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,


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Delete me, Please | Noach 2011

The most touching moment in the story of Noah and the flood comes after all the action is over. Noah and family are let out, God promises never to destroy the world again, lays down moral guidance to prevent the return of violent depravity, and all is supposed to go back to normal.

Except for Noah, that is:
Now Noah began to be a man of the soil;
he planted a vineyard.
He drank from the wine, and he became drunk.
And he sat in his tent, naked.

Genesis 9:20-21
The midrash notes how this moment marks the lowest point in Noah’s life:
Said R. Yehuda ben R. Shalom:
At first – “a righteous, wholehearted man in his generation”,
And now – “a man of the soil”… (Midrash Tanhuma Noah 13)

I can’t help but sympathize with Noah’s situation; he is a broken man after the flood. Whether it is guilt for having not tried to save humanity (for which he is heavily criticized by the Rabbis, contrasted with Abraham who argued with God over destroying Sodom), or the PTSD brokenness of a person who has witnessed a terrifying destructive power – Noah wants to erase his consciousness, and is not interested in human civilization. He reverts back to the earth, to the nakedness of Adam and Eve, but it is simply pathetic rather than Edenic. Drunk and naked in his tent, Noah wants to be deleted.
Noah’s issue seems to be with human existence per se, but his image reminded me of a poem about the desire to delete one’s identity. Admiel Kosman, one of the most interesting contemporary Jewish poets, was raised in an observant Orthodox Israeli family and is now a Talmud professor and head of the Reform Rabbinical college in Germany. He has recently begun writing some of his poems, mostly “new prayers”, in Hebrew letters – but in English, providing a jolting experience for readers. This creates an irony-laden setting for some intense meditations:

A Plea

Delete me please,
delete me absolutely
from da list,

no more Izrael, no more
Jewish blood, no
more history,

just nathing,
quiet, peace,

delete me, just delete,
I beg you, please, 

It’s not clear what causes Kosman to ask to be deleted.
Is it the weight of a collective history, of Jewish chosenness, that him makes cry out in search of some quiet individualism?
Or does the mention of Jewish blood and history evoke the days of persecutions, the lists of Jews – Kosman after the Holocaust, like Noah after the flood, is challenging God to shed our affiliations in order to save us from a destructive fate?
Or maybe, more contentiously, Kosman is reacting to the growing sense that political Israel has turned inward on itself, from persecuted to persecutors, with the idea of Jewish blood becoming a claim to supremacy and an excuse for violence – leading him to ask to be deleted from such an affiliation?
I must admit, I identify with this plea at times. Israeli politics aside, being Jewish often feels like that Yiddish story “Too Much Noise”. I find myself yearning to be anonymous, identity-less, to be “just nathing, quiet, peace”. In my case, it doesn’t last for long – the post-modern identity-less illusion seems an empty trap to me – but the desire to delete one’s identity still resonates.
Let’s admit it: Such a wish is practically original sin in Judaism. Do whatever you want, believe what you will, but don’t ask to be deleted from the list. Argue, rile, disagree – but don’t say “no more history”. After all, the wicked son of the Haggadah is the one who “takes himself out of the group”. Noah is considered a hopeless failure because he slumped into self-oblivion, no longer engaging with history.
Yet the irony of the story of the flood is that long before Noah sought to delete himself, God was the one who wanted to do the deleting. He had his reasons: human civilization had deteriorated into a violent mayhem. But the fact remains – God is the first one to have the desire to delete, to plea for “nothing, quiet, peace”. Noah is simply following suit – destroying internally what God has left behind. For me, that is validation enough: the desire to delete the project which is humanity, or Judaism, is corroborated by the creator himself.
I should now write a stirring call for identity. It would use the words “covenant”, “morality”, “partnership”. Somewhere, a rainbow would fit in. But I believe we’ve all heard those before, and will hear those again. We have plenty of future opportunities to impart the importance of having an identity, of believing in the project which is human civilization and Jewish civilization, for redeeming the noise which is Jewish existence. But there needs to be room made for the plea to be deleted, for the desire to be identity-less. It is a desire I hear loud and clear from my peers, and one I identify in myself. Only once we’ve encountered that desire face to face, can we begin to search for the pot of covenant at the end of the rainbow.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Mishael Zion
Co-Director, Director of Education
The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel

“Go to Your Self”, All By Yourself? | Lech Lecha 2011

In the middle of Reb Nachman of Berslov’s major work, Likkutei Moharan, in between part 1 and part 2, there is a very strange short text. It is labeled simply as “an omission” (השמטה) but under its unassuming title is a text that rocks my world:

"One was Abraham" (says Ezekiel 33) – For Abraham worshipped God only by the fact that he was one, that he thought of himself as the only person in the world, and didn't look at all the other people, who deviated from God's path and were obstacles to Abraham, and not at his father and other such obstacles, but only as if he was the only one person in the world. And this is "One was Abraham".
And in such a manner any person that wants to begin a life of spiritual service (=Avodat HaShem), cannot do so without thinking that there is no one in the world but them, not looking at any person that is an obstacle, such as a father or a mother, in-laws or spouse or children…. Nor at the obstacles that one has from the rest of the world, which ridicule and mock, tempting and preventing from God’s true service. And one must not take heart or look at them at all, and only be in the aspect of "One was Abraham" – as if they are the only person in the world. (click here for the Hebrew text)
For Reb Nachman, Abraham’s biggest feat, the cause of his success in the world, was his ability to be truly “one”. Alone, singular, Abraham is cast in our mythical imagination as the rebel who is forever breaking free from the idols of his society. More radically, Reb Nachman believes Abraham’s model must be emulated by anyone who wants to be “one”, anyone who is serious about a life of spiritual service, avodat haShem. The Zohar (I:77b) interprets the term “Lech Lecha” as “Go to yourself, to establish yourself”. Reb Nachman describes how to do that: by cutting off the rest of the world.
Reb Nachman here is sounding a refreshing vision of individualism which is at odds with Judaism’s stress on tradition, the collective, family and the normative power of community. Take this as a text on leadership and it is a call to be radically innovative despite the obstacles placed by our peers and organizations. It is very Reb Nachman, but it is also very modern and existentialist: strive to discover your own truth, which might only be attained by silencing everyone else out.
Every time I read this text or think about Abraham, an argument gets ignited in my head. My fear is that Reb Nachman is right – that great change really does happen from the revolutionaries that ignore the rest of the world, that a deeply meaningful life means creating significant space, even from those dearest to us. On the other hand, I am deeply troubled by how quick R. Nachman is to encourage us to ignore society, family, even our spouses, and how unbalanced and lonely a calling this is. I try to reduce “being one” to a phase - Abraham’s teenage years, perhaps his mid-life crisis, but not a constant mode of operation. This leaves me with a nice “out” from all of this: radical individualism is a phase, one that might be necessary when you’re breaking away from something or shaking off some idols, but not advisable in the long term. Even Reb Nachman says – “when one is entering a life of spiritual service”… but then maybe I’m limiting this to a “phase” to defend my bourgeoisie comforts, responds ther voice in my head…
I’d like to find a way to be both radically “one” throughout life and still living in true partnership with others. I want to be both Abraham the questioning innovator and Abraham who builds significant partnerships and community.
Reb Nachman famously stranded his wife in order to travel to Israel for a year. Breslov followers – including some of my close friends – traditionally forsake their wives each Rosh haShana, going on a pilgrimage to his burial ground in Uman. I have learned many things from Reb Nachman, and see much power in going on independent pilgrimages, but we draw different lines: In my “emancipated” partnership view of marriage, even in my “one”ness moments of ignoring the rest of the world, I strive to include my spouse in my “one”, not exclude her…
Maybe this difference, of expanding the boundaries of the “one” at hand, is a useful solution. There are moments when “being one” means excluding everyone in order to find ourselves. But then there are a moment when “being one” means partnering with others, who share similar visions, and creating a unit together. Interestingly, half the stories about Abraham are about how lonely he is, and the other half are about his struggle to build partnerships (Malkitzedek, Abimelech and Lot).
I let Reb Nachman’s image of Abraham work in my psyche as a free radical, reminding me to hold on to an aspect of innovative individualism, to strive to “be one” above and beyond the many obstacles. I think Abraham is happy being remembered in his more iconoclastic phase. Luckily, he is only one of many patriarchs and matriarchs in whom I find inspiration. Still, whenever I hear his call, a naughty smile spreads on my face as I am reminded to be more “one” and to overcome a few obstacles, even at the cost of the occasional smashed idol.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Mishael Zion
Co-Director, Director of Education
The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel