Hi friends. It’s…been a while. That 40th shabbat is long come and gone. In fact, 38 shabbats from this Friday ought to be, if all goes smoothly, my first as a rabbi. The final year of school is well underway. I’m juggling class and jobs and my podcast and life in a new neighborhood in Philly.
Here’s what I’m thinking: I’d still like to write this year. I find writing helpful to my well-being, and some of y’all enjoy reading what I post! So I’m planning on picking the blog back up. This year’s posts won’t be as exciting as last year’s, I imagine, but if the goings-on of an American Rabbinical Student in America interest you, do read on.
My goal is to post once a week, counting “down” from 38 to ordination. Realistically, I’ll miss some weeks. But it’s good to have goals, and the new year of 5778 seems like a good time to make them.
I may at some point write about last summer, but, in the meantime, I’m happy to focus on the present, and that means sharing with y’all the Rosh Hashanah d’var torah (sermon) I offered in Woodstock, NY (where I’ll be interning this year). On the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah, it’s traditional to read the Binding of Isaac, the episode in Genesis 22 where Abraham, on God’s command, almost sacrifices his son. There is so much to say about these verses, but the wonderful rabbi I’m working with this year helpfully advised: “Just focus on one thing.” I took that to heart and settled in on one angle of interpretation. We read this passage every year, so I anticipate being able to pick out many more angles throughout my career.
I don’t usually write my divrei torah word for word, but I was nervous that I would get nervous and babble on the bima, so for this d’var I made an exception. Without further ado, here is:
Abraham, Isaac, and the Inheritance of Wrestling
וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם יַחְדָּֽו׃
וַיָּבֹ֗אוּ אֶֽל־הַמָּקוֹם֮ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָֽמַר־ל֣וֹ הָאֱלֹהִים֒ וַיִּ֨בֶן שָׁ֤ם אַבְרָהָם֙ אֶת־הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חַ וַֽיַּעֲרֹ֖ךְ אֶת־הָעֵצִ֑ים וַֽיַּעֲקֹד֙ אֶת־יִצְחָ֣ק בְּנ֔וֹ וַיָּ֤שֶׂם אֹתוֹ֙ עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חַ מִמַּ֖עַל לָעֵצִֽים׃
וַיִּשְׁלַ֤ח אַבְרָהָם֙ אֶת־יָד֔וֹ וַיִּקַּ֖ח אֶת־הַֽמַּאֲכֶ֑לֶת לִשְׁחֹ֖ט אֶת־בְּנֽוֹ׃
And the two of them walked on together. They arrived at the place of which God had told him. Abraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. And Abraham sent out his hand and took up the knife to slay his son.
If you aren’t deeply uncomfortable right now, you aren’t listening. It doesn’t matter that we know how this story ends, that we can look down a few verses and see Isaac emerge from this encounter without physical blemish, that we can read a few chapters later and see Isaac marry and have children of his own, live a long life and die an old man.
None of that changes these verses. Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son, and thousands of years later we live with his choice.
For those of us who grew up steeped in stories from the Torah, our early experiences with this story may have been much like our early experiences with the narrative of Noah– a survivor of a tragedy whose trauma we initially learned through peppy songs about animals. My first exposure to the story of the akeda, to the binding of Isaac, did not include a song, but the horror was swept under the rug all the same with the arrival of the ram. “See,” my earliest teachers told me, “Isaac was ok. Abraham proved that he loved God more than anything, so he didn’t have to harm his son.” As a child, I took such words at face value. I didn’t think of Abraham as a bad man, or even as a good man who made a bad choice. Abraham obeyed God, and that was right.
But, then I grew up, and I looked at the story of Abraham and Isaac with increasing upset. How could the patriarch whom I’d been told my whole life was this amazing man be willing to take on such an act? How could he deliver his son almost to the point of death and then not even apologize?
We know how much Abraham and Sarah wanted this son. They wanted a child so much that Sarah forced her servant, Hagar, to be a concubine so that Abraham might have a child even if it could not be her own. Isaac was deeply desired, and we experienced Abraham and Sarah’s joy in yesterday’s Torah portion as he was at last delivered.
But Isaac the child, as a character, scarcely exists. We know that he was born, that he was circumcised, that a feast was held when he was weaned. But the boy never spoke. We are given no indication as to whether he was bright or creative or athletic, whether he was obedient or rebellious, whether he had friends or was a loner.
