Akedah Introduction, Rosh Hashanah 2005 (5766)

by Arthur Strimling It's time again for the Akedah. That story. Every year the same story. But as one of my favorite poets, Nazim Hikmet, wrote, ‘You can’t step in the same river even once.’ So, we face it again. And again, we seek a way to read it and bear it. Last week, I watched Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan movie, and there he was singing

Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son" Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"

And that did great for that time of draft resistance and youthful rebellion. But it doesn’t cut it anymore. Because God means it and Abraham doesn’t say no, or anything. He just goes and does it until God can’t stand it anymore and makes him stop. So maybe this year’s question is: why isn’t it called ‘The Unbinding of Isaac?’ My father is dying. He’s 93 years old. Two months ago the doctor put him on hospice care, which means he now has at most 4 months of life left. My father is dying. I am standing looking down at him dozing on a bed he can’t get out of. He is bound by his own frailty. The doctor says ‘His system is just shutting down.’ He can’t remember anything. Sometimes he thinks my mother is my sister, my son is me. But he can still make quick word puns and flirt with the aids who feed him and keep him clean and free of pain. If my father is to be believed’ he wishes he would not wake up from this nap. Over and over he says ‘I’ve lived too long.’ But on the other hand he keeps on fighting. That’s his default mode, Fighting; has been all his life. So maybe the fight is just the habit of a lifetime. Or maybe he’s not as convinced about dying as he acts. A midrash: Isaac stands on top of Mt. Moriah, 37 year old, in the bloom of manhood. He is helping his father Abraham, pile stones to make an altar. Abraham is 127 years old, so Isaac is doing most of the work. This is the altar on which Abraham will sacrifice Isaac, and Isaac is helping Dad build it. This midrash comes from the Middle Ages, when the Crusaders were torturing and slaughtering whole towns of Jews in southern France and Germany, and some of the these towns committed mass suicide to save themselves and their children from a worse fate at the Crusaders’ hands. In this midrash, written as I say in the midst of the Crusades, Isaac tells Abraham to bind him firmly to the altar. I am young, he says, and you, father, are old. and when that cleaver is coming down toward my throat, I might cringe, I might waver in my resolve to be the perfect willing sacrifice, I might cling to life. And if I squirm and you miss, the sacrifice wouldn’t be kosher and God wouldn’t be pleased. So, please, Father, bind me very tight so I can’t give in to my fear and ambivalence.” Creepy, huh? This Isaac was not a product of progressive Park Slope child rearing. But try to imagine a world in which killing your own child in the most merciful way possible is the only option left. You would need a story like this. A story in which the child understands perfectly, cooperates totally. In that time in that place, this was the midrash they needed. So what do I need now, standing over my dying helpless father? How can I read this story now? Another story: this is from the New Yorker: “For the moment, people are focused on the grace of their own survival, and are grateful for the small and large acts of compassion that have come their way. And yet, he said, ‘you are going to see a lot of suicides this winter. A lot of poor people depend entirely on their extended family and their friends who share their condition to be a buffer against the pain of that condition. By winter, a lot of the generosity and aid that’s been so palpable lately will begin to slow down and the reality of not going home again will hit people hard. They will be very alone. “People forget how important all those Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs are for people. It’s a community for a lot of folks who have nothing. Some people have never left New Orleans. Some have never seen snow. So you wake up and you find yourself beyond the reach of members of your family, and you are working in a fast-food restaurant in Utah somewhere and there is no conceivable way for you to get back to the city you love. How are going to feel?” In the psychological iconography of patriarchy, my father was always Abraham. A true believer, he dedicated his life to science, always putting that pursuit ahead of mere human considerations, always kept himself separate from people, unless it was in pursuit of his vision. In my self pitying youth I could only see Isaac’s pathetic victimhood and, man did I identify. I wallowed in it. And I had a lot of support – not only from Bob Dylan; Leonard Cohen, the Grateful Dead