By Rabbi Jordie Gerson
The Binding of Isaac, The Unbinding of Abraham, and Sarah’s Choice
Tomorrow morning, we will read the Aqeda, the binding of Isaac, a story that has, for years, disturbed me. As a teenager, the story of Abraham attempting to sacrifice his son seemed to confirm what I had long suspected: that Judaism was the religion of an angry God who was liable to demand unbelievably unreasonable things from us that we were just supposed to do without questioning. But what kind of God, I’ve always thought, would demand a sacrifice like this in the first place? And what kind of religion would insist that we read this story every single year, on one of the only days when everyone shows up?
A few years ago, a friend gave me a poem written by a woman named Eleanor Wilner called Sarah’s Choice. In Sarah’s Choice, Wilner imagines that when God asks for the sacrifice of Isaac, the request is first brought to Sarah, Isaac’s mother. This imagining, this departure from what the Torah tells us ‘actually’ happened is a form of contemporary midrash, a Jewish hermeneutic which creates riffs on traditional texts as a way of dealing with difficulties or gaps in the narrative.
The poem begins like this,
“Go!” said the voice, “Take your son,
your only son, whom you love,
take him to the mountain, bind him
and make of him a burnt offering.”
Now Isaac was the son of Sarah’s age,
a gift, so she thought, from God. And how
could he ask her even to imagine such a thing—
to take the knife of a butcher and thrust it
into such a trusting heart, then
light the pyre on which tomorrow burns.
What fear could be more holy
than the fear of that?
‘Go!” said the Voice, Authority’s own.
And Sarah rose to her feet, stepped out
Of the tent of Abraham to stand between
The desert and the distant sky, holding its stars
Like tears it was too cold to shed
And then it was that Sarah spoke
In a soft voice, a speech
The canon does not record.
‘No,’ said Sarah to the Voice,
‘I will not be chosen. Nor shall my son –
if I can help it. You have promised Abraham,
through this boy, a great nation. So either
this sacrifice is a sham, or else it is a sin.
Shame,” she said, for such is the presumption
Of mothers, ‘for thinking me a fool,
For asking such a thing. You must have known
I would choose Isaac. What use have I
For History – an arrow already bent
When it is fired from its bow?”
Saying that, Sarah went into the tent
And found her restless son awake, as if
He’d grown aware of the narrow bed in which he lay
And Sarah spoke out of the silence
She had herself created, or that had been there
All along. [and said] “Tomorrow you will be
A man. Tonight, then, I must tell you
the little I know. You can be chosen
or you can choose. Not both.
The voice of the prophet grows shrill
He will read even defeat as a sign
Of distinction, until pain itself
Becomes holy. In that day, how shall we tell
The victims from the saints,
The torturers from agents of God?”
“But mother,” said Isaac, “if we were not God’s
chosen people, what then should be we be? I am afraid
of being nothing.” And Sarah laughed.
Then she reached out her hand. “Isaac,
I am going now, before Abraham awakes, before
The sun, to find Hagar the Egyptian and her son
Whom I cast out, drunk on pride
God’s promises, the seed of Abraham,
In my own late-blooming loins.”
“It’s time,” she said, “Choose now.”
“But what will happen if we go?” the boy
Isaac asked, “I don’t know.” Sarah said
“But it is written what will happen if you stay.”
Isaac stays and chooses to trust Abraham, to stay the night in the tent, waking early the next morning, asking his father only one question: “We have the wood, we have the fire starter, but where is the lamb we’re going to sacrifice?”
Abraham answers, “God will provide the lamb, my son.”
At that moment Abraham chooses. Abraham chooses to obey the command he believes he has heard. Because God does not immediately give Abraham a command, does not say, “Go sacrifice your son”. Instead, God begins by describing Abraham’s relationship to Isaac, trying to give him an out. And what does God say to Abraham before the command to sacrifice Isaac? “Take your son, your only son, whom you love, and…offer him there as a sacrifice.”
