On Rosh Hashanah, I learned Torah from a 5-year-old.
More specifically, my 5-year-old. I took my daughter to a full day of High Holiday services—9 a.m. to 1 p.m.!—for the first time on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. She took it like a champ. Anything is possible with chocolate milk, picture books, and snacks.
During the Torah reading, she got a little antsy (not unlike many adults, plus, sugar in the chocolate milk). I explained to her that they were reading a story. Understandably, she wanted to know what it was about.
So I told her the story of the akedah: Abraham is told by God that he should sacrifice his only son, Isaac. They go on a hike to the mountains. Isaac asks, “Where’s the sheep for the sacrifice?” “God will provide,” Abraham says in that cagey way that we parents say, “Will you get a shot at your doctor’s appointment? I don’t know—hey look at that bulldozer over there!” Then they get to the altar and JUST AT THE LAST SECOND, an angel tells Abraham he passed the test and doesn’t have to sacrifice Isaac. Ta da!
My daughter looked at me, her mouth wide open. “That is a CRAZY STORY,” she whispered.
Yes, I agreed.
“And SCARY,” she said. I reiterated that in fact, Abraham didn’t hurt his son.
“Mommy,” she said, exasperatedly whispering. “If Daddy took me on a hike, and then tied me up and put me on a pile of rocks with firewood under me and held up a knife like he was going to kill me? EVEN IF HE DIDN’T DO IT, I would be really, really scared of him.”
She was right. And it got me thinking about why we read this “crazy” story at a time of year that we are thinking about atoning and forgiving.
When someone does us wrong—whether it is physically hurting us, or “just” hurting our ability to trust—that hurt lasts. It can’t just be wiped away. Even time, said to heal all wounds, isn’t a cure-all—sometimes time just stretches out the pain over days, weeks, and years.
I mean, come on. Surely, Isaac didn’t just go down to breakfast the next morning after his dad almost made him a burnt offering and say, “Hey, Dad! Good morning! How are the sheep doing today? Please pass the curds and whey—oh and I will definitely have some of that family-recipe-porridge that will fracture our family in the future, thanks.”
In fact, we have no idea what Isaac does or says the next morning—because after this crazy story, the Torah doesn’t mention Isaac again until he is ready to get married. DOESN’T MENTION HIM AT ALL. Why not?
My theory is that it’s because we have to go into dark places to forgive—whether it is to forgive someone else, or to forgive ourselves. We go into the unknown. We go into our worst fears, our nightmares, and our secret longings and hopes. To forgive someone in a true meaningful way, we need to grapple with our own hurt.
And how do we move forward? We move forward with love. Isaac reemerges in the story when he is ready to pledge his life to another person, one of the greatest acts of trust and faith of which a human being is capable.
We need to struggle with our darkness over these days—what we have done to others, and what others have done to us. We need to face those things and come up from the deep with the desire to reconnect, with each other, and ourselves. And that is what it truly means to be written into the Book of Life: opting to trust, and to love, and to consecrate ourselves to one another.
Not bad for a 5-year-old.