The Ties That Bind
This Shabbos we read the parshah containing the story of the Akeida, the Binding of Isaac, which is also the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Few of the events in the lives of our Avos are as familiar, or stir up as much emotion, debate, and controversy, as this sublime and challenging story.
Thirteen months ago, for Rosh Hashanah 5766, I followed the example of several other J-bloggers in presenting my own views of the meaning and lessons of the Akeida. I won't repeat that entire post, but to summarize the key points:
- God certainly never intended that Abraham go through with it. The message is thus that God abhors child sacrifice, not desires it.
- Abraham's faith was strong enough that he knew with a certainty that whatever God asked him was meant for the best. Nevertheless, this was still the most difficult trial he had to undergo.
Does what I endured make the Akeida story more vividly real, more compellingly painful for me to than for most other parents? I have no doubt that this is so. But in reliving the story twice each year - tomorrow will be my fourth time since Aaron's passing - I have come to see it in a way that contains a powerful measure of consolation as well.
How can this story of an almost-bereaved father possibly comfort one who has been through that hell itself?
It gets back to trying to see the event from the perspective I discussed in my earlier post - Abraham's, that is. I am not of the mindset that views the Avos as perfect, sinless beings, unimaginably far above our level. But one thing that is indisputably true of Abraham is that his experience of God was genuine. To Abraham, a direct command from God was not just a test of obedience. It was a fact, no less tangible than a force of nature.
That's why I utterly reject those contrarian views that see Abraham as actually failing this trial. God's ultimate test was not of Abraham's moral fiber, or his ability to made independent moral decisions - that had been proven over and over again since his earliest childhood. Rather, it was to learn how close Abraham's ties to God actually were, how concrete God's presence had become to him. And Abraham demonstrated that God's word had truly become his very reality. From this perspective, God's mere asking for this sacrifice was, to Abraham, no different than if, say...
...Isaac had fallen critically ill.
My perspective on the Akeida is thus drastically different than the usual understanding. It's not an object-lesson about following God's orders. It's a guide for how to cope with loss.
Abraham maintained his connection with and trust in God, despite receiving a directive that was profoundly at odds with all he believed and desired. So too, when we undergo seemingly senseless and undeserved events, when we experience pain, sorrow, suffering and death - even the most extreme and horrific loss of a child - we have in Abraham a model on how to endure and accept, how to hold onto our faith and move forward.
The Binding of Isaac is a link that connects all future generation of our people, through all our years of persecution, exile, hardship, and yes, bereavement. A bond back with the Forefather who showed us how to carry on in the worst of times, with the perfect, comforting assurance that in the end, God will indeed make it all come out all right. Living up to this example is, indeed, the supreme challenge, the ultimate test for us all.