Biblical commentators tell us there are no mistakes in the Torah — that when words are repeated needlessly, we’re meant to understand that there is some not-so-subtle subtext at work, a message. So why does God remind Abraham multiple times that he loves his son? Doesn’t Abraham know this?
Well, as Sarah implies in Wilner’s poem, it’s possible that Abraham does not know or he does know, but needs to be reminded of it, and of how much. He has, after all, already allowed Ishmael, his firstborn son by Hagar, to be exiled. He has not stood up for Hagar, or Ishmael, and betrayed them both, breaking something essential between himself and his first born son.
In this light, “Take your son, your favored son, who you love” has an additional meaning. It is at once reminder and rebuke, a way of reminding Abraham what he has done to Ishmael, and holding him accountable for what he may be about to do. But he does not hear it that way. Instead, he gives his consent with passive agreement, without wondering if what he has been asked to do should be resisted.
A s Professor Marsha Mirkin writes, “[Abraham’s understanding of Judaism is that] when God speaks, man acts…rather than remaining still in order to hear what is probably a multi-layered message…[And so] Abraham had to go to Mount Moriah – ‘The Mountain of Seeing’…to see the lesson he hadn’t gotten through in all the years that God had tried a gentler approach. In the command, ‘Take your son…’ God is giving Abraham [an] opening to object to this trip to the mountain.” God is, in other words, giving Abraham the opportunity to break his pattern; to fight for the people he loves, even if the cost is disobedience.
Ultimately, Abraham gets the message, but at a high price. The angel of God has to cry out his name not once, but twice, to get him to stop. But Abraham does stop, and does not sacrifice one more person who he loves.
And so it seems to me that it’s anything but a mistake that we read this parsha today, the day of the year on which we’re asked to stop doing what we normally do, to look at our hurtful patterns and change them. On Rosh HaShanah, we, like Abraham, are being asked to step back and stop. And this is the reason that we read the Aqeda at the New Year: to remind ourselves that it is never too late to change, to choose differently, to start over, to make a different choice about the kind of people we wish to be. We are given the opportunity to, at this time of year, listen to the voices of the angels calling our names. We always, as Sarah says in Eleanor Wilner’s poem, have a choice.
And yet this is not enough to explain the aqeda. Because someone out there in the congregation’s listening to this right now and is still not convinced. After all, the language of choice is not used in the Aqeda. And when Abraham does make his choice to refrain from killing his son, it is made late, almost too late. And yet still the possibility of freedom remains in the background, framing the entire narrative.
But how do we know this? How do we see freedom, and choice, in a text that never uses either word? Because of a small detail. Professor Mirkin argues that even though Abraham promises Isaac that “God will provide the lamb for the offering”, God doesn’t. No, God ultimately provides a ram for the sacrifice, which is the father of a lamb. Or, as Rabbi Alan Ullman suggests, we should understand that “it is the ram, the father of the lamb, that is caught in the brush; [which is to say that] it is the father, and not the son, who must become unbound.”
It is Abraham who must sacrifice, not his son, but something of himself on Mt. Moriah. Abraham has to sacrifice the part of himself that, in the words of Professor Mirkin, has become “so single-minded that he could not see the larger picture. This [PAUSE] is the unbinding of Abraham.”
And what is it that Abraham is unbound from? He is freed of an understanding of Judaism as a religion which demands absolute obedience. Abraham, like Sarah, must learn to give the idea of a relationship with God that is all about obedience for an understanding of a relationship with God that is, instead, about love.
Which is why I imagine an addition to Wilner’s poem, a paragraph that has Sarah speaking directly to Abraham the night before the aqeda, saying “What do you think you’re doing, taking literally everything that God says? How can you believe that killing our child is what God would want? Don’t you know that God stands for life and not death? Have you forgotten the freedom we’ve been given – the ability to choose between good and evil, right and wrong? You can be chosen,” I imagine Sarah saying to her husband, “or you can choose.”
And I picture God speaking to Abraham the next morning, saying: “You were about to kill the child and blame me for it, weren’t you? Why do you believe piety means not challenging what you’ve been told to do if you know it is morally wrong?”
