"Lipstick on a Pig" Akedrash 5776 by Arthur Strimling

Rabbi Lippmann’s sermons are always moving, always inspiring and often deeply provocative. Last night was no exception, and I want to start by referencing a sermon she gave a few years ago. In that one, Rabbi Lippmann proposed that Kolot stop reading the Akedah on Rosh Hashanah. She said, “I am sick of the Akedah. It contains not a single character I want to identify with.... Let’s leave it out because what we need now to face the terrifying world is a story of moral courage, of protest, of hope….. Why do we read this story anyway?“

Why indeed? Why do we return year in year out to this awful tale of a God who asks the unspeakable, a father and son, who silently submit, and a ram who gets scapegoated? 

My own father, may he rest in peace, used the Akedah as proof text number one for his unbending fire breathing atheism. I remember when I was 8 or 9, maybe the age Isaac is in the Akedah, him towering over me, and he’s raging, my father, "Why would anyone worship a God who tells you to murder your son!" He’s asking me, his son? My father and I did not agree on many things, but on this one I was totally on his side. Still am. 

After Ellen’s sermon, we got a lot of emails pro and con. Many were really thoughtful, but one, in support of sacrificing the Akedah, dismissed my annual drashes as “painting lipstick on a pig” – that is, in the writer’s hearing all I was doing was trying to make the Akedah something positive, hopeful, acceptable, uplifting, inspirational, give a Walt Disney spin. IMHO, that email was wrongheaded, shallow and mean-spirited. So naturally it’s the only one I remember. And now, I keep this memento of that email:[1]

And if the writer of that email is here today, I want to thank you for adding yet another incentive to keep my guard up against false hope and mindless faith.

This year I want to try yet again to suggest why we can’t resist confronting this horrible, harrowing, haunting, utterly unexemplary tale. 

You know the story, you’ve heard it enough already, so I’m going to focus on just a few lines in Genesis Ch. 22. This is from line 2:

2And God said, "Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac,…;  The Hebrew for ‘take’ is ‘kach.’ It could be just ‘take your son.’ But it isn’t; it’s ‘kach na,’ ‘take, please…’[2]  And that ‘na’ makes it a request not a command, which is rare for God. God commands all the time in Torah; this is an exception, and when there’s an exception, pay attention.

I know, I know, it’s God saying ‘take, please,’ the ultimate master wielding his absolute power politely. I have a hard time saying no to the Rabbi, much less God, but still there is some kind of free space here. Abraham can’t purely say, ‘God made me do it.’  At some level, he chooses, to sacrifice humanity for the sake of a higher cause. And that makes all the difference. 

Line 4: “On the third day Abraham lifted his eyes and saw the place from afar.”

So Abraham has 3 days to think about what he’s going to do, to question it, to wrestle with his soul and with God. What is Abraham thinking during those days? I have written pages, dozens of them. I will spare you. Classic midrash has Satan desperately trying to stop Abraham; warning Isaac; placing obstacles in their path -- doing all the things we would do.  In other words, in the midrash, the bad guy is the one who wants the sacrifice stopped. But the gist is that Abraham faces every reason not to do it and he goes ahead anyway.

And Isaac too has time to figure it out; whether he is somewhere between 9 and 15, as most of us seem to imagine, or 37, as another tradition has it, why does he ask only one question, and then go along? The mainstream midrashic tradition has him totally on board, not just compliant, but actually eager. Of course at some level we all know about self-sacrifice, so, while this is taken to the absolute extreme, it’s not that unfamiliar. We admire the activist who climbs the flagpole to take down the confederate flag; the fireman who runs into the burning building, the soldier, even the politician who takes a position that will probably lose him the next election. And of course, Christians have built a whole religion around a son who willingly sacrifices himself.

