Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Akedah or Why Do We Tell Painful Stories?

“The Torah is a commentary on our lives, and our lives are a commentary on the Torah”. That’s how Shlomo Carlebach phrased it, and I live my life very much in light of that statement. Only sometimes I wish this wasn’t so true, especially when Parashat Vayera rolls along. Whenever I read the opening words of Genesis 22, I tremble:

Take your son, please,
your only-one, whom you love,
and go-you-forth to
the land of Moriah,
and offer him up there
as an offering-up
Upon one of the mountains
that I shall tell you.
Genesis 22:2-3 

קַח נָא
אֶת בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידְךָ
אֲשֶׁר אָהַבְתָּ אֶת יִצְחָק
וְלֶךְ לְךָ אֶל אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה
וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם לְעֹלָה
עַל אַחַד הֶהָרִים
אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ:
בראשית כב  ב-ג

If the Akedah was some remnant of old-world religiosity, I wouldn’t tremble. I would be curious, I would enjoy the beautiful literature and the theoretical moral dilemma, but I wouldn’t tremble. Or maybe I’d find the story repugnant, a terrible tale of yet another murderous fanatic. But the Akedah is not merely a “religious story” that illustrates the danger of fundamentalism. Rather, the Akedah is the story that forces us to face a fundamental dilemma: if called to sacrifice your values on the altar of a larger vision, to bind-up your relationships for a greater promise – what would you do?
I hate this question, but I recognize how common it actually is, and so when I imagine Abraham waking up early in the morning, I find myself trembling. Examples of this dilemma abound, from the big Akedah’s of life to the smallest ones: Sending a child to the army in order to defend a country; placing a family in danger in order to serve in a perilous community; or the more common opposite dilemma - taking a job in an ethically questionable profession in order to ensure a comfortable life for your children. These all include painful sacrifices of various values and relationships, and I would rather not think of them, much less tell a story of a God who puts a father through such a test.
Having said that, the only thing worse than telling the story of the Akedah would be not telling it.
Without stories such as the Akedah as part of our culture and identity, we would stand alone in these searing moments. Sure, philosophical tracts that discuss these issues abound, but even the best philosopher cannot reach what a powerful storyteller can. Stories lure by the power of narrative, and the listeners find themselves exploring the deeper nuances of otherwise theoretical dilemmas as if they themselves were facing it. As we engage in the act of storytelling, we unconsciously change the set and the costumes in our mind, suddenly realizing that the old myth is actually quite contemporary. We are not just telling tales, we are equipping our communities with the tools to handle such questions themselves one day. When those dilemmas arise – the story of Abraham awaits to help us sort through our emotions and our ethics.

There are numerous artistic renderings of the Akedah which powerfully retell the story, but my favorite Akedah picture is not about the Akedah at all. In our home in Jerusalem, we had Norman Rockwell’s famous 1964 illustration of African-American Ruby Bridges being walked to a segregated school by US Marshalls . I often thought of her parents and their decision, their Akedah in placing their daughter on the front line of a greater vision they had for America. I wonder which stories were invoked in sermons at the time, offered as paradigms to motivate this courageous act.
In contemporary Israel and America the Akedah became the paradigm through which to speak about the sacrifice of children in war, the battleground for a variety of ideologies. Early Israeli writers like Haim Gouri identified with Abraham’s decision as they sent their children (and themselves) to war. Later writers used the Akedah as a backdrop to object to wars they deemed unnecessary, such as Leonard Cohen’s Vietnam-era “The Story of Isaac”, who justifies the God of the Akedah, but not the scheming politicians. Others came up with a very clear answer to this dilemma, as in this poem by Raya Hernik:

I will not sacrifice
My first born to the altar.
Not I.

At nights God and I
Take stock –
Who deserves what.

I know and acknowledge
Where thanks are due.
But not my son
And not
To the altar.
Raya Hernik, 1970.
אני לא אקריב
בכורי לעולה
לא אני

בלילות א-להים ואני
עורכים חשבונות
מה מגיע למי

אני יודעת ומכירה
אבל לא את בני
ולא לעולה.             
Raya Hernik’s cry fell on destiny’s deaf ears. Twelve years after the poem was written, her son, Maj. Gooni Hernik, was killed in the first Lebanon war.
The arguments of these poems concern me less. It is their use of the story in order to frame their experience, and their activism. Facing these dilemmas through a retelling of the Akedah, they galvanize an entire array of ethics, emotions and relationships that deepen the discourse, and create artistic gems that touch upon eternal human questions. They use the Torah as a commentary on their lives, and by doing so offer a commentary on the Torah, for us to use one day.
Each year, when we read the story of the Akedah, I almost wish it wasn’t there. But it is – there in our Torah, there in our lives. When the questions of ultimate sacrifice rear their head – and they will – I will be undecided, but I won’t be alone. I’ll have the depth of the Akedah and its many retellings, as I struggle to find a path that will lead me to the top of Mount Moriah… and safely home again, to retell the story another day.

Shabbat shalom,


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