by Arthur Strimling
On Rosh Hashanah we read Genesis Chapter 22, called the Akedah or Binding of Isaac. It tells how God tests Abraham by asking him politely to take his son Isaac up on a mountain called Moriah, and sacrifice him. and when Abraham has the knife at Isaac's throat, God intervenes, saying, 'enough, you have proven your faith, and through this act and this child, you and all the world will be blessed.' Oy! And before this story there is another, also read on Rosh Hashanah, about Abraham's other son, Ishmael, whose mother is Hagar the slave, so present today after Rabbi Lippmann's searing invocation of her last night. Abraham banishes Hagar and Ishmael, sends mother and son into the desert, perhaps to die. So Abraham, our original ancestor, patriarch of monotheism, father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is a man willing on behalf of his God, to kill both of his sons. What a way to begin the New Year! During the Vietnam war, which is not ancient history to me, our poets Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and the Grateful Dead visioned Isaac, the sacrificial victim, as the young man sent off to war by elders, driven mad with power and ideology. Now, a generation or so later, here we are again. The Vietnam generation, albeit not the ones who went to war then, taking sons and daughters, albeit not theirs, up onto Moriah, (call it Iraq if you wish), and placing them on the altar again. Young men and women sacrificed, sacrificing themselves in a struggle in which one side calls itself the party of God (Hezbollah), and the other has changed the meaning of its initials, GOP, from Grand Old Party, to God's Own Party. So we have the Party of God vs. God's Own Party. But if I read this gathering right, most of us here today, aren't among those willing to die or send our children to die in this war. Many of us might rather stand with the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, when he told a murderous junta, 'I am not part of this crime.' We want to say that too. 'I am not part of this crime.' And maybe we aren't. But the crime won't go away. It is maybe left to us not only to resist, but also to think to the future. To wonder how these sons and these daughters might find their way out of these cycles, so that in a generation or so, we're not off to Mount Moriah again. When Abraham dies a few chapters later, Torah says his sons Isaac and Ishmael bury their father, and perhaps there is a moment between them of graveside reconciliation. But right now the descendants of Isaac and the descendants of Ishmael are precisely the ones at each others' throats, so their common relief at the death of the old man who tried to kill them both doesn't give me much heart. No, it won't be the sons who make peace, they don't have the power. It will have to be us elders, the ones who in their (our) youth fought (or resisted), who learned something about the awful costs of passion and hatred, and now, manage to use their/our age, wisdom, power and authority to create some kind of story, some kind of structure, some kind of gift that might project the possibility of peace, a generation or more into the future, something that might hold. For me, the patriarch of that possibility is Isaac. Poor Isaac; he gets such a bad rap. He inherits Abraham's mantle, the full staggering burden of being God's favored one. But he is usually seen as sort of a passive cipher: overprotected son of aged parents; God's sacrificial lamb, at the hands of his own father yet; dominated by his brilliant, passionate wife, Rebecca; then favors the wrong twin, Esau the hunter, who brings him good meat to eat, over smart, sensitive Jakob; and finally, old and blind, fooled by a flimsy ruse barely worthy of a clown show, he gives Esau's blessing to Jakob. The patriarch as nebbish. Or is he fooled? There is nothing in the text to suggest he isn't, but there is also nothing that proves he is. And remember these brothers, after perhaps the cruelest betrayal in Torah, do reconcile, decades later. It's described in great detail, with Jakob bowing to the ground seven times as he limps toward Esau, a conversation, and a great public embrace. How does this come about? I think it starts right here, after Abraham comes down from Mt. Moriah, alone. If you want a story to be heard, they say you have to tell it three times. Today we'll here this one three times, three different ways. First, I'll read the Akedah in English. The translation is different from the one in your machsor, so I suggest you close your eyes, literally or figuratively, and just listen and imagine. Then, Ann Eisenstein and Leah Dobrin Shore will chant and read the text in Hebrew. And then I'll read a story in Isaac's voice, inspired by the text, that I hope adds some hope and redemption into the mix of fear, rage, confusion and sadness evoked by the story that leads us into these days of awe.
