Rosh Hashanah starts at sundown tonight, beginning the period of introspection and hope that constitutes the Days of Awe. The rituals are essentially unchanged year to year, as they have been all my life and as they were more than a century ago for my grandparents in Poland. One of these repeated rituals is the reading of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, a story that has troubled me since I was about ten.
As related in Genesis, Abraham and Sarah finally have a child, Hagar and Ishmael have settled in Egypt, and all is well, until God comes up with one final test for his favorite human.
Roughly translated from the original Aramaic, God says, “Take your son, Isaac, and make him a human sacrifice for me.” And Abraham, who has argued with God on behalf of the evil sodomites in Sodom, doesn’t argue about sacrificing the innocent son who is supposed to carry on the faith. He doesn’t discuss it with Sarah, either, even though Sarah waited 90 years to have a child and, by the way, this is her son, too.
Nope, Abraham takes his son to Mt. Moriah and binds him on the altar where Isaac, the Passive Patriarch, doesn’t appear to object. The sacrifice is about to be completed when an angel intervenes. Abraham has passed the test, the angel declares, and everything will be great from here.
Now, when you’re a kid in Hebrew school, the teachers present this story as a wonderful example of faith. Abraham was so loyal to God that he was willing to murder his own son, simply because God said to do it. And every kid in the classroom is thinking, “I really hope my dad isn’t that faithful.”
As an adult, sitting in the synagogue and listening to the story each year, you get a chance to think things through. First, there’s the question of whether Abraham passed the test or not. Yes, the angel says he passed, but that’s the angel talking, not God. After this point, the Torah doesn’t mention God talking to Abraham again.
Ditto for Sarah and Isaac. As far as we can tell, neither of them is on speaking terms with Abraham after he “passes” this test of faith. Sarah appears to be living in a different town than Abraham when she dies. Abraham’s servant, not Abraham, finds a wife for Isaac and introduces Isaac to her. After the Akedah, the Torah records no interactions between Abraham and his son, or his wife, or any angels, for that matter.
At the end of his life, Abraham seems to be estranged from the family that will carry on his legacy. Families, if you include Ishmael’s line, as nearly 2 billion Muslims do. Abraham has created a new faith, won many followers, amassed wealth, and claimed the Almighty God as his BFF, but now he seems to be alone. (Yes, he has a new wife and concubines and children, but none of those people is part of his Great Narrative.)
In a more modern context, we might see Abraham as an entrepreneur of sorts, founding a great enterprise known as monotheism and creating a personal estate that appears to be of significant value. And, like many founders, his personal and familial relationships suffer along the way. Did he regret that fact at the end of his life? Did he consider the woulda coulda shouldas that might have led to the same end with less estrangement? Did he think about it at all?
Like Abraham, the rest of us mortals make countless trade-offs on our journeys. Some are great and some minor, some by action and some by acquiescence. Some days, we betray our beliefs and our best instincts so cavalierly that we don't even recognize what we've done. It's impossible to remember all of them, which is probably a good thing, since we'd be shocked and embarrassed by our official scorecards.
That's why I always find the Akedah to be personally challenging, even though I haven't founded any faiths recently. The stakes and the situations are different for me than they were for Abraham, of course, but the question is eternally the same:
What am I willing to sacrifice, and upon which altar?
I have much to ponder as we enter the Days of Awe.