He didn’t know how to accept me for who I was. He didn’t know how to listen. All those times that I needed him; he was just too busy. Why did I feel like I had to compete for his attention?
“How can I explain to you what really happened on the mountain? It was so intense, that my memories are jumbled. Dad built the altar himself; as usual he would not let me help. He laid out the wood. I was exhausted from the hike up. He wrapped me up in the blanket, laid me down. I could sense that he was going through with the sacrifice without my help. I dozed fitfully.
“Once again, nothing between my Dad and me was turning out as I had hoped. I felt straitjacketed, like Abraham’s inability to reach out to me was tying me up, holding me down. His silence, that interminable silence, could have sliced through my heart like a knife.
“Had my brother Ishmael been there, they might have yelled at each other. I imagine they would have had it out there and then. But some good would have done. Though Dad and Ishmael did yell a lot, it never resolved their problems.
“I vaguely recall Dad mumbling something, ‘Henini – here I am.’ Maybe he was trying to reach out to me. But it was just too late. I had hoped that this trip would change things. But it was just more of the same. Dad was supposed to bring me up to introduce me to God. We were going to sacrifice a lamb together. Instead, Abraham did it alone. Instead, again my dad sacrificed me.
Maybe, my wife Rebecca thought, Abraham really didn’t mean to hurt me. Maybe he was just trying to do what he thought dads were supposed to do – be the breadwinner and be strong. All I remember is that it hurt so much, that I had to break it off. You know, he called that place Adonai-yireh, meaning on the mount of Adonai, there is vision. Yeah, that day my vision crystal-clear: it was over. My relationship with my Dad had to end there and then.
“After that trip, Dad was lauded world-wide for his unswerving faith in God and for ending the practice of child sacrifice. His name became a blessing. And thanks to the abundant fertility of my son Jacob – his grandson – Abraham’s descendents were as numerous as the stars in the heavens and the sands on shores of the sea.
“That day Abraham returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beer-sheva. I left separately. I never talked to Dad after that. I was not with him again until Ishmael and I laid his bones to rest at his funeral. I suppose his memory is for a blessing.
What is it about fathers and sons, about parents and children, sisters and brothers that can be so painful, so volatile?
Why is our Biblical text – the mirror to our souls – so littered with the remnants of once close relationships now destroyed?
Noah and his sons built an ark to replenish a new world cleansed of violence. Forty days later, with the world depending on their actions, Noah got drunk, enraged, cursed his sons, and brought hatred back into the world.
Our poet-King David, who possessed an extraordinary ability to unite all the tribes into a single kingdom of Israel, could not work such wonders within his own family. His family life was filled with accusations of manipulation and betrayal.
I think we pass it down l’dor vador, from generation to generation. Isaac’s own son Jacob, so desperate for his father’s approval and love, and jealous of his father’s relationship with his twin brother Esau, took sibling rivalry to new heights. He stole his brother’s birthright inheritance, then fled Esau’s anger for forty years, never fully reconciling with his brother or his own guilt.
Later, as a father, Jacob also played favorites by giving his beloved son Joseph that techni-colored dream coat. And then young Joseph was sold off into slavery. Like his father and grandfather before him, Jacob failed to see the bitter jealousy and hatred that raged within his family.
Noted psychologists recognize that it is the nature of male familial relationships to be competitive and/or volatile. Of course, such tensions appear in all kinds of family relationships – among men, among women and between them both. None of us are immune.
Are your relationships strained with some members of your family? How do you get along with your brother or sister? Do you have relatives who can’t stand being in the same room with each other? “I am not coming for Thanksgiving if she is.” “We are NOT inviting him to the Bar Mitzvah.” Whether the split was over business, family loyalty or different priorities, how many can count broken relationships in your families? Arguments break out again after Dad dies, or when you begin to divide up Mom’s heirlooms. It happens among friends too. “No, we don’t talk to him anymore.”
Sometimes there is real abuse – physical, emotional, sexual – and in such cases, relationships may need to be broken off as the beginning of personal healing. Nonetheless, these are the exception, rather than the rule.
It is amazing how it seems easier to hurt each other, than to touch each other’s hearts and souls. We sustain ourselves on an alphabet of hurts and slights, real or imagined. Is it any wonder that our world, filled with such passionate, contentious people like you and me, is so marred by hatred, violence and war? Why should it be so hard to understand why boys build bombs, why companies destroy smaller ones, or why governments cause such harm to their own citizens and those of other countries? What happened to the utopian dream of one family descended from Adam and Eve? Or the renewed world, cleansed by the flood, freed from its hateful ways? This Earth is a mess, and I suggest that it is so in part because our relationships are in such disarray.
Did anyone see that film called Sliding Doors? It follows one woman, Gwyneth Paltrow, and explores how her life might have changed had she actually caught that 10 am train. Look back at all the times in your life when there was a fork in the road ahead. Some sort of decision had to be made, and, for better or worse, it irrevocably altered the course of your existence. From time-to-time, everyone thinks about the roads not taken, and how things might have turned out differently if the choices had been different. Perhaps even more amazing to contemplate is how a seemingly minor action – in the movie, catching the 10 am train – could have an equally profound, yet less obvious, impact.
Since we are so close to Hollywood, let’s imagine, “what if.…” What might have happened if a seemingly minor change occurred in the lives of Abraham and Isaac?
What if Abraham had stopped to ask Sarah for her input before he set out on this dangerous path? Had he listened to her advice, might she have urged him to rethink what he was about to do?
What if Abraham made more time for Isaac, played ball, took walks, asked him more questions and actually listened to his answers? What if Abraham skipped or rescheduled a sales meeting every once in a while? It may not have affected the success of Abraham’s work, but it just might have drastically changed his relationship with his son Isaac.
What if the family sat down to eat dinner at the same time in the same room more than once a week? If people talked to each other, instead of at each other? If they accepted one another, complete with foibles and failures?
What if, Abraham and Isaac, tired of the disconnect, made repairing their relationship a priority? Two people willing to listen. Each prepared to confront lovingly; to apologize unconditionally. To forgive and let go. Both understanding that the cycle of pain, passed down l’dor vador, from generation to generation, can only be broken with forgiveness and love.
What if…? Perhaps then v’yeilchu sheneihem yachdav. The two of them truly might have walked on together.
I cannot tell you how to end the wars in this world, though I tire of its violence. I cannot offer the plan that will heal the rift between Israelis and Palestinians, two embattled siblings, though I mourn its losses. But I can urge you, even help you, to heal the broken relationships in your own family, and perhaps that is a start. Because if fathers and sons, and brothers and sisters, and relatives of all kinds can learn forgiveness, and to apologize fully, perhaps we will begin to raise a generation of children satisfied enough with their healthy relationships that they will not feel the need to lash out at others and take what others have.
Of course, life is different than the movies. We cannot so easily rewrite our lives. But we can pause and make changes.
Begin to clean up your relationships; start to let go of your anger and hurt. Offer forgiveness as appropriate. Apologize where possible. Make love, not war. Then yes, perhaps when they write the story of our lives, it will really be true when they write, v’yeilchu sheneihem yachdav. All of us really walked on together.