During these days, we’re supposed to think over our lives and how we want to change them in the coming year. We can use them as a launch pad for following the steps mentioned in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. In other words, we can reduce the severity of God’s judgment by doing t’shuva (turning from our less-good ways), t’fila (prayer) and tzedakah (acts of charity). We hope by doing these things that we can be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year. And during these days, I’ll be writing about parental perspectives on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the days in between.
Often, when I read the High Holiday liturgy, I find that being a parent gives me a new outlook on things, whether it’s a prayer, a sermon, or a reading. And I certainly felt that way reading yesterday’s Torah portion. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s the one commonly referred to as “The binding of Isaac,” or, “Akedat Yitzchak.” In this Torah portion, God says to Abraham, listen–you know your son Isaac? The one you know and love? Take him and bring him to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him to me.
That’s right, sacrifice, as in “burnt offering.”
So what does Abraham do? He saddles up his donkey, gets his guys together with Isaac, and heads for what seems to Isaac like an innocent camping trip up the mountain–but to all appearances, Abraham intends to do just what God has asked of him.
Now, at the end of the day, Abraham doesn’t sacrifice Isaac. Abraham’s hand is stayed by an angel, his willingness to do it is seen as proof of his love for God, and he sacrifices a ram instead. The End. But Abraham went so far as to bind Isaac on an altar to prepare him to become a burnt offering.
Of course, this story is a tough one for commentators to swallow. Many commentators have said that it is meant to express God’s fervent opposition to human sacrifice–an anomaly in biblical times. Others have said that God never would have actually wanted Abraham to sacrifice his son, and that it was a test–a test in which both God and Abraham knew that the act would never actually be committed–in which Abraham had to exemplify that he both loved and feared God.
For all the justifications and explanations, though, I find it pretty damn upsetting. My son R turned to me and said, “If God had asked you to sacrifice me, what would you have said?” And that was pretty upsetting, too.
I reassured my son that no, I would never, ever hurt him. (I also pointed out that no one, not even God, would ask this question of a Jewish mother and expect to go unquestioned, but that’s another issue.) But it is hard for me as a parent to get my mind around the idea of a God who would ask such a horrible thing of Abraham, whether in order to provoke him or to prove his love to him. After all, God can be understood as “Avinu Malkenu“–“Our Father, Our King.” God in a parental role in this story is really tough to understand.
As Jewish parents here on the ground, surely we want to raise our children to ask thoughtful questions. We don’t want them leap to conclusions without thinking. We want them to lead rather than blindly follow.
But if that’s what we really want, as we discussed at services yesterday, we have to be role models. We have to exemplify that kind of questioning for our children. We have to show our children that we ask questions, and we have to show our children that we think about our choices. We have to explain why we do the things we do. Because children, like it or not, learn from our examples. If we don’t question things and follow along blindly, we can’t expect anything else of our children.
So I think that it’s entirely possible that Abraham disappointed God by not asking him, “No offense, big guy–but why would you ask something so terrible of someone you love?” Maybe this story is not so much a test of Abraham as much as it tests us, as readers and as parents. Are we willing to be questioned?
By not making room for questions in our lives, I’d argue that we ourselves are making an unintentional sacrifice–we sacrifice the incredible people our children could possibly become. “Because I’m the Mommy, that’s why” can only take us so far. Parenting is an opportunity to carefully consider who we are and why–it is a gift. Let’s use these days to open that gift and all its challenges.