Thursday, September 27, 2012

Rosh Hashana Day 2012
The story of the binding of Isaac continues to haunt us no matter how many times we read it on Rosh Hashanah or during the yearly cycle of Torah readings. It appears to be a story about absolute faith in the word of God, and about Abraham's willingness to be tested to see if he is truly worthy of divine favor. It's a familiar story, I'm sure, for most of you, yet I find something troubling in it, and not just in the near act of child sacrifice, but in the aftermath of this puzzling event.
We have no idea what happened between father and son after the events recorded in Genesis 22. All the text says is “And they returned to Beer Shava together.” That’s it? Nothing else? No conversation and no sharing anything about how they were feeling about all that transpired? All we are left with is the impersonal third person narrative that they returned to Beer Sheva.

It is true that a lot depends on how old Isaac was at the time that the story occurred. Was he a child when Abraham placed him on the altar, or—as many Midrashim suppose, was he an adult? Let us suppose, for the moment, that the latter was true. Can we than presume that he was angry with his father?  Did he want to be far from him? Maybe he was so upset and traumatized that he refused to speak with Abraham. Of course, no one knows the answer to these questions; nevertheless, the text calls out to us to explore them, and this exactly what I propose to do.
Suppose Isaac was angry at his father and could never understand or respect what Abraham almost did to him even with the approval of God. Suppose the silence of the text reflected that Isaac was so angry with his father that he never did speak to him again? And is it also possible that Abraham felt guilty at what he almost did to his son? I want to know if they were able to recover from this episode. Why is it that they never speak again in the Torah? Maybe there is something more that meets the eye here?
The fact that they do not ever speak again leads us to contemplate something more personal about our relationships with parents or with children. I sense there might have been an estrangement between father and son in this story even though I cannot prove it. And from that perspective the story is tragic if that is true because one wonders if there was ever a healing between them? Or did Isaac remain embittered and Abraham live with guilt because of the divine command? Was there any reconciliation between father and son?
There may be a link in this interpretation of the Binding of Isaac story to us. It is one that we probably would prefer not to discuss but one that deserves our attention anyway. Being estranged from a child or a parent is a trauma of a different nature but one that could be compared to the silence we imagine between Abraham and Isaac in the Torah text. Conflicts happen even within the best of families, and while these conflicts may not resemble the near-sacrifice of Isaac, nevertheless, traumas and ruptures in the foundation of a relationship can affect a family for many years in ways that are not terribly different from the presumed alienation of Isaac from Abraham.   And when that happens is there a way to begin a process of healing those deep wounds in a family?

Let me begin by saying that there are lots of theories as to what happened to Isaac. Many rabbinical commentators speculate that Abraham actually sacrificed him and that he was resurrected.  One can explore the realm of medieval commentators and see that many of them also struggled with the idea of God asking a father to kill his son to prove his loyalty. Some commentators speculated that Abraham misunderstood what God intended. For example one Rabbi, Jona ibn Janach, of 11th century Spain said that God had intended for Abraham to take a symbolic sacrifice not to actually perform the act.  Three hundred years later in Spain the commentator ibn Caspi said that Abraham let his imagination get the better of him for how could God allow for such a “revolting thing?”
Needless to say, that this story resonates deeply in Christian history with the idea that God would consider sacrificing his only son. This may have a lot to do with why our rabbis of the Late Antique and Medieval periods tried to interpret the story in any way that would distance it from prevailing Christian interpretations.

There are some Hasidic commentators of the 18th century who believed that this was a test for Isaac more so than his father. Because they believed that Isaac was 36 at the time of the story, the underlying theme is a test to see if Isaac was willing to give up his life for Kiddush Hashem- for the sanctification of the Divine Name. This resonated for many Jewish communities who had suffered martyrdom during the crusades or had experienced violent ant-Jewish attacks at many other times in Jewish history of extreme and violent anti-Jewish attacks.
Some commentators also viewed this story as a way of testing God’s commitment to Israel. Since Abraham says earlier, “ the lad and I will go up to the mountain and prostrate ourselves and then return to you,” that  proves, they argued, that Abraham knew all along that God would never make him sacrifice Isaac. Thus, the story actually tests God’s moral fortitude to choose the righteous way. Is it any much different then when God argues with Abraham regarding the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah?

All of these interpretations belong to a treasure trove of commentators who were driven to derive meaning from such an upsetting story. Yet it is difficult to find interpretations that go into the moral realm, and suggest that both men were perhaps not on such good terms when they descended Mt. Moriah.

