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Akeidah

Rosh Hashanah,
10/1/2008, Tishrei 2, 5769
Reuben Fisher

Dedication

For the past few years, our son David has offered a mini dvar – just a few words of his own personal reflection – as an intro to Al Cheyt or Unetaneh Tokef or some part of the service. Anticipating that he would be away, I had been thinking that I ought to pick up the mantel – to follow his example and find the nerve, the inspiration, to offer a dvar.

With Thanks – To Rabbi Audrey Marcus-Berkman whose study session inspired the dvar and who provided support and review during its writing and to Joel Remmer who also provided valuable feedback. And, of course, Ellen, who helps make all things possible

Introduction

Yesterday we read the story of Hagar and Ishmael being cast out from Avraham's household and today, in the chapter immediately following, we read of the sacrifice of Isaac.

During this brief moment in the narrative, Avraham, who has so long been childless, must deal with the loss of his two sons.

These are stories that have troubled us for as long as we've been reading them.

In his introduction to the Akeidah narrative, Plaut quotes Gerhard Von Rad, a German Lutheran pastor and Old Testament scholar:

"One should renounce any attempts to discover one basic idea as the meaning of the whole. There are many levels of meaning."

So, with Von Rad's license, rather than try to present some new discovered meaning to the story, I'd like to share some of the personal connections I've been feeling toward our troubled forefather.

Story Summary

The story starts with G-d calling to Avraham. And Avraham answering, Hineni, here I am.

After the story of Ishmael, we can easily imagine this answer, as suggested by Rabbi Diane Cohen , to mean, not here I am – ready and eager to answer the call – but rather – here I am, what do you want of me now? This is an older, more tired Avraham. Not the strong Avraham we admire from previous stories who argues moral principles with G-d, but an Avraham who has just cast out his first son, and is now feeling depleted, worn out, perhaps lacking the koach-strength to argue. Ellen, my wife, has suggested that perhaps Avraham doesn't argue in Isaac's defense because he feels, after caving in to Sarah's demands to cast out his first son, that, perhaps, he no longer deserves this son. We can see this Avraham as willing, but not exactly eager, to respond.

The story then continues with a directive from G-d:

Take your son,
Your only son,
Whom you love,
Isaac

In the Talmud, Sanhedrin , the sages describe this series of phrases from G-d as G-d's attempt to soften the shock of his demand. They offer a midrash that presents the missing half of the conversation, in which Avraham responds to each phrase, prompting G-d's next response:

Take your son,
    But I have two sons
Your only son,
    This one is the only child of his mother,
    and this one is the only child of his mother
Whom you love,
    I love both my sons
Isaac!

But it's hard to see any preparation that could soften the demand of giving up a son. And I can certainly empathize with this view that suggests Avraham' reluctance to accept it.

This midrash is particularly striking when we consider the conversation between G-d and Avraham in Lech Lecha, Genesis 17. G-d promises Avraham that Isaac will be born and, through him, the covenant will be kept. Avraham poignantly pleads, "Oh, that Ishmael might live by your favor", G-d promises to bless Ishmael but insists that the covenant will be kept through Isaac.

In Pirkei Avot, the rabbis assert that the stories of Ishmael and Isaac are the final two of ten tests of faith to which G-d subjected Avraham. Initially, Avraham questions. But, as Rabbi Joshua Heller suggests – as the tests became more direct, more challenging, Avraham's responses showed a progression of deepening faith.

I don't quite buy that.

Rabbi Heller's is a very traditional interpretation that, I think, glosses over the story's difficult subject. And, right now, I am feeling more connected to my wife's suggestion – of a view of a reticent Avraham, who feels beaten, tired; who maybe fears he hasn't done enough for his sons; who feels unjustified in arguing.

But back to the story.

G-d tells Avraham to offer his son on the mountains of Moriah. And, early the next day, Avraham and Isaac set off.

Isaac asks "Father?"
Avraham answers, again, "Hineni, b'nei – here I am, my son"
"Here are the fire and the wood, where is the lamb for the sacrifice?"
Avraham answers, "G-d will provide the lamb for his sacrifice, my son."
And the two of them walked together, yachdav – as one – with a single purpose.

It's interesting to note that this is the only actual conversation recorded between Avraham and Isaac in the Bible.

