D’var Torah / Sermon
Second Day Rosh Hashanah 5779/2018
By: Chaplain and JCOGS member Priscilla Minkin
Akedah: The Binding of Isaac
Genesis 22 and the story of the binding of Isaac is one of the most difficult readings in the Torah, and yet it is a foundational story in three religious traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Each of these traditions interprets the story differently. Judaism, Christianity and Sunni Islam place Isaac on the altar while Shia Islam places Abraham’s son Ishmael on the altar.
I have a childhood memory of lying on the floor with the family bible open and staring at a picture of Isaac lying on the altar and a raised knife in his father’s hand above him. This image terrified me then and it haunts me now. It doesn’t matter if Isaac is 12 or if Isaac is 37 years old.
I have read numerous Jewish commentaries on this story. Some say this was a true test of Abraham’s faith in God, others that God never meant for Abraham to raise the knife against his child, and others say this is a commentary against child sacrifice, which was being practiced by the Canaanite people. Biblical scholars discuss and write books on this story and the commentaries are endless.
None of these books or commentaries eases my distress with this story. I place myself in the story and these questions arise:
What is it to walk uphill knowing what God has asked of me?
What is it to see the knife, in my hand, raised above my child?
What is it to see the knife raised above me?
What is it to want desperately to hear the voice of God and hear only silence?
How will I survive if my child dies?
How will I survive if my spouse dies?
How will I? How will I? How will I?
Abraham had to have struggled with fear and questions too. He must have wondered if he had heard God correctly. He must have thought about turning back. The Torah does not say Abraham questioned God; how could this be? Was Abraham silenced by fear and grief?
Despite fear, despite grief, Abraham continued walking, walking into the uncertainty of what would happen next. He found the courage to go forward, he trusted that his God would provide, he said “we” will return together down the mountain.
And then there is Isaac, no matter his age. He must have thought about defying his father. And yet he kept walking beside him, he carried the wood for the offering, he allowed himself to be bound and lay still as he looked above him and saw a raised knife. For a brief moment Isaac must have been terrified. He stared death in the face. He was face to face with the uncertainty of his life.
Abraham and Isaac facing the uncertainty of how this story would unfold.
Each week in my work as a chaplain, I sit with patients and their loved ones as they process serious medical information and face their dying. They are walking up their own Mt Moriah facing the uncertainty of illness and life, and questions are asked:
Why is this happening to me?
Will medicine be able to save me, to save my loved one?
Where is God? Why is God silent? Why is God not answering my prayer?
How will I go on if my child dies, if my loved one dies? I am not ready to die.
How will I? How will I? How will I?
At moments like this I cannot answer that medicine or God will stay cancer or a serious illness’s raised hand. At the same time, I cannot believe that God is testing faith. And I have no idea how this person’s, this family’s story of illness will unfold.
I can affirm their questions. I can listen and help name the challenge of living in the uncertainty of illness, of this moment, of life. I can affirm hands held, tears shared, a family’s love, a community’s support, a life lived, and the calming power of prayer.
For Abraham and Isaac this story had an acceptable ending. At the last moment God stayed Abraham’s hand and promises to bless Abraham with descendants “as numerous as the stars of heaven.” Isaac, lying on the altar, faced his dying, and I believe he was forever changed by this experience. The Torah tells us that he loved his wife Rebecca, that he pleaded with God when she was barren, and that rather than wage war he ceded his wells three times to the Philistines. Knowing that life can come undone at any moment, knowing that life is fragile, Isaac chose to love and cherish Rebecca and to live a quiet and peaceful life in the land he loved.
It is in the naming of uncertainty that patients can connect. Whenever I say that they are facing the uncertainty of illness, of their dying, and that the life challenge is to stay present in uncertainty and try not to be afraid I hear “Yes, yes, that is it exactly.”
And each one of us is walking in the uncertainty of life.
We have no idea who will be called to walk up Mt Moriah and face dying. We have no idea of the challenges that will lie before us in the coming year.
We have no idea who will be written into the Book of Life for the coming year.
We do know that life is fragile. We know how to say life is fragile. We recite our prayers of atonement and ask for mercy and for God to write our name for life.
Do we allow ourselves to feel these words, to feel life’s fragility deep in our soul?
And if life is truly fragile, how will we face our fear, this uncertainty, and our dying?
For each one of us the answer is different. It is the question that is most important. Real questions do not have easy answers. Real questions ask us to think about this moment, this day, and to reflect on what is most important to us. Who are we, who do we choose to be today, what do we value, whom do we value, what do we want written on our scroll of life?
I can tell you that no one has ever said to me at the end of life that they wish they had worked more. I do hear I want more time with my family. I want to hear my child’s voice, which I haven’t heard in so long. I want to make amends with my brother, my sister. I want more time to hold my loved one’s hand.
Faith can be many things to many people. Some would say faith was Abraham’s obedience to God. I choose to believe faith is a willingness to step into uncertainty. Faith is a willingness to face dying, name fear, and as a result choose to live life fully and with passion knowing that it can end in the blink of an eye.
May you be blessed with hands to hold, with community to surround you as you walk through the uncertainty of life.
Priscilla Minkin, M.Ed, MA, APBCC