Worshippers in many synagogues today read Akeidat Yitzchak (The Binding of Isaac). I have been puzzling over why this particular story is connected to Rosh Hashanah. It is so hard to read! I can’t imagine there is a parent anywhere who reads this passage and thinks, “Cool, I get it.” There could be no more painful commitment than the one that Abraham makes, to follow G-d’s instruction to sacrifice his beloved son. What, at this point, could he have had to prove? This is the Abraham who according to the midrash in Genesis Rabbah (38:13) smashed the idols in his father’s shop in order to help others understand the singularity and non-physicality of G-d, the Abraham who circumcised himself at age 99 (Genesis 17:24). This is not a man whose faith and commitment invite questioning.
Yet G-d asks the impossible of Abraham, to sacrifice his son, and he is prepared to deliver. The text rubs it in for Abraham: “Please take your son, your favored one, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah,” (Genesis 22:2) as if to make sure Abraham feels the full weight of what he is being asked to do.
Somehow Abraham is willing to take on this terrible task. And as Isaac starts to ask questions, Abraham keeps saying, essentially, it’s not ours to question. Let go and let G-d. Let’s go.
And the two walk on together, as one.
I keep asking myself what it would be like to have that kind of faith, to go forth with conviction that even the most incomprehensible, painful challenge is somehow going to turn out right, even useful. My brilliant teacher, Rabbi Marcia Prager, taught me that this story is a parable about walking in faith when the instructions are unclear.
In the end, Abraham and Isaac are saved, sort of. Just in the nick of time, an angel stays Abraham’s hand. Abraham sees a ram caught in the thicket. He releases Isaac and they offer up the ram instead. Afterward, G-d gives Abraham a blessing, that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars. His willingness to give up his son was enough to buy him a nation of descendants.
All’s well, right?
But notice! Abraham doesn’t go home. He stays instead in Beersheva. Perhaps he can’t face his wife. Perhaps he can’t face himself. Isaac disappears from the narrative for a while and for the remainder of his life struggles with trust. They are saved but they are changed. Although Abraham didn’t sacrifice his precious son, there was still a sacrifice that day.
I’ve been thinking about faith and sacrifice ever since the Colin Kaepernick ad dropped last week, the one whose tag line is: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
I fully support Kaepernick’s right to protest and his method of doing so. With thoughtfulness and heart, he has brought our attention to some of the ways racism is still ruining our culture, more than 150 years after slavery ended in the US. (Slavery, I have come to realize, was not the disease, but a gruesome, near-fatal symptom.) His practice of kneeling for the national anthem before NFL games has sparked the national conversation about race that former President Bill Clinton aspired to all those years ago. It’s a conversation that’s not easy, but most worthwhile conversations are not. The level of anger that has been leveled at Kaepernick is shocking, a clear indication of barely veiled racism, and thus an indication of how necessary his work is in this moment.
Some people have taken issue with the protest, claiming that it denigrates both the American flag and US veterans. Respectfully, I disagree. Kaepernick’s protest has nothing to do with the flag, nor with the armed forces. It is a peaceful commentary on a problem in American society. Using his status as a public figure, Kaepernick has used non-violence to draw people’s attention to the horrific violence that is sometimes visited on unarmed black citizens at the hands of law enforcement. Despite suffering enormous professional and personal consequences, Kaepernick has stayed true to his principles, including that of non-violence.
Faith can make us do amazing things. It can inspire us to foolish greatness and it can spur us to great foolishness. The same zeal that moves people to make soup for the homeless and fight for immigrants’ rights also makes people fly airplanes into buildings. The confluence of Rosh Hashanah and that terrible anniversary should remind us that a deeply-held conviction is a double-edged sword. It’s great to be faithful, to be willing to go the distance. But Abraham learned that day that when you focus only on the sacrifice, you risk becoming blind to other choices, and when violence starts to look like a good solution, it’s wise to stay your hand and think twice. As Rabbi Sharon Brous said, paraphrasing Rabbi David Ellenson: always look for the ram in the thicket. The violent answer cannot be the final answer.