and a lot of others turned Isaac into the iconic kid sacrificed to old mens’ schemes. Then I became a parent myself, and I saw two little boys staring up at me in wonder and awe and sometimes terror, and the story got more complicated and nuanced, but still, whatever my sons thought, in my heart, my father was always Abraham. But now, there he is helpless on this bed, this altar. We have arrived at a moment that happens often in this age of longevity; the son becomes the father, the father, the child. I hold the cup and steady the straw so he can drink. I slip his unnecessary shoes onto his useless feet and set them on the footrests of his wheelchair. I pick him up so my mother can adjust his pillow. I have become the father and he the son, but only physically. Inside of both of us, he is still the patriarch and I am still the quivering son. But suddenly he is Isaac, old blind feeble – we never get to see Abraham like that. Oh no, Abraham goes off after the Akedah and the death of Sarah and marries again and has a bunch more children, and we don’t see him again until he dies. But Isaac, poor Isaac, is forced to expose his old age, his feebleness to all time. The most famous story about Isaac, after this one, is that clown play in which he is the blind old fool, deceived by his wife and son in a ruse that would stretch the credulity of kids at a puppet show. So there lies Isaac -- ancient, feeble, helpless -- and I am Jakob … or Esau… or both. Yes both, the trickster and the hunter; the man of mind and the sensualist, all those sons standing over him. And we have come together to bury him. And he raises his feeble arm and we lean over to hear and he says to us. “Bound! Bound! You are all bound. There is no release. those thick ropes holding me to the altar at Moriah were nothing. I would have lain under the knife without them. Jakob, you ran like a thief, off to a distant land, thought you would escape your deceits and schemes. But in the end all you could do was come back. And Esau you married other tribes, worship other gods, but you can’t leave here, and you too are bound. There is a filament that binds us all together forever, past present future. Now I'm blind enough to see it again. thin, flexible, stronger than any knife. I first saw it after father cut the ropes that held me to the altar at Moriah. I saw how we are all tied to each other. How we can either follow the thread or resist and become hopelessly twisted in it and bound by it.” Now, I ask you, all of you, to look around this room. I ask you to imagine all of us here in this sanctuary tied together, one to another to another by this invisible filament Isaac sees. See it yourself for it is there. We talk about it all the time – community, networking, six degrees of separation, the ties that bind. The Latin word for son is filius, in French, fils, and both are connected to the words like affiliation and to filament. For a moment let yourself see that filament. It’s easy to see and feel here in this sanctuary among friends, family, network. It’s easy to feel and see it here in Park Slope, greeting neighbors as I walk the dog, going into little stores whose owners know me, running into friends and acquaintances, Kolot members all the time. It’s why I live here. And it can be felt in the pain of those people pulled out of New Orleans. Their filaments stretched so long that they may become nothing but sad memories forever, abandoned for newer networks if they are to survive. Here in Kolot I receive constant expressions of concern and care, as if the whole community is there with my mother and sister and me, waiting and watching with us as my father dies. I feel held. And it helps. The filament is strung just tight enough to be in tune with my needs, loose enough to let me be. I have tended to it, and now it is paying off. And finally back to the Akedah. This story in which God asks for the most extreme sacrifice imaginable, far worse than one’s own life. And receives it and then backs off from the request, perhaps because in the end God loves us more than we love ourselves. I never thought I would hear myself say that, especially in reference to this story, but here I am. You can’t step in the same river even once. Last night and today over and over we have sung ‘ana b’koach g’dulat yeminkha/ tatir tz’rura:’ praising God for releasing those who are bound up. And that’s true too. But this story, the Akedah is not called the Unbinding of Isaac, which might seem more accurate. No, it’s the Binding of Isaac. I have never seen that before, the way in which this is a story about both kinds of bindings, the ones that imprison and choke us and the ones that sustain us through all time. Shanah Tovah! © Arthur Strimling

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