Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Binding Commitments

Belated, belated - oy, apologies! And so timely, right before Rosh Ha-Shanah, these midrashim on the akedah.

A brief word, then, about the binding of Isaac, from the vantage point of Midrash # 46 (Tanchuma, Va-Yera 23).

"What did your father do to you?" asks Sarah.

"My father took me and led me up hills and down valleys and but for God's compassion I would not be here to tell you."

Why is that the Satan, speaking in the guise of Isaac? After all, the midrash might have had it be Isaac himself, upon his return from Mt. Moriah. After all, the Satan here says only what is true, what Isaac himself might have said.

But then Isaac himself would be the cause of his own mother's death - too cruel a burden, perhaps, for even the God of the akedah to place on a child so willing to please parents, to please even a parent with the fire of wild piety in his eyes. Too unmindful a step, perhaps, for us to imagine the real, dutiful, and mostly silent Isaac taking.

Maybe the Satan generally speaks only the truth; but it's all in how you time the truth, and where you choose to speak it.

Maybe Isaac himself never would have told his mother - just as he never said 'no' to his father. Maybe he would have borne that silence, just as he bore the wood for his own pyre on his back.

Maybe Sarah didn't really need to be told by Isaac himself. Maybe the 'Satan,' speaking in her son's voice and guise, was the voice of her own consciousness, telling her what she already knew - telling her that zeal for God and mission and exclusive blessing had driven simple human goodness from her family.

She had taken part in that herself - "Banish that slave-woman and her son, lest he inherit with my Isaac!"

Abraham could not find courage in parental love. Sarah could not find security in kindness. Maybe the deadly truth in the moment of the Satan's words to Sarah in the voice of her silent son was the realization that only one person in the family had retained compassion and had not forsaken generosity, and the realization of who that was, and what the cost to him must have been.


Anita said...

The presence of the character Satan has been distracting me all day. The trickster, troublemaking Satan, who changes forms, taunts Abraham and Isaac throughout this midrash, and shows up in other Biblical dramas (Job, for example) follows pretty much true to form. Until one point - there's Abraham, tears blinding his eyes, knife poised to slit his son's throat, and who knocks the knife away? Satan. Not Gd, not the angel we read about that was sent to stop Abraham, but Satan. Why? Why would Satan be the one to "save" Isaac, and have Gd and Gd's angel/messenger come later? If Isaac had been killed, would it have reflected badly on Satan? Because, who would do such a thing who wasn't influenced by Satan? Even if it was Gd's order to do so. So maybe Satan didn't want this sacrifice to happen. Maybe Satan realized that Gd's test was something so astounding even Satan wanted distance from it, so all the "blame" for it would only go to Gd. How much more so, that we want distance from it. It's just too much to comprehend. I have no answers really to this bizarre scenario in the midrash.

It's been my honor to chant the first psukim of this section on 2nd day Rosh Hashanah, and each year, I am touched by the haunting High Holiday trope. I call out with a dramatic pazer, "vayomer" and the "kach na" with a "tlisha g'dolah", two tropes that command attention. Listen closely, people, something really important is about to be said. That sort of thing tends to draw you in, but the story itself, if we follow the thinking about distance, pushes us away. How to get close to a story like this?
The back and forth, coming close to and going far from, Gd is, perhaps, what this time of year is about. We've been far from Gd when we stray, miss the mark, and we want to draw near to be forgiven. It's a dance, with Gd as our Partner. But to be drawn near to Gd isn't always easy. Maybe the Akedah, being bound, is the time when we're far away, and the non-sacrifice is when we're closer. It's a pretty rough space between the two.

Anyway, this is the first time I've posted, and now I need to go finish dinner for the family. Shana Tova to all, and may we have a year together of blessed insight and learning.

David A.M. Wilensky said...

I have often heard Satan described as an obstructing angel-his only purpose is to get in your way.

In this case, Avraham is trying to do something and Satan is there to get in his way. This is similar to his appearance getting in the way of Bilam and the donkey. He's doing a good thing there, but it is a thing that involves getting in the way.

Howard said...

Is there a traditional Midrashic basis for making Satan the angel in the Bilaam story?

David A.M. Wilensky said...

I'm not sure, but I went an re-read the story after I made that comment and found that God sends the angel "l'satan" to obstruct.