Isaac After Moriah
by Arthur Strimling When Father came to cut my bindings, I didn't understand; I thought the cleaver was still going for my throat. I didn't move a muscle, so he could cut me clean and quick; the sacrifice as pure as God demands. Then I felt the bindings loosen; father's hand touched my face, and that, as I recall, is when I knew. I slapped his hand away; jumped down from the altar; looked into his eyes ... and then I ran. As I staggered down the mountain, I heard thrashing in the bushes, then an unearthly scream, and then I felt the heat hit my back. I saw father coming toward me; his hands all bloody He said, "Wipe me clean, so we can pray." Instead I ran. I heard him call, "God needs you," and thought, "I should go back," but my legs just kept on running down the mountain. I rolled and stumbled down until I reached the plain below, but away from the direction that we came. I kept myself well hidden in the cedars and high grasses, and ran until I dropped, then ran again. And every night it rained. On the morning of the third day, I climbed back up Moriah, and as I neared the summit, I saw smoke. I hid behind a rock, thinking father might still be there, but the alter stood alone against the sky. Something gray and curling that at distance looked like smoke, became a gleaming twisting ram's horn as I got closer. I reached to pull it free and then I heard a crack, and the still smoking skull fell to the ground. My legs went weak; I used the stick to prop me up; I heard myself thanking God it wasn't me. In that moment I was all at once, a helpless lost child and a newly freed slave. After a while, I began removing the ram_s remains from the altar. I felt this tenderness toward him; he deserved a proper burial. The bones were charred and broken, but I took care and got them all -- the horn, the skull, ribs, spine, thighbones, hipbones, even some cartilage and a little singed wool. I counted the neck bones and found that father, unfaltering father, had sliced precisely, the bone was impeccably scarred, as mine would have been. A nice kosher sacrifice. Making my way down the altar, I found the hind hooves, wiped them off 'till they shone like ebony as if the fire had tempered them. And then, beneath the ash, some barely glowing coals ... I poked under them, and that's when I smelled the cooking flesh. I was ravenous. I scraped away the coals until felt something soft, speared it and pulled out a chunk of ram meat. I admit it made me queasy, but my hunger won out. I took a breath, said haMotzi, and took a bite... It was good. I sat down beside the altar among those burned bones, and that's, I recall, when I started to laugh. I don't know why or what it meant, but I couldn't help it. I laughed and chewed and wept and chewed and when I could get air, I swallowed. Until today, it amazes me that I, who am so fastidious about food, could ever have done such a thing. And I can see that, while it amazes you too, my boy, you are also impatient to know why I am telling you this, especially now, at such a terrible moment in your life. But please, be patient a little longer. There is more, and it gets even stranger, but in the end you will see why I am telling you this now, and you will be rewarded. So where was I, oh yes, I was eating the ram steak. And, well you know, a piece of meat like that demands wine. And miraculously, as soon as I wanted it, I found it... under the altar with some bread, well most of the bread was gone, eaten by mice and birds, I guess, but the wineskin was untouched, except it was only half full, which was strange, until I remembered that we had only brought one small wineskin, and father must have used some for the blessing over the sacrifice, then drunk a little and eaten some bread while he waited for me to come back. And then, when I didn't come back, he hid it under the altar, hoping, no, knowing father, full of faith that I would come back and find it. And I did. So then I laughed even more. I was shaking with laughter, trying not to choke. I kept asking, "Am I eating myself? Is this some kind of sacrilege?" But it just struck me as funny. I even put the meat on my thigh where it would have been if it were actually part of me, and held the wine in one hand and leaned down and ate off my thigh as if it were a plate -- well, I was thinner then, I could do it more easily. And I could not stop laughing. I was like a wild man. You know what I mean; you're much wilder than I ever was, except this one time. And then a voice called my name, "Isaac, Isaac," And I found myself on my feet without even knowing how I got there. I wanted to say, "Here I am," but my mouth was completely full of meat and wine. I could barely breathe it was so full, but I didn't dare swallow in front of God, so I just stood there dead still, and hoped that God heard me think, "Here I am." And I guess God did, because the voice said, "Because you have not withheld yourself from me, I will greatly bless you, and will greatly multiply