Interrupting Isolation, Widening Perspective

Rosh HaShanah 5775 (2014)

Our Torah portion this morning is among the most disturbing of the year.

I don't suppose that was the intention; in Jewish tradition, the Binding of Isaac is considered an example of human devotion to the divine command.  The shofar, in classic rabbinic writings, is connected with the ram caught in the thicket, which in the end was sacrificed instead of Isaac.  "Just as Abraham subdued his natural impulses (to compassion), and was willing to offer up his son, so," we say to God, "we pray that You will subdue Your natural impulses (to give us what we deserve for our way-less-than-perfect behavior) and grant us compassion."  That's one traditional interpretation of the shofar's meaning, though by no means the only.

Let's think about this for a minute.  Exactly 10 chapters ago, Abraham is told by God, "Lech l'cha" -- get up and go -- "el ha-aretz asher ar'eka" -- to the land that I will show you.  This vague command is followed by promises of blessing for Abraham and his family, starting at that moment and lasting for uncountable generations.  Abraham doesn't ask any questions or put up any argument; he simply complies, and the Jewish story is launched.

Today, Abraham is again told "Lech l'cha" -- get up and go -- "el eretz haMoriah" -- to the land of Moriah, which can be translated “the land of seeing" or “the land of vision" — and...  ...offer-up-your-son on one of the hills; I'll tell you which one when you get there.

Abraham’s prior experience of “Lech l’cha!” inclines him to unquestioning obedience.  But at other times he's been known to speak up and even challenge God:  When God lets him in on a preview of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham is appalled.  "What if there are 50 righteous people in the city?" he demands.  "Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?”  Abraham is mindful of his place as "dust and ashes”; nevertheless, he holds God to the highest standard of action:  "Shall not the Judge of all the earth act justly?!"  As you know, he bargains God down to 10 righteous souls to save the whole city.  In the end there aren’t that many, but Abraham speaks up for what he believes is right to the best of his ability.

That was a couple chapters ago, right after the announcement of Isaac's birth.  Now, some indeterminate time later, God calls to Abraham, and Abe answers "Hineini" -- "Here I am.” So far so good.  For the second time, God says "Lech l'cha" -- get up and go ... But this time God gives a stunning, outrageous command. Get up and go "el har haMoriah" -- to the mountain of vision ... and there commit a heinous crime.  Destroy this child that you and Sarah have waited so long for -- your beloved son Isaac, and her only child.

And Abraham is silent.

Where is his voice?  

Shouldn't he respond?  Challenge?  Cry out! demand justice! plead for the life of his son?  

Shouldn't he talk to someone?  Wake up Sarah?  Wake up Isaac, who by the way is probably not a child at this point?

But apparently he keeps it to himself.  It took exactly 2 verses to get Abraham’s attention and tell him what he was expected to do.  The next thing we hear, at beginning of verse 3, “Va-yashkem Avraham ba-boker" -- Abraham gets up bright and early next morning, to carry it out!  

There is a gaping silence between verse 2 and verse 3, where we long to hear Abraham’s voice.  But he unburdens himself to no one.

And although God stops the slaughter at the last minute, and even reiterates and expands the promises of future blessing, this traumatic seed of violent intent bears bitter fruit of destruction and alienation.  Abraham returns to his servants and they go back home; the Torah doesn’t say where Isaac is.  By the beginning of the following chapter, Sarah has died.  The next we hear of Isaac is when he returns home to meet his bride; and where is he coming from?  From the Negev, much further south.  He's moved out. 

In fact he's coming from a place called Be'er La-Chai Ro'i, "The Well of The Living One Who Sees Me.”  Before Isaac was born, when it looked like his mother Sarah wasn’t going to be able to bear a child, Sarah’s maid Hagar was pressed into serving as a surrogate mother. It didn't work out well between Sarah and Hagar, and Hagar ran away while she was pregnant with Ishmael.  God called to her in the desert and promised that her future son would be blessed with just about the same blessings that Abraham had been given, and Hagar named the place "Be'er LaChai Ro'i," "The Well of The Living One Who Sees Me." Then she returned to Sarah and Abraham and gave birth to Ishmael.  Later, after Isaac was born, she and Ishmael were sent away again, this time permanently.