Why too, do so many of us believe this? Why do we have a black and white view of religion? Why do we believe that Judaism demands from us absolute obedience? Shouldn’t we, as Harold Kushner points out, know that “I was only following orders” is one of the most dangerous sentences ever uttered?
A few years ago, I went to Jerusalem for a few weeks to visit some friends. While I was there, I ran into one of my oldest and closest childhood friends – someone who I spent every summer with for 10 years. Some time ago, he made aliyah, and moved to Jerusalem permanently, with his wife and children. They live in the center of the city, and, during the days, my friend studies at an ultra Orthodox right-wing Yeshiva, a far cry from the Reform household he grew up in, and the years he spent studying religion at Harvard.
We talked for about ten minutes, before, unable to stop myself, I asked him: “Why did you do it? Why did you choose this?”
He answered: “My life is so much easier now.”
I have to admit that at that moment, I envied him. I was jealous of the simplicity of his answer, and his new life, and I was moved. There is something so seductive and powerful about having someone tell us what to do at every step. The ambiguity of life is hard. Uncertainty is frightening. There is a weighty responsibility that comes with our confrontations with ethics and morality. How comforting, I thought then, it would be to have someone who tells us what to do and what to think, someone who spares us the discomfort and responsibility of having to decide for ourselves. How much easier life would be. But would it really?
In Rabbinical School, I took a class called “Rabbinic Leadership and Social Responsibility” and my professor, a Rabbi and ground-breaking civil rights activist who once marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama, said, “The best thing that ever happened to human beings was being thrown out of the Garden of Eden. God would not have presented Adam and Eve with the tree of knowledge if God hadn’t wanted them to eat from it. God wanted them to eat from the tree – God wanted them out of the garden.” I think what he meant is this: God, like Sarah, wants us to grow up. God, like Sarah, knows that being good no longer means being obedient. The gate to the garden has swung shut behind us. We have to deal with the world. We have to take responsibility for our choices. And we have only ourselves to blame for our mistakes, not religion.
And so, Rabbi Jack Riemer has suggested, what if the sacrifice of a ram, a sheep on the altar is really a way of God telling Abraham not to be a sheep. What if it’s a way of discouraging thoughtless obedience, the kind of religious obedience that condones the death of innocents, and allows supposedly ‘religious’ people to do unspeakable things in the name of faith? What if Abraham was chosen for this test because God saw him as someone who might be willing to say no to things that were asked of him that he thought were wrong. After all, Abraham has already challenged God’s choices. God threatened to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham protested the inhumanity of this request and argued with God to save the cities. He doubted, publicly and strenuously, God’s justice and virtue. And it is for precisely this reason that Abraham is the first Jew. He is an exemplar of questioning authority, of arguing with God. So God raises the stakes, ups the ante and says: you fought for the lives of thousands, but will you fight for just one life, the one that matters the most to you?
So what if the test is not to see if Abraham will obey without question, but to see if Abraham’s conscience has matured to the point where it could distinguish between the authentic and inauthentic voice of God? Between the voice that justifies murder in the name of God and a voice that knows better. What if the voice of the angel comes from inside of Abraham? And what if we too have the voice of angels inside us, waiting to be heard?
The point, as Sarah says to Isaac in Eleanor Wilner’s poem, is not merely that we are a chosen people. We are a people who can choose.
Do you remember the last four lines of the poem Sarah’s Choice? They went like this:
“It’s time,” Sarah said, “Choose now.”
“But what will happen if we go?” the boy
Isaac asked, “I don’t know.” Sarah said
“But it is written what will happen if you stay.”
May we in this New Year have the vision, the wisdom and the compassion to choose well. And may these choices become blessings: for ourselves, our families, our community, and the world.
Kein Yehi Ratzon. May this be God’s will, and may it be ours as well.
(This sermon was inspired by Marsha Mirkin’s article Reinterpreting the Binding of Isaac from Tikkun, Sept/Oct 2003, Vol 18, Issue 5, and by sermons dealing with the Aqeda and Choice by Rabbi Gary Gerson, Rabbi Harold Kushner, and Rabbi Jack Riemer)