The traditional interpretation here is that they continued together, both understanding what was at stake and both willing to continue. But again, I am thinking that maybe Avraham is burdened with the idea that their relationship may never have been as strong as it could have been; that they didn't communicate enough; and now, as he approaches the sacrifice, they have this last, meaningful but minimal, exchange.

We know, of course, that, in the end, a ram is sacrificed instead of Isaac. But this ending is bittersweet – Isaac is saved, but no further interactions are recorded between Avraham and Isaac or Sarah. At the start of the next chapter, Sarah dies.

At this moment, Avraham must certainly be feeling very alone.

So, that's the story.

It is a story that we all know, that pervades our culture – so much so that Aaron, my older son, mentioned that it was referenced in a line from the TV show, Family Guy, where one character, in an uncomfortable situation says: "This is more awkward than the walk down from Mt. Moriah."

From Tazriah to Akeidah

Back in April, I attended a study session on Tazriah and Metzorah, led by our Rabbi Audrey. Tazriah, a portion from Leviticus, deals with the troublesome laws of tamei and tahor – impurity and purity. A state of tamei is defined as a result of menstruation, childbirth, seminal leakage, contact with corpses, leprosy – charming stuff. In Metzorah, the parsha following and often read in conjunction with Tazriah, we read about the healing powers of water – water as a "purification" ritual, allowing the one who had come in contact with one of these things, who had been rendered tamei, to become whole again – tahor. How did these ancient priestly laws of Leviticus become connected in my mind to this ancient biblical story of Genesis – two parshot, in each of which we struggle to find meaning year after year?

In her study session, Rabbi Audrey presented the meaning of tamei, not as a moral judgment, but as a kind of liminal space between life and death, brokenness and wholeness – as a depletion of life, or more precisely, the escape of the forces of life – when the potential for life is lost. Tamei is a space from which a ritual may help someone return to a state of wholeness – tahor – in which one is able to again fully embrace life. I found myself relating it to my own anticipated feeling of loss when, come September, my 2nd son would be going off to college leaving us with an empty nest. When figuratively, but also quite literally, these life forces – my children – would be leaving me – and leaving me feeling incomplete, depleted – tamei.

It occurred to me that perhaps the prescribed ritual of the Mikveh might be meaningful to me as a way to mark the transition – to acknowledge it, to embrace it – Jewishly. To help me to feel whole again – tahor.

Then I realized this feeling of loss would be hitting right before the high holidays, a time when people traditionally go to the mikveh to mark the transition to the New Year. Finally, bringing it full circle, I thought of the Akeidah story – of Avraham facing the loss of his two sons, and of my wife's characterization of him as a broken, depleted man – tamei. And the parallel with my own feeling of loss of my sons triggered a strong empathy with Avraham. Like Avraham, I am willing – even proud and happy – but certainly not eager, to let them go. And, like I imagine Avraham, I also feel burdened by the idea that I had not done enough for them, to prepare them, and that there were too many times where I did not connect with them as strongly as I would have liked. I began to conceive of the akeidah story differently – as a metaphor for letting go, for transitions, at this time of year when we all think about our own particular sacrifices, losses and transitions.

I recognize that the story of Avraham's loss of Ishmael and Isaac is not a perfect analogy – the University of Rochester is not exactly a desert and Oberlin College is hardly Mt. Moriah. But, for me, the connection stuck. And perhaps, this year, my bond to it and to Avraham is particularly strong. I shared some of these thoughts with one of our Havurah poets, Keith Tornheim, and I'd like to share the poem he wrote for me, capturing this connection:

New Abraham
As a father, I am not called upon
to sacrifice my son with my own hand
on a rocky altar on the mountain.
Still I am commanded by my breaking heart
and his eager eyes
to send him off into the world,
into his own life,
with a smile on my face,
then quickly wipe away the tear.

Mikveh – A symbol of transition and renewal

After the spring study session, as the summer progressed, I began to think more seriously about the idea of using the mikveh to rinse this phase of fatherhood and embrace this new part of my life. As explained by Rabbi Norman Lamm, of Yeshiva University,

"it is the mikveh, above all, that symbolizes the affirmation of life. For it is water that is the most potent symbol of life... Fresh water is itself called, in Hebrew, mayyim hayyim, "living water"... So that (the concept of) tum'ah, the intimation of death, is counteracted by immersion in the water of mikveh, the symbol of life"
Admittedly, I was apprehensive about the idea. I, probably like most Jews, thought of the mikveh as a ritual primarily for women. But after some discussion with Rabbi Audrey, I decided to find out more about our Newton mikveh – named Mayyim Hayyim – that describes itself with the mission to, "reclaim the ancient tradition of mikveh and reinvent the rituals of immersion to serve the needs of a diverse 21st century Jewish community."