And then there are the two ‘lads’ Abraham brings along. This year they fascinate me. To me they represent those passive bystanders who observe and have to have more than a clue, and for whatever reason, do nothing. Did you see the video of the tennis player, James Blake, being attacked, thrown to the ground and hog tied by a plain-clothes cop in front of the Grand Hyatt Hotel? And did you see all those people just walking on by as it happened? Guys in suits, tourists, hipsters, black, white. There is one little lady in a pink shirt who points and runs off the screen; maybe she did something. But everyone else just looks and walks away. No one challenges the plain clothes assailant; in this age of Black Lives Matter, no one even pulls out their phone to video what’s going on. That’s the two lads.  Like the folks walking by James Blake, they have their reasons for staying out of it. We all have our reasons, don’t we?

So in the Akedah, we see these 3 archetypes: the one who commits the sacrifice; the one who is sacrificed and the witnesses. Torah is suggesting that these are fundamental, even universal in human culture.

An Akedah story: I raised my younger son myself from when he was about 11. In those days I was a downtown, Off and Off Off Broadway actor, surely one of the professions least congenial to single parenting, and I was the only single dad I knew.  Rehearsing days, performing nights, training, touring, hustling, 7 days a week, a boundaryless life. Theatre is an jealous goddess. And I loved the work; I was ambitious to work with terrific artists, mostly people who didn’t have kids or let themselves be distracted in any way.

I didn’t want to let anyone down, not my colleagues, certainly not my son. Like so many of us, I was torn between my work and my son. I refused out of town work, negotiated hard for time to be home with him, make dinner, help with homework, make him clean his room, try to respond adequately to his fiercely questioning mind and heart. He was energetic, demanding, trustworthy --  as much as a teenager ever is -- a good student, lots of friends, loved the adventure of the City – fire escapes and roofs and subway tunnels, and the 70’s Mets, and the grungy old Times Square that he passed through every day on his way to Performing Arts High School. A great kid having a great childhood in the City.  That’s how I saw it. 

But he saw different. For him, I was never there enough. Years later he would quote that Harry Chapin song, ‘Cat’s in the Cradel,’  [3]

When you comin' home, Dad
I don't know when, but we'll get together then
You know we'll have a good time then, son, we’ll have a good time then.

That hurt and hurts still. For him, I was absentee. Even when I was there he says, I was often distant, distracted, withholding, absorbed in my own thoughts, my own work, my own monumental mishigas. He knew because of those hineni moments when it wasn’t like that, when I was there, when the scrape on his knee or a tough question got my fullest most undivided attention. In his eyes, too much, too often I chose work over him. I sacrificed him to my Goddess. Too often instead of Arthur and Ethan we were Abraham and Isaac.

Maybe I’m domesticating the Akedah too far here. Maybe this confession seems obvious, only a little tragic and a lot ironic -- my son, now running for Mayor of Portland, Maine is so busy that he has very little time to talk or visit with me – that’s the end of the Harry Chapin song too. The father says,

"When you coming home, son?" "I don't know when
But we'll get together then, dad, we're gonna have a good time then"

So from generation to generation the cycles of sacrifice are ironic and bittersweet. 

But there’s a lot more here than family tensions. The stark pitting of human love against love of God evokes something deep in the human condition, a root I think of human struggle. A jealous God shows Abraham that he can love his child, but only in a way that puts God first. It’s a simple terrible lesson. The Akedah argues that at root something must come first.  We hunger for it not to be that way, to believe that there is a perfect balance between love and work, spouse and kids, art and commerce, compassion and judgment, family and community, community and country, country and the world, trust of the other and fear of the other; that important meeting versus your daughter’s soccer game or your son’s tears. And maybe in moments balance does exist. But the Akedah says no. The Akedah says that ultimate priorities exist, that something must come first, whether we like it or not, and especially whether we know it or not.  It’s that not knowing, that innocence, that terrifies me.

Because the third element of the story that I want you to attend to is the ram. 