your seed, as the stars in the heavens and as the sand on the shore of the sea, and..." well, you know the words. And I was standing there with my mouth full, feeling God waiting for me, waiting to see what I do. And I thought, "What would father do?" But the main sensation was the taste of this glorious food in my mouth, the meat and the wine melting together, so juicy, so delicious, and I just couldn't hold it any more and right there, in the presence of God almighty ... I swallowed. And, oh it was so good to feel that food going down and to be able to breathe again, but at the same time I was terrified, thinking, _Now I am dead. Now God will truly curse me. Father used to fast for days and weeks and we fasted for the three days before we climbed Moriah . But you know what happened? God laughed. God laughed! Father never heard God laugh. I asked him. I never told him this story, I've never told anyone but you, but I did ask him, and he said no, he never heard God laugh. But I did ... and I was so surprised ... I just laughed too. So there we are, the two of us, God and me, on top of Mt. Moriah, by the altar that I was supposed be sacrificed on, laughing ... hooting... howling together. For a long time. You know, my name, Yitzhak, means, "He shall laugh," and I and everyone always thought it meant that I, Yitzhak, shall laugh. But you see, "He shall laugh" means God too. I made God laugh. I was God's fool. I am God's fool. And that's what God wanted me to be all along. But I didn't know, and neither did Father or Mother. All my life up to then I tried to learn to be solemn and ascetic like father. But now, in that moment, I knew that even if no one else did, not even me, God saw me as I am, saw me for me. A fool. A food loving, drink loving, life loving, wife loving, sons loving, fool. God's fool. So I ate some more and drank some more and God stayed for a while, and we laughed some more. And I remember we sang an old song together, but for the life of me I can't recall the melody. And then God sort of withdrew. Didn't go away exactly, I could still feel the presence as I do to this day, but ceased laughing and just removed.. And I liked that. To my surprise I am more content to have God at some distance than as a dinner companion. Father always wanted God to be close, to talk to him directly, tell him what to do. But I have found that I love life more than God, or maybe that_s blasphemous; I think I mean that loving life as I do, makes me love God more. And if you're a life lover like me, you make a lot of mistakes, you do some things you would rather God not know about, or at least not be right there watching. Anyway, I was alone again, and I fell asleep and when I awoke the sun was high, and I wanted to get off that mountain. But first I dismantled the altar and buried the bones of the ram. Except for the great curling horn. I picked it up and held it as I'm holding it now, stunned by its beauty and power. Now I can barely lift it, but then it was just solid in my hands and I put it to my lips and blew, long howls and quick squeals and bursts and sighs, and you know the sound was the sound of God's laughter. I blew and blew and finally, when I was almost fainting, I sent God one long blasting wail that went on and on until my breath was gone and even past that to a last little upward giggle ... and I fell to the ground in a faint and when I woke up I was still laughing. I could not stop laughing until I reached the foot of Moriah. So now, my son, you know why I like meat so much. Why I Love the game you bring me. I am old now, blind and bedridden. An old fool they say, and that_s the worst kind. A humble cipher, they say. Uxorious they say. Ruled by your mother. But it doesn't matter. And it does not matter for you that your brother has the first blessing. He had to have it. It was God's will, not mine and not your mother's. Don't envy him. But, God's will or no, I see how hurt you are. After all, I have been deceived too. So I'm giving you this ram's horn as a sign of my devotion. You can use it to call God, and God will hear you. Now, go and act hurt and angry -- I know it won't be hard. But do it loudly and in the hearing of your mother. In her hearing say out loud that you are going to kill Jacob. Say it! Say it to yourself, but so she hears. Then she will run and tell him that he must not stand and fight you, that he has to run away, now, today. And we_ll send Jacob far away, to her brother, that goniff in Haran. And he'll marry Laban's daughter, and settle in that land, and stay there 'til he knows that he can face you. And when he does return, bring this shofar; give it to him. It will be a sign of your forgiveness, and release. And from it he will learn that you too had your father's blessing and that your seed too is part of the great line. And now, you and your Hittite wives can stay here, and you can bring me meat for my mouth, and give Rebecca and me a peaceful old age. And now, God can have this story. © Arthur Strimling