The fact that they never spoke to each other again in the rest of the Torah leads me to imagine that all did not end up well.  I do not have evidence to prove there was a major rift between father and son but I do not believe it is any more speculative than imagining that Abraham actually sacrificed Isaac, as several commentators believed.
It seems to me that when parents and adult children stop talking to each other one of the hardest things to do is to get to the root of the story that caused the estrangement. It is often times difficult to get everyone on the same page since all sides have differing accounts as to what started the problems in the first place.
What is disturbing, however, is the sheer number of families where parents and adult children refuse to speak to one another.  In this congregation and in others I have served I listen to good and kind people tell me their pain. In many cases I hear the side of heartbroken parents who have lost their relationship with one of their children. So often they live for years without speaking.  This may mean no communication with children and or grandchildren which only adds to the burden that many parents experience over the years and impacts the way they live their daily lives.  Sometimes it is a job that took parents away from building a solid family life, or perhaps it was a divorce when the children were young, or maybe sibling rivalry, or drug abuse, or simply just poor communications skills. There are so many other reasons.
Other times there is one specific traumatic event such as suicide, murder, accidental death or death caused by disease of a child or young parent that creates a ripple effect of alienation within a family. Family members especially the extended families of grandparents never deal with the issue and it leaves a lifetime of anger and distance within the family.
Once again, I do not liken these events exactly to the binding of Isaac, yet, the connection here is the trauma for whatever can  cause family members to self destruct. Even in the Midrash to the binding of Isaac story the rabbis imagine Abraham and Isaac going down the mountain and when Abraham tells Sarah what had happened, the text says, “her soul had left her.” Maybe that was the reason that Isaac and Abraham never spoke again. The point is that trauma comes from any direction and leaves behind a lifelong virus of mistrust and anger that persists unless we address the basic issues.”
Having a difficult conversation with our loved ones with the goal of eventually leading to healing and forgiveness not only requires great patience but a commitment, for intents and purposes, to  reinvent the relationship We cannot solve these kinds of deep seated wounds in one moment. And email is the worst format for addressing complex emotional issues. It takes face to face contact and over an extended period of time to carve away at the block of anger and years of resentment that have built up between parent and child.
But I try to tell my congregants never to give up as well as to obtain professional guidance in coping with a long term effort to reestablish communication with an alienated child or parent or sibling or good friend. Many times the biggest challenge is getting over the hurdle of not having communicated for so long as compared to the original issue that created the chasm in the first place.
And even when we can get all the various conversations out on the table and everyone gets a chance to be heard and to state their reasons for being hurt, the moral issue is defined as whether or not family bonds will suffice to compel us to ask for forgiveness and to grant it? That too is a critical question. Can you imagine a therapist sitting down with Abraham and Isaac helping them to articulate their feelings of guilt, anger and whatever else might be going on behind the scenes after the binding incident and the intervention of God?

While I understand why deep seated conflicts may require family members to take a break from each other that should not be a sign to ultimately give up on healing a relationship of someone we care about. Yes there are times when we have no choice but to acknowledge that healing will not occur. But we who try to achieve reconciliation have to be able to look to god and within ourselves and say, “I have gone the entire way of my life to reach out to this person and make teshuvah.” This is not about admitting fault or blame. It is about saying that we cannot lose communication. We cannot lose the engagement with our loved ones even when one feels and demonstrates no interest in that relationship. We should not abandon the commitment to reconcile as a moral and religious imperative. Facing rejection is not pleasant and the hurt is long lasting but what people tell me is worse is the silence, that is, the lack of communication. And that is why I wanted to see something of a dialogue or reaction from Isaac and Abraham after the binding of Isaac at Mt. Moriah. This is what led me to the subject of trying to reconcile with our loved ones who have become estranged from us.
The truth is that the story of the binding of Isaac is about breaking the rules. It is a breach of law between father and son including the prohibition of murder, and especially the abomination of human sacrifice. How can one recover when someone feels the other has betrayed everything sacred in a relationship? All we know from the Torah is that Abraham and Isaac left together and returned to beer sheva. Was the word” Vayashuvu, and they returned,” which is the same root word meaning to repent a clue to us that they found a way back to each other? We shall never know for sure.
Yet at the end the angel of God says to Abraham that he knows Abraham was willing to nullify everything for the sake of binding himself and Isaac. Is it possible that the healing took place when both gave up everything of the past and started over on the journey home? Is that when the real dialogue took place? Is it possible that then when they sacrificed the ram it symbolized that they were both giving up so much of their hurt and estrangement because that was the only way to begin to heal their rift?  Maybe true healing of estranged relationships requires us to give up something of ourselves in order to overcome the hurt that afflicts us. Maybe that is the true test of reconciliation.

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