… and Abraham went and took the ram and offered him up as a burnt offering instead of his son. [Gen 22: Line 13]

Remember? The angel intervenes, Abraham turns and there, stuck in the bushes is the ram, the perfect substitute sacrifice. Midrashically, on the eve of the 7th day of creation God made this ram and preserved him for precisely this moment.  And, midrashically at the end of time, the shofar that announces the arrival of Moshiach will be a horn from this very ram. So the ram is no afterthought. But why is he there? Why does the story need it? Why couldn’t the story just end with Isaac saved and stepping down from the altar?  Must there be a sacrifice?  Why?

I don’t know.  But Torah seems unequivocal: there must always be a sacrifice. I can’t think of one uncompleted sacrifice in the whole Tanach. The lesson I’m taking this year was summed up nicely by my mother – a great synthesizer of all knowledge. Over and over she told me ‘Choices involve losses.’  How I hated that lesson.  Still do.  But wadayagonna do? It’s just true. And the Torah version of that lesson is that there is always a sacrifice.

This has been a year I thought a lot about structures. Structures of power, of culture, of gender, of exchange, of influence. Like many of you I hope, I recently read this terrific little book by Ta-Nahisi Coates’ called Between the World and Me[4].  Coates, if you don’t know, is a brilliant Black writer who writes about being Black in America, and the book is addressed to his 14-year-old son. He makes it blindingly clear that it is no more possible for me to stand outside the structure of racism in America than it is for his son. I’m implicated, however good my intentions, however non-racist I may struggle to be in my day to day actions. No matter what, I benefit from American racism. My gain is his loss; I am Abraham, he is Isaac and the ram; he gets sacrificed, and I am blessed for it. It’s a horrible reality, one I find hard to face day in day out.  And of course I don’t have to, in fact it’s to my benefit not to:  We white folks can do what black people never can; we can be blind. We can be what Ta-Nahisi Coates calls ‘dreamers’, or what Jack Smith, the visionary father of drag consciousness and art called ‘pasty normals.’  The ones who consciously or not, in the face of the violence and degradation wrought on people of color, turn their heads away resigned that the sacrifice of some is a cost someone has to pay for our quality of life, our safety.  Coates’ Dreamers, and we all know them, deny racism or worse, accept black bodies as what he calls currency, a cost of doing business; he says it’s our tradition.

And there are all those other structures of sacrifice: class, gender, culture to name a few. Today, on Rosh Hashanah, I would say that all such structures are branches growing from a root structure of sacrifice. All are part of why we read the Akedah today. 

Now few of us here deny these structures or accept them as irremediable or, God forbid, a cost of doing business. We resist: we join with Black Lives Matter, wrestle with gender injustice; to my brothers and sisters on strike at the car wash I deliver coffee and clementines (couldn’t bring myself to buy donuts – food justice!); we contribute, get arrested, sign, vote, read, think and struggle. But what the Akedah teaches us is that however opposed we are to the structures of sacrifice in which we live, what we can’t do is escape them, pretend we aren’t part of them. We’re implicated.  And only by accepting that we are implicated, can we engage seriously with the way we live with them. 

And that I think is a reason read the Akedah, not just on Rosh Hashanah, but to reflect on it often through the year.  Not as story about this man Abraham or as an evocation of patriarchal savagery or as a message from God to stop human sacrifice, or even as a pro or anti war message.  All of these and many more are there. If you’ve been here for the past 12 years or more, you’ve heard a lot of them from me. But this year I urge you as you listen and read the Akedah, to put yourself inside the story. See yourself as Abraham, as Isaac, as the ram, as those ‘lads’ who stand passively by, and maybe too as God, politely “asking,” testing the loyalty of those over whom you have power. 

In the end, we haven’t erased the Akedah from Kolot’s Rosh Hashanah services because we can’t eliminate sacrifice from our lives. Shanah Tovah.

 

 

[1] This drawing by Hannah Cook was not available for Rosh Hashanah, so a piggy bank with lipstick drawn on by Lisa B. Segal was substituted.

[2] Thanks to Professor Lisa Grant for this insight.

[4] Ta-Nahisi Coates, Between the World and Me, (Speigel and Grau, NY, 2015)

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