Monday, September 22, 2008

1:3:45: Parents and Children, Challenge and Grief in ‘Akedat Yitzchak

22 September 2008/22 Elul 5768

While it may be timely, ‘Akedat Yitzchak is one of the hardest incidents in Tanakh to wrap one’s head around. The blind faith that Avraham presents, the unquestioning devotion to God in the face of what seems like a preposterous and cruel request—this paradigm is always one that causes me to wonder what sorts of model behavior the Torah is teaching. What’s more, so much of the rabbinic tradition lauds Abraham for his zealousness, almost bloodthirsty in his eagerness to shecht his son, it often creates a barrier for modern understanding.

The midrashim in Sefer Ha-Aggadah (1:3:44-48), and in particular the long compiled midrash (45) from today’s reading, do their best to problematize the many understandings of Avraham’s devotion to God. One fascinating thing the rabbinic tradition does is give agency to some of the silent players in the story: Yitzchak, Sarah, even Yishmael and Eliezer get to speak their views on the ‘akedah and how it relates to fearing and loving God. I will here focus on the theme of parents and children to taste a bit of the problematics of pain and sacrifice at the heart of this story, themes I’ve found sometimes to be ignored when the only salient relationship is between Abraham and God.

One of the strangest sections in the long midrash can be found in the middle:

“And they came to the place” (Gen. 22:9)—both carrying stones [for the altar], both carrying the wood. For all that, Abraham acted like one making wedding preparations for his son, and Isaac like one making a wedding bower [huppah] for himself. (1:3:45)

While we understand how the text gets to the idea of a huppah, a temporary structure made of wood and stones, the analogy with a wedding seems bizarre. What can be similar between a wedding and a funeral pyre? What fascinates me is the slippage of life cycle events here: Avraham was so concerned for Yitzchak’s birth, and he essentially here plots Yitzchak’s death. It seems only fitting that the major midlife Jewish event also come into play, that of the wedding. Escorting one’s child to his or her wedding is one of the seminal parental lifecycle events (so I am told): as Avraham and Yitzchak come to terms with Yitzchak’s impending passing, they integrate other lifecycle events into the occurrence.

The midrash continues:

Then Isaac said, “Father, hurry, do the will of your Maker, burn me into a fine ash, then take the ash to my mother and leave it with her, and whenever she looks at it she will say, “This is my son, whom his father has slaughtered”...Father, what will you do in your old age [without me]?” Abraham replied, “My son, we know that we can survive you for but a short time. He who comforted us in the past will comfort us until the day we die.” (1:3:45)

This passage has two fascinating elements. First off, what is the role that Yitzchak envisions for his ashes in Sarah’s life? Are they to be a comfort to her after her son’s passing? A rebuke to Avraham for his reckless action? Or merely a memento, a symbol of the dreams that the two elderly parents had?

While the former two interpretations see expression in other midrashim, the latter interpretation is bolstered by Yitzchak’s next comment, notable for its poignancy. Yitzchak knows his importance in Avraham and Sarah’s lives, but this is one of the only times I can recall that the midrash puts this longing in the son’s mouth, rather than in the parent’s. Avraham’s response is realistic in its simplicity, giving the only words of comfort that a parent could possibly take after a child’s death: the One Who Comforts will comfort them. I especially like the note of mortality that Yitzchak’s impending doom instills in Avraham, himself: the parents are old and won’t live much longer, an assertion bolstered by the midrashim of Sarah’s passing when she hears of the ‘akedah (1:3:46).

Even in writing this, I find myself drawn into the human tragedy of a father sacrificing his son, a child struggling to comfort his parent. I often find that when I read the ‘akedah on Rosh Hashanah morning, I try to detach from the human story, to just see it as a challenge of faith for Avraham rather than acknowledging the personal pain at the core. Thanks be to the midrashim for forcing us to confront the many elements of the story, the very human life of the characters—and thanks be to the angel for giving us a happy ending, just this once.


This post is dedicated to the memory of three members of our community who were tragically lost before their times during the past month: Rob Davenport, Michael Hammer, and Eliora Ancselovits. While nothing can truly comfort children who have lost parents and parents who have lost children, I do hope that the words of our tradition can provide a teeny bit of catharsis, nuances of grief in these multifaceted stories. May the community support all our mourners in their times of loss, and may the memories of Rob, Michael, and Eliora be for a blessing.

-- Sara Meirowitz


Richard Friedman said...

Yishar kohech, Sara.

I was also perplexed by the line "take the ash to my mother and leave it with her, and whenever she looks at it she will say, 'This is my son, whom his father has slaughtered.'" Yitzhak as the willing performer of God's demands, even at the cost of his life, yes. Yitzhak as having tender regard for his mother's feelings, yes. And up till the last clause, this sounds like both -- Yitzhak endorses what his father will have done, and he cares for his mother even in directing a statement that makes clear his pride in what he will have done. But with the last clause, this indeed sounds like Yitzhak being resentful and spurring Sarah to be resentful/angry. What point is the ba'al midrash (author) making -- why does he present Yitzhak in this way?

Elisha Ancselovits ("Rav Elisha") said...

I realize that I never said thank you - thank you