A Jewish prayer finding strength in the responses of our ancestors to the trials in their lives. Specially written for during the Covid-19 outbreak
Midrashic Monologue: Did you ever wonder what Abraham thought about in the years following his “almost-sacrifice” of his son Isaac? Based on Parashat Vayeira and the Akeidah, we imagine Abraham’s inner struggles.
What are Isaac's thoughts on the Akedah, when his dad almost sacrificed him? A first person perspective about sons and fathers.
Each Rosh Hashanah, we read the horrid tale of the Akedah (Genesis 22), the almost sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Commentators throughout the ages characterize this story as an example of the heights of faith. Abraham loved God so much he was willing to give up the child he waited so long to bear.
But in as much as this might have been a test of Abraham, I read the story as a clear indication that Abraham failed the test.
Consider this: Did God really command Abraham to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering? Read closely. According to one commentary, Midrash Tanhuma, it all hinges on one word – olah. In the Torah, God said to Abraham v’haaleihu sham l’olah, bring up Isaac as an olah. The Hebrew word olah, comes from the root Ayin-Lamed-Hey, meaning, “to rise up.”
Must olah here mean, “sacrifice,” as in the smoke of the sacrifice rises up? Or might it be connected rather to a more familiar word aliyah, also from the Hebrew root Ayin-Lamed-Hey, meaning “spiritual uplift?” In this reading, God only said, “raise up your son with an appreciation of your devotion to Me.” Perhaps Abraham was so dazzled to be speaking to God that he became confused. What if he misunderstood God’s intended purpose?
Rashi, the greatest Biblical commentator of all time, also hangs his interpretation on the same word. He explains (on Genesis 22:2), perhaps God was saying, “When I said to you ‘Take your son’… I did not say to you, sh’chateihu, ‘slaughter him,’ but only ha’aleihu, ‘bring him up.’ Now that you have brought him up, introduce him to Me, and then take him back down.” Instead of wanting Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God really only wanted him to spend some spiritual “quality time” with his son. Had Abraham only paid close attention, he might have spared himself, Isaac, and Sarah a significant amount of stress and pain.
But in a strange twist, the angel of God who stopped Abraham from killing his son responds with love, not rebuke. God praised Abraham. Why would God praise him if Abraham misunderstood the command? Perhaps God, through the angel, reaffirms to Abraham how much God loves him, but also signals that Abraham and his followers should no longer employ cruel or intimidating means to show their love for God.
This need not, however, be understood as condoning Abraham’s actions. Rather, the angel’s words remind me of that parent who walked into his freshly painted house. Dad is greeted at the door by his young son who, with a big smile on his face, says, “Daddy, come see how much I love you.” The boy brings his father into the next room and proceeds to proudly show him a picture drawn in magic marker on the living room wall. It was a red heart, inside of which were the words, “Daddy, I love you.” How does a parent respond to such a display of love, especially after spending thousands of dollars to paint the house just right? Most of us would yell, and yell loudly. But if we stopped first to think about it, we might say, with tears in our eyes, “I love you too, my son. Try to use paper next time. And you may not write on the walls. But, I love you too!” Similarly, through the words of the angel, God, the patient One, who cherishes Abraham, teaches love and forgiveness as an example for future generations.
Now consider this… Prior to the Akedah, each encounter between God and Abraham occurs in direct one-on-one conversations. But from this point on, God never again speaks to Abraham directly. All further communication is passed through an angel. Why? Because Abraham simultaneously passed and failed the test. He showed his love of God, yes, but he employed violent means to pursue that love. The use of an intermediary – the angel – proclaims a message for future generations: Abraham really didn’t listen to God’s teachings of compassion, did he?
|Adults study Torah commentaries in Mishpacha Family Learning|
While studying about Sarah’s laughter in response to God’s announcement of her imminent pregnancy, I came across this gem from Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker. The adults in our Mishpacha Family Alternative Learning program, who explored commentaries from Rashi, Onkelos, and The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, agreed that this was by far the best interpretation. Rabbi Dunsker, a 21st Century Rabbi in Washington State, wrote this first for the URJ Ten Minutes of Torah commentary on Vayeira. Rabbi Dunsker teaches:
As I read this though, Sarah’s laughter seems just as joyful and faithful as Abraham’s. What I see in these two moments is that God gave each of them the news in a way that they could each enjoy it alone. This child will be a gift to both Abraham and Sarah, they will conceive and raise him together, yet they still each must process this information personally and privately.
Abraham was alone with God and had the freedom to fall down and laugh out loud, but Sarah’s experience was different. She overheard a conversation (that it seems she was meant to overhear) in which this information was revealed, and so she laughed in her own way. Inwardly, quietly, to herself, or at herself—it doesn’t much matter to me which of these ways she laughed, just that she laughed. She laughed for the joy of receiving the blessing of a child after being denied for so long. She laughed at the miracle this birth would be. She laughed at the idea of the sexual experience she would enjoy with her husband conceiving this child. And she laughed at her poor old body experiencing pregnancy so late in the game.
As many people do when they are caught doing something, Sarah denies it. I imagine Sarah denying her laughter while at the same time struggling to wipe the smile off her face, perhaps even snorting a little from the effort. But that lie brings her a reward. It brings her a direct communication from God. I imagine God trying to hide a smile as well when calling her on the lie, the way a parent does when he or she catches a young child in a small lie or a moment of absurdity. If God were truly angry with Sarah, this prophecy may have been rescinded or she would have been punished in some way. It seems to me that God rejoices at her laughter and rewards her with more as we read in Genesis 21:6 – Sarah says, “God has brought me laughter; all who hear will laugh with me.” Of course Isaac (Yitzchak) is named for all this joy that he brings.
I just love it when new perspectives bring forth poignant lessons from Torah. As Ben Bag Bag said (I paraphrase), when we keep looking at Torah from different angles and different perspectives, we discover even greater depths of wisdom than we ever imagined.