On finding it, tucked into a corner of the Temple Reyim parking lot, I was struck by the building itself. Passing through the gate, you enter into a beautiful zen-like space. The water collection pool is integrated into a lovely garden. Upon entering the building, the feeling continues. Natural materials and light mark a beautiful, spiritual environment. Our guide gave us a tour, carefully explained the immersion process, and discussed the variety of modern purposes to which the mikveh ritual has been lent – marking the completion of cancer treatment, life transitions, major life milestones. It was really thoughtful, meditative and spiritual. Mayyim Hayyim is also trying to gear itself more to the needs of men. They have begun a men's initiative, quote "to explore and reclaim the traditional and creative possibilities that exist for men and mikveh". Definitely not your grandmother's mikveh.

My son David, who came with me to check it out, and I, were both deeply impressed. And we both thought that the mikveh could be a powerful symbol to mark this transition in both our lives. And, that we would both like to try it. I found myself wanting to latch onto this idea of the mikveh as something that could be meaningful for men – as a humanistic experience, rather than as a purely feminine one. So, one Wednesday afternoon, the week before David left for Oberlin, we both went to the mikveh – together, yachdav, but each in his own preparation room and private immersion space. We prepared, we immersed and, when done, we met again outside. Did it really help? It's hard to say. Yes, it was special and meaningful and we were both glad we did it. But in the end, it didn't really change how either of us felt as much as provide both of us a way to acknowledge those feelings Jewishly.

By the way, Mayyim Hayyim has a collection of modern readings for people to use for their immersion rituals. But again, it was our Havurah poet, Keith, who came to our aid with a beautiful pair of liturgical poems for us to read at our immersions, titled, Rinsing Fatherhood and Rinsing Childhood. The Mayyim Hayyim staff added Keith's poems to their collection to share with others who are marking similar occasions.

The Mikveh and Rosh Hashanah

So what does the mikveh have to do with Rosh Hashanah? Water is a dominant theme of life and life-cycles, spirituality and spiritual renewal. It is a symbol of continuity; of moving forward; of starting anew. Of moving from tamei to tahor – clearly resonating with the themes of Rosh Hashanah. I would suggest that we, and people of other cultures, have many such water ceremonies. Tashlich is a form of communal mikveh immersion. We toss the bread, rather than ourselves, into the flowing waters. But the intent is the same – to emerge from the experience, feeling cleansed, purged, renewed. The mikveh ritual requires three immersions in which you must be completely covered. These three immersions parallel the hand washing before the motzi – the blessing over bread before a meal – when we pour 3 cups of water over our hands, careful to completely cover them each time, symbolically purifying ourselves and preparing us to receive the meal.

The mikveh ritual can offer closure to a significant event or change in your life; and can leave you feeling renewed, ready – tahor – for the next phase, whatever that might be. Perhaps, we struggle with the Akeidah story, year after year, because it is a story with no closure – perhaps, after Moriah, Avraham and Isaac should have gone to the mikveh!

Conclusion – Transitions as a powerful theme of RH

Rather than dwell on the usual view of the Akeidah as a test – whether of Avraham or of G-d – it has been more meaningful to me, this year, to think of the Akeidah as a reminder that Rosh Hashanah can be embraced as a portal to new points in our lives; that it offers us an opportunity, each year, to embrace a transition, to try new things – a chance to change and consider where and what we want to be. Both the mikveh experience and this dvar were a big step outside of my comfort zone. But I think they have both helped me to confront the range of emotions this transition has brought. And I cherish the idea that I was able to find a Jewish vehicle to explore it. Our rituals offer us a powerful way to mark these transition points in our lives – by connecting us to the continuity of our traditions and giving us a language with which to share them with our past and with each other.

Thank you for letting me share them with you

Shana Tova

_____

  1. Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, p. 145
  2. Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, editor, Rosh Hashanah Readings – Hineni, Here I am, p. 127
  3. Talmud, Sanhedrin, page 89B
  4. Lech Lecha, Genesis 17:15-22
  5. Elkins, Akeidah, p.124
  6. Norman Lamm, A Hedge of Roses (from Google search: mikveh Leviticus)