So Isaac is coming from a place associated with his half-brother.  To me, this suggests where he might have gone after that disastrous day on the mountaintop: "Remember when Dad threw you and your mom out, sent you off into the desert without enough water, and you nearly died?  Well you won't believe what the old man just tried to do to ME!"  Who else could possibly understand, as well as big brother Ishmael?

One can imagine these two brothers bonding over the crazy treatment they endured from their well-respected father.  (In fact, they come together at the end of Abraham's life to bury him in the cave of Machpelah, alongside Sarah.)  Ishmael grows up as something of a wild man; Isaac, however, is a quiet fellow who assiduously avoids conflict, both in the family and outside.  The affection between Isaac and his wife Rebecca is noteworthy:  Torah rarely mentions love between spouses, but Isaac loves Rebecca; her presence comforts him after his mother's death.  Later, their public display of affection alerts the Philistine king that the pair are husband and wife, not brother and sister as Isaac claimed.  New Abraham had also tried to pass his wife off as his sister, twice in fact; but between Abraham and Sarah there's no mention of affection, or intimacy, in their relationship.  Isaac is different from his father in this way.

In fact, there's very little mention of Abraham's feelings in the Torah, other than the distress he felt at sending away his firstborn son Ishmael. Abraham is obedient, decisive, and generally scrupulous in his dealings (except for claiming that his wife was his sister.  She was, apparently, his half-sister; but not mentioning "wife” is a rather big omission!)  

Abraham is willing to challenge God on behalf of an abstract notion of justice in a situation involving persons unknown to him, in the matter of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  

But when it comes to his own family, he is mute. 

This is a man who had successfully convinced God to alter a violent plan!  He's spoken up, he's been effective.  But faced with a direct divine command to commit violence upon his own son, he silently complies. 

The effects of his silence are far-reaching.  As I read the story, Isaac moves out of his parents' house--ok, tent complex--and goes to stay with his exiled brother.  By the time Isaac returns home to meet his bride, his mother is dead and buried.  The last words recorded between him and his father is his question on the way up the fateful mountain: “Here are the wood and the fire, but where is the lamb for the offering?"

And Abraham and God never talk again.

Abraham lacked two qualities that can interrupt violent behavior and its consequences:  Connection and perspective.

Connection:  What if he’d talked to Sarah that night?  Perhaps she would have agreed, you have to do what God asked.  But maybe she would have insisted that she go along, so that the two of them would be together at that awful moment — and after.  Maybe she would have insisted that Isaac be told what awaited him on this journey, that he was old enough to face his destiny knowingly.  (In fact there is a midrash which has Isaac instructing his father to tie him securely, lest he twitch and spoil the sacrifice.)  Maybe the three of them would have fallen into each others’ arms after the command came to belay the terrible order.  Maybe the family wouldn’t have fallen apart.

Perspective:  Maybe she would have suggested that they slow down, take a day and think about it; pray about it, talk or argue with each other, talk or argue with God.  What’s the hurry?  Or maybe she would have challenged God:  "Shall not the Judge of all the earth act justly?”  With a second perspective, maybe Abraham could have seen a different option besides silent compliance; maybe the story would have turned out differently.  Maybe Abraham and God would have spoken again.

Abraham was missing another kind of perspective, too:  The inherited tradition that for Jews is embodied in the word "Torah.”  He was, so to speak, flying by the seat of his pants.  We can look back on three thousand years of stories, discussion, rules and decision-making in figuring out the best path forward.  Abraham and Sarah, however, had explicitly rejected their past in order to create a new way of being in the world.  The funny thing is that having direct conversations with God apparently does not give Abraham all the answers.  In fact, it seems to lead him to rely too much on himself, on his own interpretation and understanding of what’s going on.  And as a result, he is unable to distinguish between a genuine “Lech l’cha” and a call to walk in a dangerous direction. 

Violence is something of which we have seen too much this year:  Young, unarmed black men gunned down by police or vigilantes.  Three young Jewish Israelis murdered; one young Muslim Palestinian murdered in retaliation.  Bombs dropped on Gaza and rockets fired into Israel.  Schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria.  Journalists beheaded by a violent, self-proclaimed “caliphate” in parts of Iraq and Syria.  Eight homicides in Troy in the past year — most still unsolved.  And just in the last 2 days, the US and Arab allies began bombing the so-called caliphate in Syria.  There’s a lot going on.

