Sholom, L’shanah tovah.
As the Rabbi said, on Rosh Hashanah our Torah reading is Genesis or in Hebrew, Beresheit, Chapter 22, called the Akedah or the Binding of Isaac.
It tells how God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice, as God says, ‘Your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac.’ And Abraham doesn’t object or in fact say a word; he just rises early the next morning, chops some wood, sharpens his knife, wakes Isaac and a couple of servants, and sets out. They travel for 3 days, then God points to a mountain, called Moriah, and Abraham and Isaac, alone, climb up, carrying the wood and the rope and the knife. They build an altar, Isaac is bound upon it, and when Abraham has the cleaver at Isaac’s throat, God intervenes and says, ‘Enough, you have proven your faith, and through this act and this child, you and all the world will be blessed.’ Now for those of you who come to services only on High Holydays, so this is maybe the only Torah you read or hear all year from year to year, I want to say that the whole torah isn’t like this, bleak and terrifying and desperately problematical. There’s lots in here that’s hopeful, lyrical, funny even, sexy even -- philosophically, spiritually a lot more compelling to progressive Park Slope Jewish sensibilities. So, check it out. But this is the story we’re given on Rosh Hashanah and I have the job year in year out to talk about it.
Hearing a story over and over is rare in our culture, in our time. When we recognize a joke or a story, or a TV show, we tend to think, ‘Oh, I’ve heard that before,’ and a certain tuning out takes place. We want new stories. Except with children. When my sons were little, I read them the same story over and over again. They insisted. Every night the same story. We had it memorized already, but still I had to read it, every word, and if I got one word wrong or left something out, they would have punched my stomach with their little fists. And every night they got scared in the scary parts as if they didn’t know it was going to come out ok. And they didn’t really, because they were still too little, too pre literate to be totally sure that a story in a book would always come out the same way. But each night they got a little surer, and that allowed them to be a little scareder in the middle. Only after many readings, and maybe even after learning to read and what a book really is, did they understand the inevitability that we take for granted. And, you know, something is lost in that learning. We all know how this story is going to come out. But imagine you didn’t.
Listen as if you never heard this before, as if you are hearing for the very first time. Like when you hear music you’ve listened to a thousand times, and the familiarity takes you deeper and deeper.
Can you listen so you hear this story where it comes from – our deepest, most primitive, atavistic, selves.
Can you hear it in your soul?
It’s an awe inspiring story, appalling really. Samuel Johnson said that the prospect of being hanged in the morning focuses the mind wonderfully. So perhaps, as we enter into days of awe, days of repentance, forgiveness, fear and trembling, this story is here to focus our minds wonderfully. Who among us will be sacrificed and who will perform the sacrifices? This story, if we hear it for all it is worth, makes us ask ourselves what we mean when we use words like faith and obedience and sacrifice. It may affirm us in our commitment to our visions. Or, especially in time of war, it may force us to question our right to use others for the ends we seek..
At any rate if we hear it for all it’s worth, the Akedah puts the knife to our throat.
This year my father died. Like Abraham he was very very old, and like Isaac I went home to bury him, not in the cave at Machpelah, but that’s another story.
My mother, however, lives on. She is 90 -- the very age Abraham’s wife, Sarah, was when she bore Isaac. My mother is not pregnant, thank God. What she is doing is living alone for the first time in her life, in her whole life. Like many in her generation she went straight from family to marriage and the marriage lasted 67 years. So now she is alone, unattached, living for the first time in a room of her own. And she loves it! We talk often now, my mother and I, and her renewed presence in my life makes me intensely aware of how absent Sarah is from the Akedah. Utterly absent. She isn’t even mentioned. And then she dies. The very next thing that happens after the Akedah is that Sarah dies. It just says, ‘And Sarah’s life was 127 years, the years of Sarah’s life. And Sarah died in Kiriath-arba which is in Hebron, in the land of Canaan.’
So what did Sarah know and when did she know it? Don’t you think she would have at least sensed something was up? Abraham is going off to kill his beloved son, his posterity, the descendants God told him would be as numerous as the stars. He doesn’t say a word, but is he so cool he can cover whatever he is feeling from this woman that he’s been married to for like 110 years? My father couldn’t hide much of anything from my mother, and I can’t from Lisa and we haven’t even been together twenty years. The Midrash say that Abraham either gets up so early that he and Isaac are gone before Sarah wakes up, or that he deceives her with a lie about taking Isaac off for some education. But they’re thin, very thin, And we’re left wondering, especially in our time, in our congregation, led by Ellen and Lisa. The midrashic tradition gives us power, as long as we stay within the limits of the text, to fill in the spare story, to look for what’s there in the white spaces between and within the words and letters. So now, Eddy Ehrlich is going to chant the Akedah, and for those who, as Ellen says, don’t yet understand Biblical Hebrew, I promise that Eddy’s chanting will make it as clear as if he were chanting in English. And while you listen and read along, give a thought to Sarah; where is she in all this?
Sunrise. Sarah is in bed. Awake. Sarah is 127 years old. Even in what passes for old age today, few sleep soundly through the night. Sarah hasn't had a good night's sleep in fifty years. Sarah is awake. Sarah feels Abraham creep out of bed in the dark. Sarah hears him
Hone his slaughter-knife,
Snap the leather bindings to make sure they're strong,
'What's he doing chopping wood at his age?' she wonders, ‘trying to kill himself? He's got servants for that.’ Then Sarah hears him wake two servant lads and Isaac And lead them into the wilderness
Sarah suspects, “God is up to something again. The last time Abe took all the men out, they came back limping and bleeding in the crotch. What more can God want?”
Sarah eyes open, She sees Isaac, Gentle respectful Isaac, Helping his ancient father
Down the road, Sarah thinks, “ this is some madness.” Now the sages of old say Sarah was a prophet. All right. A prophet sees with the senses. What does Sarah see?
“He’s got wood, rope, a cleaver… An altar. He’s going to build an altar. Light a fire, and Bind … what? No bull, no lamb, no birds …” Would he? … He would!” Sarah starts up to call after them … but she thinks better of it, "Save your breath, Stay alert. Lie still. Gather strength."
For three days, Sarah stays in bed Endures alone While father and son meander to Moriah which means 'seeing.' And Sarah sees. The Sages say that as Abraham and Isaac journey, perfect love, compassion, and complicity flow between Father and son. All right, But Sarah, All alone for three days, Knowing what she knows Seeing what she sees Shut out of that perfect bloody bubble. Sarah starts to die. She feels the angel of death freeze her toes, her feet, her thigh. But Sarah does not give in, her spirit won’t weaken. She even lets go her mighty haughty pride, And begs God, " A little longer … Let me live just a little longer …" Sarah sees Isaac, carrying his own funeral pyre. Sarah hears Isaac say, "Father" "Here I am, my son" "Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the offering?" Sarah sees that Isaac knows … Isaac is daring his father to tell the truth. Sarah hears "God will see to the lamb, My son." Sarah spits: " That man! Every truth he tells has a lie hidden inside." Sarah sees them climb to where the view is breathtaking. They stop to eat and drink some wine, and throw the wineskin over the edge. It takes a minute to land in the lake below. Sarah sees them build the altar, Sees gentle respectful Isaac, do most of the work. "Slow down, boy, slow down." Then Sarah sees Abraham seize Isaac. The young man's strength is no match for the old man's will. Then the binding, The blinding fire, The naked throat; The knife takes on a life of its own. Rising…rising…rising. Sarah gasps for air. The knife is falling… falling.
[SOFT/DEEP] "Avraham!" Sarah, lying far away 127 years old, near death, nearly deaf, Hears God's messenger call from Heaven. And now Sarah sees that God does not intend Isaac to die. Not now. Not here. Not on the mountain called Seeing. But Sarah also sees that Abraham doesn't get it … After more than a hundred years together, She knows his mind cold. Sarah hears him think, "That voice … not God's voice … Satan tempting me to veer off my path, Give in to sentiment, Like a light-minded woman, Like my Sarah would if she was here." And Sarah sees the knife descend again. 4 But now, she is ready. For three days Sarah has been hoarding her strength. Old ones lack stamina, but some can concentrate what they have on what they need. Now Sarah is mighty. Sarah's body fills with light Her lungs gasp for air.
[DRAWN OUT, HIGH VOICE, LIKE A SHOFAR] "Avraham!" Sarah's voice, From her deathbed, For the life of her son, For her destiny, and ours. Sarah's cry carries all the way to heaven, Passes through the throat of the angel/messenger, Then back down to Mt. Moriah. And Abraham freezes. Abraham listens to Sarah. Sarah is much tougher than Abraham. He stops, and Sarah sees. He turns; Spots the ram. Sarah sees Abraham cut Isaac's binding and the ram's throat and Come down from Mt. Moriah But with only the two servant lads. Sarah loses sight of Isaac. Now Sarah weeps. Moans, tears her hair, Sarah screams louder than when she was ninety years old, having a baby. Sarah weeps because she sees the future. Prophetess Sarah Sees that she has saved her Isaac. Her people will be countless as the stars. But Sarah sees the price. Sarah sees the endless suffering, The countless Akedahs. Sarah sees the obsessive visions of men Sacrificing her babies Through all time. Sarah weeps 100 sobs. One sob is joy at saving her son. The other 99 Are for all the future Akedahs Sarah sees And cannot prevent. Sarah sees, and Sarah dies. So when you hear the shofar blast open the gates of Heaven, Hear Sarah’s joy But listen also for a broken heart. Listen for Sarah weeping Weeping weeping For her children For you. © Arthur Strimling