Three Days

Three Days

Drash on the Binding of Isaac (Akedah)

By Arthur Strimling

Rosh Hashana Day 1

Early in World War I, the poet Wilfred Owen was wounded and received a medal for valor, as they called courage in those days.  He could have stayed in England out of the trenches for the rest of the war.  But he chose to go back in, he sacrificed himself, so he could describe the horror truly and without illusion.  Exactly one week before the Armistice in 1918, Wilfred Owen was killed in the trenches.  His mother received the telegram as the church bells in her little English town were ringing out in celebration.

Here’s a poem he wrote:

So Abram rose and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac, the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him.  Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns,
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son, —
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son, —

And half the seed of Europe, one by one?

Wait a minute! That’s not how the story goes! We all know that in Genesis 22 Isaac is saved, the angel tells Abraham not to sacrifice his son, and he doesn’t.

But half the seed of Europe were dead and dying, and if this tale that goes back to before recorded time were to mean anything to his experience, his time, Owen had to change it, retell it, create what we Jews call a midrash. And he had precedent.  Time and time again, in the cruelest of times, sages and poets have turned to the Akedah, and turned it and turned it so it spoke to them, to their time, to their story. 

In the Middle Ages, in southern France and Germany, when Crusaders on their way to Jerusalem slaughtered whole towns of Jews, some Jews killed their own children as an act of mercy to keep them from the merciless hands of the Crusaders. In that horrific time, another great poet, Rabbi Ephraim ben Jacob of Bonn, also imagined an Akedah in which Abraham kills Isaac. But the angels are horrified and they bring Isaac back to life. And then, Abraham goes to kill him again, and only then does God finally step in to stop him.[2]  It strikes us as insane, perverse; but the massacres and desperate acts that Rabbi Ephraim had lived through and heard about made him need to tell the story in a way that somehow allowed him to feel closer to God, to his tradition, to the stories that were supposed to nourish him.  Somehow, going back to our roots, turning and turning stories that our prehistoric ancestors passed from generation to generation for millennia before we learned to write them down, gives hope or at least comfort.   During the Vietnam war, Bob Dylan had the sacrifice take place somewhere in the American heartland, out on Route 66, where you get your kicks, making the sacrifice of sons as American as apple pie.

We are not living, thank God, in the Crusades, or WWI, or even Vietnam; not yet. But since we last gathered here a year ago, the deepest most toxic atavistic strains in American culture, strains that have always been here, but seemed like they might slowly be on the wane, have risen out from under the rocks like zombies howling for blood. Some of our leaders are actually lifting those rocks and inviting them out. And our democracy is in danger in ways we have not seen the like of, certainly since I was a child of the McCarthy era in the Fifties. Most of us here have resisted – marched, gotten arrested; many are daily or weekly taking actions to push back at the toxic tide washing in on us.  We don’t know where we are headed; we are doing our best to assure that the worst is not yet to come.

In the Akedah there is a part of the story, a section that reflects my sense of where we are now.  The story begins, as you know, with the narrator, Torah’s extremely unreliable narrator, telling us that God put Abraham to the test in the form of “asking” him to offer up Isaac, his son, his beloved, his patrimony, his destiny as a burnt offering at a place God will show him. The test, I guess, is how far are you willing to go to honor your faith, your vision, your beliefs?  Will you surrender everything to the cause?  What will you give up? Who will you sacrifice?  We positive hopeful Americans tend to think that going all the way is a good thing. This story makes us wonder. 

Reading the Akedah again this year for the very first time, I particularly noticed that after God asks, Abraham does not say ‘yes.’ He doesn’t say anything.  He just gets up early the next morning, cuts wood, loads a donkey, wakes two ‘lads,’ which likely means slaves; then wakes Isaac and they set out.  Hang on to Abraham’s silence; we’ll come back to it later.

For three days they journey. Imagine that.  For three days, Abraham has to think about what he’s set out to do.  Why? Why the delay? Why couldn’t God just choose a place right outside of town, and get it over with?  Maybe God makes Abraham wander for three days so he has to think about it; God doesn’t want an impulse buy-in. 

