I pretty much gave up on LJ when it got taken over by spam, but a number of people have asked me to send them this dvar and posting it here is a convenient way to do so. I gave the Second Day Rosh Hashanah Dvar at Congregation Ahavas Achim in Keene, NH. Here it is:
Shanah Tovah. The text we are about to read is a story both deeply disturbing and terrifyingly familiar. It’s the story of the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac. You all remember it, I’m sure. Even if we didn’t read it every year at this time we would remember it. It is a tale of such intimate, familial horror that even one telling sears its terror permanently on our memories.
So to review: What happens? G-d decides to test Abraham, our forefather. He tells him to take his son, Isaac, to Mount Moriah and to kill him there and burn him as a sacrifice. And Abraham says yes. He walks for three days with Isaac bringing with him two servants and all the materials he needs to slaughter his beloved son and burn his body. When they get to the mountain in question, the servants are left behind and Abraham ascends with Isaac, giving Isaac the firewood to carry up the mountain. The boy, puzzled, asks why they have everything they need for a sacrifice but no sacrificial animal. His father replies in one of the most chilling lines of the Torah, given what we the readers know that the innocent child questioning does not: "And Abraham said: 'God will provide Himself the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.' So they went both of them together."
They get to the top of the mountain and the father constructs an altar, and binds his son to it. He takes a knife and is all set to kill the boy when an angel stops him and a ram is substituted. Abraham is told that he has passed the test, that his name shall forever be blessed because of his willingness to kill the child he loved at G-d’s command.
What are we to do with this story? How to understand a G-d that would put an innocent child through this ordeal? Throughout these Yomim Noraim as we search our souls and try to be better, more ethical people, we pray to a G-d of Justice and Compassion. Is the G-d of the Akedah a G-d of justice and compassion? Commanding this horrific act just to see if Abraham would do it? This is not a G-d of justice or compassion. This is a G-d of I double dog dare you.
And what of Abraham? Abraham is someone who cares about people – that’s his defining characteristic. He is our model for Hachnasat Orchim – the great virtue of hospitality – in the way he welcomes guests into his tent. He is our model for standing up for justice and mercy – even to G-d. When G-d proposes to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah, Abraham argues with him and tries to save the lives of the innocent people he is sure are there. But he won’t even try to save the life of his own child? For three long days he walks, taking his beloved son to his doom, and never wavers along the way, never asks G-d to spare Isaac? What kind of father is that? What kind of man can Isaac grow to be, knowing that his father was willing to kill him without question, without hesitation? How can we see Abraham’s actions as praiseworthy, as worthy of the reward he is given? As I said at the outset, I find this a deeply disturbing story.
It’s not just disturbing to us, as modern people. Our sages were bothered by it, too. The often accepted midrash says that Isaac was 37 at the time of the Akedah, that he was a mature and willing participant in the whole process, that father and son jointly chose to follow G-d’s commandment, horrific as it was. This kind of apologetics made the story more palatable to our sages.
A more modern interpretation is one that says that Abraham failed the test, that what G-d wanted was for him to conclude that human sacrifice is wrong, to object and refuse. In this interpretation it is only after giving him plenty of time to come to that conclusion and right at the moment where he is about to make a mistake that can’t be undone that G-d stops Abraham’s hand. By this line of reasoning, the purpose of the story was to forcefully make the point that G-d does not want child sacrifice, a point made explicitly in commandments later in the Tanakh where we are forbidden six times to sacrifice our children.
Neither of these interpretations works for me, makes the story less disturbing to my heart. The conceit of Isaac being a mature man is a clever way to give him agency, but it specifically contradicts the text of the story. The angel who stops Abraham says (Read verse 12, Hebrew and English). The word Naar specifically means a young boy, not a grown man. And the whole tenor of the story, with Isaac’s innocent question about where they will find an animal to sacrifice, shows him as an obedient and pliant child who has no idea what’s in store.
And the idea that Abraham failed the test, although very much in accordance with modern sensibilities, is again directly contradicted by the text itself which explicitly states that the blessings to come to him and his descendants – us – are because he said “yes.”