But unlike Abraham, we have the benefit of much inherited wisdom to guide us — and we are not bound by a sense that when God calls, we are limited to blind obedience.  We are connected with a tradition that demands that we “choose life, that you and your children may live.”  (You will hear those words on Yom Kippur, in the Torah reading that Reform Jews read on that most sacred day.)  And so we have access to a wider perspective.   When violence occurs, we understand that there is more than one way to respond.

One of the most hopeful things that I saw during this violent summer was the response of two bereaved families in Israel and Palestine.  Naftali Frenkel was one of three Orthodox teens abducted and murdered while on the way home from yeshivah in the West Bank.  Mohammed Abu Khdair was a Palestinian teen who was kidnapped and murdered a few days later in East Jerusalem, while waiting for pre-dawn prayers during Ramadan.  During the respective periods of mourning, Naftali’s uncle Yishai spoke with Mohammed’s father Hussein; each family publicly rejected and condemned the violence committed toward the other, even as they mourned their own.  A delegation of Palestinians attended shiva at the Frenkel house, and was welcomed by Naftali’s mother Rachel; many left-wing Israelis paid condolence calls and were received by the Abu Khdair family.  

These families were able to make connections beyond the obvious ones, even in the midst of their grief.  Their voices sounded a note of hope in the midst of an otherwise horrible situation.  Drawing on their own traditions, they were able to transcend their differences to recognize the humanity of the "other.”  They did not remain silent in the face of violence.  

There is a program in Albany called SNUG — that’s “guns” backwards — a violence intervention program which uses street level outreach workers to mitigate conflict before it turns deadly.  It uses a public health approach called the Cure Violence model.  A doctor who worked for a decade battling infectious disease in Africa returned to Chicago and turned his attention to street and neighborhood violence in the same way: stopping violence, like stopping infection, requires intervening at the source so it’s not passed on.   Cure Violence has been implemented nationally and internationally, and in 7 cities in New York State; and Albany SNUG is now hoping to bring it to Troy as well.  It works because it brings credible messengers — usually, themselves, members of the target population — to dangerous situations and neighborhoods, offering better ways of communicating and resolving conflicts — a radically different perspective on how to live life. 

When it comes to violence, split-second decisions have life-altering consequences.   But in far less life-threatening situations, good decision-making still often requires gathering a wide variety of input.  How often do we make bad decisions because we consider things only according to our own, limited, perspective?  Even when we believe we are following a divine command, like Abraham.  Perspective and connection can help us make different decisions than we would on our own. 

Something as simple as talking aloud to someone else, using them as a “sounding board,” can interrupt one’s isolation and take one in fruitful directions.  The act of connecting changes one’s thinking.  If Abraham had gone to Sarah and said aloud the words, “God just commanded me to turn Isaac into a burnt offering!”, don’t you think that hearing those words come out of his own mouth would have given him pause?  Even if Sarah just held him sleepily while he struggled with it himself, he would have had to think of her, he would have had to think of her and Isaac, in a way he might not have if it was just he himself and his “dark night of the soul."

When I am contemplating a potentially life-changing decision, even if I already think I know my answer, I try to talk to people whose insight I respect, to see how their understanding of the situation corresponds with mine.  Often they mention things that I didn’t even think of.  — to use an example that benefits us all, my sermons improve their focus and direction greatly from feedback during the writing process.  Sometimes others understand what I’m struggling to say better than I do.  

None of us can possibly know every perspective; (if we did, then we’d be God).  So sharing our thoughts enriches everybody’s decision-making.  And if it were possible to say this, maybe even God could have benefitted from some human perspective in this story.  Maybe God over-estimated Abraham’s readiness to think for himself.  Perhaps God pushed Abraham too far, like a little kid poking an animal in its burrow to see what it will do.  Rather than pushing back, Abraham meekly complied.  It wasn’t a good outcome for anybody.

On this day, we begin (or continue) our review of our actions during the past year, in order to figure out how to go forward in healthier ways than before.  But we cannot be expected to know ahead of time all the decision points we will encounter, so how do we prepare to make better decisions in the year to come?  Abraham’s apparent failure guides us toward two techniques that may lead us to more success.  Resolve to consult not only our own wisdom and experience, but to share our thinking with others and invite their input.  Widen our perspective, for none of us has all the answers alone.  And practice turning to each other, for “in isolation there is no life.”  

May it be a year of good decision-making — for us, for our community, for our leaders, and for our world.