The first time Isaac acts in Torah, it is to go with his father to Mt. Moriah, the site of his near sacrifice. The second time he acts, it is to carry the wood and walk together with his father to the top of the mountain. The first and only time he speaks to Abraham, it is to take note of the wood and the flint and knife and ask, as any child accustomed to animal sacrifices might, “But where is the lamb for the offering?”
אֱלֹהִ֞ים יִרְאֶה־לּ֥וֹ הַשֶּׂ֛ה לְעֹלָ֖ה בְּנִ֑י “God will see to the lamb for the offering, my son,” Abraham replies.
The French medieval commentator known as the RaDaK tells us that Abraham’s answer is open to two interpretations. In the first, Abraham says that God will provide a lamb for offering, my son. In the second, Abraham says that God will provide the lamb for the offering: my son. At that moment, he tells Isaac that he is to be the sacrificial offering.
We know what happens next. We’re left with relief, of course. Isaac lives. He disappears for a few chapters and comes back into the Torah as an adult ready to meet his wife Rebecca. But Abraham and Isaac never speak again. Isaac’s next and only remaining interaction with his father is Abraham’s burial, when Isaac and his half-brother Ishmael reunite to do their duty as their father’s sons.
On these holiest of days in the Jewish Calendar, we speak of teshuvah- returning to the best versions of ourselves by reflecting upon the past, having tough conversations both internally and externally, and committing to do better in the future. Abraham never made teshuvah — never made atonement– with Isaac.
When Abraham died he left all that was his to Isaac, and Isaac passed it along to his sons, and Jacob passed it along to his sons, and it came down the generations, proverbial or literal, to our own families.
Abraham left a blessing to Isaac, and some amount of wealth, but that’s not the inheritance I’m speaking of. Rather, I’m speaking of the inheritance that remained unnamed for a generation: the inheritance of wrestling. When we don’t make teshuva, we are left with wrestling. We are left rerunning the same moments again and again, grasping at them with sweaty, tiring hands that can’t get a proper grip. We are pinned by our loose ends.
There are many stories about where Isaac went between his near sacrifice and his meeting Rebecca. Some rabbis believe that he spent his young adulthood learning in a great yeshiva. Others believe that he reunited with his brother Ishmael. Still others believe that he accompanied his father home and remained with him. We don’t know, and whatever midrash we have written to fill in the gaps, it is all speculation. From Torah, we know only that Abraham and Isaac never spoke of the incident. Abraham died without making teshuvah, leaving Isaac wrestling with his father’s decisions, with Abraham’s answer to the one question Isaac posed: “Where is the lamb for the offering?” Did Abraham, in his only codified words to his beloved son, lie to him or alert him to his impending end? And how could he have done either of these things? In dying before offering a proper answer to these questions, Abraham flung his son and all who came after him to the mat with no referee to call time.
It seems little wonder that when Isaac had his own children, Jacob and Esau, they were twins who wrestled in their mother’s womb, who were always at odds in their youth. Similarly, it seems no wonder that, when Jacob grew up, ran from Esau, and then returned to make peace with him decades later, he found himself wrestling all night. And that, after those exhausting hours, the name Jacob received from his wrestling partner was Yisrael–Israel– one who wrestles with God. He inherited his father’s loose ends, his lack of teshuvah. He passed them along to his 12 sons, who passed them along to an entire people. That people, of course, is us.
We are Yisraelites. We carry the name of Jacob the God Wrestler, because we, like Jacob, are the descendants of a parent who never made teshuvah. Abraham’s silence travels alongside his blessing l’dor vador — from generation to generation.
Yet we, Abraham’s descendents, have something that he does not: life. We have this time, these precious 10 Days of Awe, to make right what we have wronged, to open those silences that have scabbed over but never truly healed, to dress and clean the wounds we have inflicted as best we can. Such action isn’t easy, but it is necessary.
Soon, this morning’s service will come to an end. We will go our separate ways — to homes near or far, to connect with family and friends over a festive lunch, to dip apples in honey and celebrate the sweetness of this time. And I wish us all much sweetness today and in the year ahead. But I also wish us courage– courage to do what Abraham did not: to acknowledge our mis-steps, to make amends, to seek out the best in ourselves and offer it to those we have wronged. May none of us waste these days before Yom Kippur. May we all begin this year as our best selves and in so doing clear the way for all who come after us to be their best selves. For this too is our inheritance– to look at the year that has passed, to atone, and to walk forward, renewed.
I wish you all a Shanah Tovah Umetukah V’amitzah — a Good and Sweet and Courageous new year.