Rabbi Marci Bellows – Temple B’nai Torah – RH Morning Sermon 5771
Each year, on the morning of Rosh Hashanah, many of us arrive with a sense of both trepidation and intrigue to this point in our worship, this moment right before we open the Torah to recount the story of the Binding of Isaac. The verses we are about to hear in Genesis, chapter 22, are some of the most memorable, yet also haunting and disturbing, words we read from our holiest text. We will listen, once again, to the story of God calling out to Abraham. He will be asked to take Isaac, his son, his precious one, his beloved, to the land of Moriah and sacrifice him on one of the mountaintops to prove to God how faithful he is. Abraham not only agrees without hesitation, but actually wakes up early, saddles up his donkey, and takes Isaac on a journey from which his son might never return.
So, let’s say that we want to analyze the story based on the various players who take part.
As an exercise, if I asked you to list the main characters of the story, whom would you identify? God…. Abraham……Isaac…. Who else? Who plays as important a role, but never seems to get enough credit? As I will suggest momentarily, there are two figures who are frequently forgotten, but, without whom, the story would not, and could not, take place.
Let’s first review the easy answers to the question at hand. If you are feeling particularly faithful and devoted this morning, you might answer that Abraham is the real star of the story. Abraham does not allow his conviction to waver, and is therefore anxious to show God how devoted a servant he is. At God’s request, he is willing to offer up Isaac to God
and sacrifice his beloved son, yet, we might be hesitant to view Abraham as a hero of any kind because we still are horrified at his willingness to do such a thing.
There may be some among you who would suggest that Isaac, poor, young Isaac, is the central character. As the pending sacrifice, the medium through which Abraham will show his devotion to God, this is definitely a convincing idea. In my own eternal need to cheer for the underdog, I find that much of my sympathy goes out to him, a seemingly passive victim in this religious interplay between his father and God. Isaac is about to sacrificed to Abraham’s God, and he doesn’t seem to have any say in the matter.
God could certainly be identified as the main character, for God, at the last possible moment, sends an angel to tell Abraham to put the knife down and not to harm his son.
God saves Abraham, the father, and Isaac, the son, and allows for the continuation of the Jewish people. Yet, after all this, wasn’t God the one who set this horrible ordeal in motion?
So, we’ve got Abraham, Isaac, and God. Who else is there? This morning, I have two more suggestions. In the midst of this tale are two characters forgotten by the text, often forgotten by commentaries, and missing from many of our discussions.
First, I must ask, where would Isaac be if it hadn’t been for his mother, Sarah? Where, in this story, is Sarah? Luckily, we aren’t the only ones noticing her absence. As I stated, the Torah text itself ignores her throughout this entire ordeal, mentioning only that she dies in the next chapter. It is at times like these that we must turn to our reliable midrashim,
those stories and legends that interpret the Torah, fill in gaps, answer our questions,
and explain the otherwise unexplainable.
So, imagine a group of rabbis sitting around, hundreds of years ago, asking this same question – where is Sarah? And there are many more interesting questions they may have asked: What did she know about the near-sacrifice of her son? Why didn’t Abraham tell her that he was about to kill their beloved child, born to them in old age? Why does she die, whether coincidentally or not, immediately following this ordeal? The midrashim are filled with a number of stories, designed to answer some of these questions.
One midrash states:
“Abraham meditated in his heart, saying: What am I to do? Shall I tell Sarah? Women tend to think lightly of God’s commands. If I do not tell her and simply take off with him – afterward, when she does not see him, she will strangle herself.
What did he do?
He said to Sarah: “Prepare food and drink for us, and we will rejoice today.”
She asked, “Why today more than other days? Besides, what is the rejoicing about?”
Abraham: “Old people like ourselves, to whom a son was born in our old age – have we not cause to rejoice?”
So she went and prepared the food.
During the meal, Abraham said to Sarah, “You know, when I was only three years old, I became aware of my Maker, but this lad, growing up, has not yet been taught about his Creator. Now, there is a place far away where youngsters are taught about God. Let me take him there.”
Sarah said, “Take him in peace.”
“Abraham rose up early in the morning.” (Gen. 22:3)
Why early in the morning? Because he said: It may be that Sarah will reconsider what she said yesterday and refuse to let Isaac go. So I’ll get us early and go while she is still asleep. Moreover, it is best that no one sees us.
How clever of Abraham, and how sneaky!
As for Isaac – did he have any concern of what his mother might think? Another midrash has Isaac saying to Abraham, while laying atop the altar:
“Father, don’t tell Mother about this while she is standing over a pit or on a rooftop, for she might throw herself down and be killed.”
With these midrashim in mind, it is pretty easy to see what the early rabbis assumptions about women – easy to trick, ready to fly into hysterics at any moment, unable to handle stress, and lacking in faith.
It takes a modern, Jewish female author to capture more of what Sarah might have been feeling. I think that the following poetic commentary addresses Sarah’s feelings best.
Sarah Talks to God, by Lillian Elkin
And why, Oh King, my God, should the blood of a child
Run precious in your house.
My small boy has brought wheat to your altar
And in the summer gathered fruits and wild flowers.
What will you do with small fingers
And the fright of little hands.
More feeble is he than a bird on your altar
And his heart is a wing.
If we have sinned against your greatness
We have been humble, too.
And in the shadows of your timeless sandals
The small gods were weeds.
We have set our house for your guests.
And I have brought water and blessed their coming.
I have left the home of familiar herds and shepherds
And my mother’s loom is silent.
I have wept in strange lands
But never have I questioned Abraham or his will
Which was your own.
But I am a woman and this is my child
And my love for him is greater than fear
And my sorrow surrounds me with knives
And I am bitter in my doubts.
A mother’s heart – a modern poet captures what the ancient rabbis could never have understood. And how much richer the story of Abraham and Isaac would have been
if it could have been, instead, the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac. And how much more complete our own history could have been.
Besides Sarah, there is one more forgotten character – perhaps the greatest hero of the story – the one who really saves the day. Contemporary literary figure and popular Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, offers his view in the following poem, entitled, “The Real Hero” –
The real hero of The Binding of Isaac was the ram,
Who didn’t know about the collusion between the others.
He was volunteered to die instead of Isaac.
I want to sing a memorial song about him –
About his curly wool and his human eyes,
About the horns that were so silent on his living head,
And how they made those horns into shofars when he was slaughtered
To sound their battle cries
Or to blare out their obscene joy.
Amichai ends his poem with the following words:
The angel went home.
Isaac went home.
Abraham and God had gone long before.
But the real hero of The Binding of Isaac
Is the ram.
In the end, it is not God, Abraham, or Isaac whom we are asked to commemorate on the High Holy Days. It is the ram, remembered when we blow the shofar each Rosh Hashanah.
Amichai inspires us to focus on the poor, little ram, innocently placed in the thicket, waiting for his integral and fundamental role in a story told and retold throughout the ages.
So, in this New Year, inspired by these silent characters, these figures without voices or viewpoints, these heroes whose stories were not properly told, may we learn this year to appreciate the unexpected gifts in our lives, and the various roles of all shapes and sizes that we all play. May we remember to thank those who contribute to our lives, who “save the day” in ways big and small, who provide heart, soul, compassion, and love when we least expect it or most need it. May we all come to acknowledge the smaller but crucial players in the stories of our lives. Those who may not always gain the fame, popularity or even notoriety, maybe even the silent, shy, and special ones, without whom we would never make it to this particular time, place, or moment.