Or maybe the three days aren’t God’s idea at all. Maybe it’s Abraham who is stalling, wandering, wondering, cursing God, maybe; maybe doubting that what he heard was what was said, or maybe he just imagined it?  Three days of trying to make up his mind, wondering if he could actually do it; looking for a way out, a way not to commit this horrific act.  Torah tells us nothing about those three days. But there are countless midrash, stories created through the ages by rabbis, poets and sages, filling in those hours and days.  In many, doubt takes the form of Samael, an archangel whose job it is to be the accuser, the seducer, the destroyer, a sort of Talmudic version of Satan.  Samael tries to obstruct; tries to talk Abraham out of it.  He places every obstacle in the way:  reason, nature, even truth.  He taunts Abraham about losing his destiny; he tells Isaac what’s going on; he tries to enlist Sarah in opposing the madness.  He places rocks, trees, even a raging torrent in their way. On first reading these stories are almost cartoon like, with Samael as Wiley Coyote, always losing.  But on deeper reading, they give form to all the torments of a mind and heart resisting a destiny of disaster.

It’s these three days that strike me hardest this year.  I feel very connected right now to this sense of being in liminal time, of facing the possibility of real horror, of wondering how to resist, if and when to resist, negotiating with fate.  Remember, Abraham didn’t SAY yes, he just went ahead as if he agreed. That silence is traditionally interpreted as consent, but it also always contains the potential of ‘No!’ right up to the instant of the final act.

And Isaac, what does he know, when does he know, what can he do? The tradition would have us believe that his faith, too, never wavered, but I take all those Samael stories as versions of his doubts, as deep dives into the psyche not only of the father, but also of a confused and terrified son. 

And it is Isaac's voice that calls to me this year. I too feel trapped in some dynamic, some history, some deepening threat that is not in my hands, however much I wish it were. Perhaps I can influence it, slow it, even alter it. But perhaps not enough. And terrifyingly, perhaps in the end, not at all.  Those fears and doubts motivate me every day, and I hear Isaac remembering, telling me what happened for him in those three days:

“On the first day, he woke me before dawn. The donkey was stacked with enough supplies for days.  We didn’t say goodbye to mother. The lads lagged behind, until he sent them out hunting; I wanted to go with them, but he asked me to walk beside him, and I couldn’t say no.  He set the rhythm. I had to keep slowing myself down.  He didn’t talk, or listen to my talk. He just held my hand and sometimes looked at me and sighed. I asked ‘where are we going?’ He said, ‘God will show us the way.’  I asked if we were going to make a sacrifice; he nodded. I thought we should pick up a lamb from the herds we passed.  But we didn’t. I noticed that we passed the same herd two or three times – there was a little speckled lamb butting heads with a little black one, that’s how I knew.  I wondered if father was lost, but he didn’t act like that; he was just lost in thought.  I think I began then to be a little afraid. That night I dreamed about an eagle catching a goat and flying up in the sky with it thrashing underneath.

“The second day was the same.  The boys hunted, I walked with him; he walked in circles; wherever we were going, he seemed not to want to go. He talked to himself; he cried a couple of times. He batted the air like he was in a cloud of bees. He stopped sometimes and looked up, looked around, then started off again, sometimes the same way, sometimes in a different direction. We passed more herds, but still no lamb. Sometime in the afternoon, he looked at me for a long time, hugged me hard; talked to himself.  I heard him say ‘your only son.’ And that was when I got scared. I thought ‘I’m not the only’. Then I began to think about sacrifices. I’ve seen sacrifices – lambs, rams, goats, birds. You hold it down and you have to cut its throat just right.  If it moves too much you might do it wrong.  I haven’t done it yet; I have to wait until I’m thirteen. Ishmael told me that people who worship Baal sacrifice their firstborn sons; he said he saw it once. I wondered if we did that too. I thought, ‘I’m not the firstborn.’  That night I dreamed about the eagle again, this time he was dropping the goat on a big rock.