So is there some other way to make sense of this story? I think so. I’ve gotten some ideas on how to understand it in a new light by reading a book by Steven Pinker. He’s a professor of psychology at Harvard and the book is called The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker starts with the perhaps surprising assertion that we are now living in the least violent time in all of human history. I say this may be surprising to you – as it was to me – because we think of ourselves as living in violent times. But, as Pinker points out, part of why we think that is that we are very aware of violence because of modern means of communication which show us murder and war and all manner of violence but typically don’t show us lots of people dying peacefully in their beds surrounded by loving family. And part of why we think of our time as particularly violent is that we don’t really have a basis of comparison, we don’t have a clear picture of how prone people in other times were to killing one another. So Pinker provides that basis of comparison with copious research and statistics and compelling evidence that the rate of homicide – the number of people killed by other people per 100,000 alive – dramatically declined worldwide so that the twentieth century – even with the Holocaust and other genocides and two world wars, was the least violent century in recorded history.
Why did this happen? Well, I definitely recommend reading the book to get some ideas from a variety of historians, philosophers and psychologists, as well as Pinker’s own views. There isn’t time now to summarize them all. But one really salient point I want to mention – to bring us back to the Akedah – is that whole categories of homicide that were common throughout much of human history are extinct or nearly extinct now. And one is human sacrifice. Civilizations all over the world and throughout much of human history have tried to appease what they thought to be a vengeful god through killing some of their own people, often in excruciating rites of slow torture. Eventually, all civilizations stopped this practice. Our ancestors ceased human sacrifice long before the peoples all around them. Six times in the Tanakh, as I mentioned, we are told that human sacrifice is forbidden. Generally practices are forbidden – and particularly forbidden numerous times – because they were happening. There’s no need to forbid people from doing something they weren’t doing and weren’t thinking of doing. But living among those who thought that sacrificing a child could guarantee a good harvest or freedom from natural disaster, our ancestors needed to be reminded that the practice would not please G-d and was forbidden.
So if we look at the Akedah as sacred myth rather than a story about trauma in an actual family, we can see it as a foundation for the prohibition on human sacrifice, as an etiological myth designed to convince our ancestors that they must not do what their neighbors were doing. The Akedah then has a purpose for a people that was giving up this horrific practice at a time when others were not. It says that even if you think G-d is telling you to sacrifice your child, don’t do it. G-d would never really want that, as G-d didn’t want it from Abraham and stopped him just in time.
That way of looking at the story makes me feel more comfortable with it in historical context. On the other hand, it doesn’t really give me a life lesson to take from it. After all, I don’t live in a society where I might be tempted to keep up with the Joneses by slaughtering my first born. So going beyond the historical explanation, how can we adapt or even reconstruct this story to have meaning for us in 21st century America? What can we learn from a dramatic story intended to stop us from sacrificing our children?
I’ve been musing over that, as a parent and as a community member. Our people gave up murdering our children long ago, and that’s a good thing. But what do we sacrifice our children to now? Do we sacrifice them to our own vanity, trying to get them to achieve in ways that we feel bring credit to us, rather than supporting them in finding their own path to achievement? Do we sacrifice them to our desire for their constant approval, and thereby not giving them the structure and discipline they need to function as ethical people in the world? Do we sacrifice them to our busy-ness and our own needs, over-involved in our work and social lives and not giving our children the time and attention they deserve and need? Do we sacrifice them to secularism, not providing them with the rich culture and religious tradition they are heir to, because we don’t want them to stand out as different? Do we sacrifice them to insularity, not giving them the exposure to other cultures and traditions that they need to live in a pluralistic society? I know I’ve felt the impulse to make all of those sacrifices and more at one time or another.
Let’s all try to learn from this story and take it as a reminder not to sacrifice our children, in any of those metaphorical senses. As you listen to the reading, notice that in the end of the story, Abraham and Isaac aren’t together. Abraham walks down the mountain and leaves with his servants, but we don’t know where Isaac goes. We never see any interaction between father and son again until Isaac and his brother Ishmael bury their father. Sacrificing our children – even if they survive – has far reaching consequences.
Let’s be the parents and grandparents and community members who reject the sacrifice of our community’s children, in the hope that our children will walk down the mountain with us, together.