“On the third day, he told the lads to stay at camp with the donkey.  He tied the wood on my back, and he took the fire starter and the knife, and we started climbing. It was steep and rocky; he got tired many times, and I had to wait for him. He would sit staring out or looking at the knife.  He took my hand, but I pulled it away.  He took a rope and wrapped it twice around my waist and then tied it around his own, so we would be attached all the time.   Then he took my hand again, and we walked together slowly. Sometimes he leaned on me.  Sometimes he pulled me. We stopped to eat; he used the cleaver to cut me some cheese. He kept turning the cleaver. One time the sun glinted off it right in my eyes, and blinded me for few seconds.  He was talking under his breath; I heard ‘here I am;’ I heard him say that over and over.  I said, “Father?” He mumbled, “Here I am.”  “I have the wood and here is the knife, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”  He said, “God will see to the lamb, my son.”  I stopped and looked at him and he looked back. I wanted to turn back. I thought about running away, like I did that time I wanted to visit Ishmael, but I didn’t get far, because he sent the lads after me and they’re good trackers.  I thought if I can be a good enough son, maybe he won’t do it.  I thought maybe this is what God wants, and I need to accept it. Maybe God is testing me to see if I am strong enough.  He held my hand tight, and he looked at me, and I could not let go. He is my father, a holy man of God; he talked to God. God told him. I went on with him, but sometimes I made him pull me. 

“When we reached the place, he started to pile up stones. He said to bring him a stone, and I started to, but I stopped and threw the stone off the cliff.  He stopped and stared at me until we heard the stone hit the ground below.  It was the first time I ever disobeyed him.  He stared, but he wasn’t angry.  He seemed almost proud of me.  He was crying again, and kept crying the whole time. But he finished the altar and piled the wood, and then he told me to climb up. I said no.  So he pulled me to him with the rope, and wrapped it around my arms and then around my legs. I was bound and wriggling like a calf. We were both crying and screaming, and he lifted me onto the altar and I turned over so he couldn’t reach my neck, but he was too strong, and his eyes were getting wild.  It went on for a long time, the struggle, but finally I lay back, and I looked at him. He paused, holding me down, panting. I said, ‘I cannot stop you, but I do not obey. I say to you and to God, I am not a part of this crime.’ Those were my words, ‘I am not a part of this crime.’ And he nodded, and as he raised the knife, his tears kept falling on my face.  Then suddenly he stopped. He turned his head and looked up and away.  I held my breath.  And then in a huge rush he untied me and when I jumped off, I saw the ram.  I recognized it. It was the lead ram from our own flock, the one he had named it Isaac after me, and it was trapped in the bushes. And he threw it on the altar and cut his throat and set him on fire. I didn’t help him.  I just turned my back and ran.  Later the lads tracked me down wandering on the other side.  And to this day I have never done a sacrifice myself. Others do it for me, and God has had to live with that.”

I wish there were a happier ending to this story. There isn’t!  The Akedah, a story whose origins probably go back at least to Paleolithic time, 30, 40, 50 thousand years ago, reaches to the deepest questions about human nature.  Perhaps it is male nature, I don’t know; if it is only about us men that gives me a little more hope. This atavistic toxic strain, as I say, has always been there.  Sometimes the better angels of our nature gain the upper hand, and for a time it is driven underground.  That’s kind of what many of us thought a year ago.  But now, again, the ugliness oozes out, legitimizing itself, reaching for our throats.

In other less threatening times, there have been those who felt the Akedah was irrelevant, a relic; that what we need is something more hopeful, more inspiring.  We need that too; we need those stories our student Rabbi Miriam Grossman called for about times we won.  But I also find that experiencing this terror through an ancient story increases my resolve to say, “Put down the knife; do not sacrifice our children; and maybe not even our rams. I am not a part of this crime.”[3]


[1] Wilfred Owen, The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

[2] Rabbi Ephraim ben Jacob of Bonn, The Akedah.  In The Last Trial by Shalom Spiegel, trans Judah Goldin, (Jewish Lights Press,1993). p139.

[3] “I am not a part of this crime” is a quote from Pablo Neruda’s Letter to Miguel Otero Silva in Caracas, in Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems, Translated and Edited by Robert Bly (Beacon, 1971). 

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