I’m going to try something different today–
Instead of trying to be original, I want to restate a theme that I explored last year in the context of the Akedah, and I want to give you some time to process with each other and maybe respond to me–it often seems like I launch a lot of words at you at the High Holidays, and I want you to have the chance to role them around with each other while we’re still here (so it won’t disturb your appetite too much at lunch). I want to frame a question by reiterating what I said about this parsha last year, and then offer to you to discuss.
*I have an idiosyncratic interpretation of the Akedah, which I’ve been working on for at least ten years, and offering in a variety of styles and settings. I came up hearing this story interpreted in the traditional way–it was a test of Abraham’s faith in God, which he passed through his willingness to sacrifice his son–this is what God wanted, to see if he would do it, and when it turned out he would, that satisfied God enough that he didn’t have to actually do it…
I was also raised with what has now become the classical progressive Jewish abhorrence of this story–the horror at the idea that a father would be ready to do this, and that a god we are asked to revere would want this. I really received the story wrapped up in these questions, which I think encapsulated for me, to some extent, my frustration with the Judaism I was brought up on–how it seemed content, in a way, to wrap itself up year after year in the same insoluble dilemmas in the text, in the manner of good, thinking people who seem to prefer angst and self-doubt to genuine spiritual intensity and transformation. (Not that there’s anything wrong with self-doubt–I find it a healthy antidote to some of the nastier states of being that unchecked spiritual intensity can lead to.)
But I think it meant a lot to me to find a way to unlock this story in a way that salvaged it as a positive experience–to cut the Gordian knot, or, in the terms of Captain Kirk, to solve the Kobiyashi-Maru. And, for myself, I did this precisely by abandoning the angst-ridden dilemma manner of receiving it, and instead reread it indeed as a story of intense transformation–of a deeply primal, and tribal type.
For some reason, when I was fairly young, my father took me to see a film called The Emerald Forrest, directed by John Boorman. It’s the story of a young white child who is kidnapped by an Amazonian tribe, who are in the process of being displaced by a dam project that the boy’s father is working on. Much of the movie tells the parallel stories of the boy’s coming into manhood as a part of the tribe, and his father’s unrelenting search to find him and bring him back to what he considers civilization.
There is one scene in particular that sticks out in my mind from the first of these two tracks–after some adolescent prank, the boy is taken into the hut of the man who has become his tribal father, who looks at him squarely and says, “It is time for you to die.” What follows is an ordeal. If I recall correctly, the boy is bound at night to a tree in a swamp, from which an army of fire ants emerge to sting him until he passes out, and seemingly dies. In the morning, the tribal father comes to the spot, lifts up the boys lifeless head, and says, “The boy is dead.” And then the eyes of what seemed like a lifeless head open up, and the tribal father continues, “And now the man is born.”
At some point in my early-twenties, I made the connection between this movie scene I had beheld as an impressionable child, and this story about a father bringing his son to an altar to be killed, and then raising him up off that altar alive–this story that we struggled with year after year–and something clicked. It occurred to me that what really happens in the Akedah is the same kind of developmental death and rebirth. God says to Abraham: the boy must die, and the boy dies. And then God says to Abraham: now the man is born, let him up off that altar.
A big difference between the movie and the biblical story, however, is that the movie follows more closely the boy himself and his experience of coming to manhood. Our story puts the focus on the father, and that changes things a bit. Instead of being the story of a boy whose pranks suggest to his spiritual father that it is time for part of him to die so that something more mature can emerge, our story, in the way that I came to see it, is about a father who is not quite ready to allow that thing in his son to die, because he is not ready to give up being a father to it–and this is where God comes into the story for me, not as the capricious deity who wants to test his servants faith, but as that power that demands that we grow, whether we are ready to or not, and that cuts into us like a knife when we resist what cannot be resisted: God as the power that makes for transformation, ready or not…
With this view in mind, I found all kinds of things in the language of the story that would support my reading. Before the Akedah, God refers to Isaac, in talking with Abraham, as “your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac,” but after the Akedah says only, “Isaac whom you love.” I found a way to reread the term “your only son” yikheedkha in the Hebrew, as a reference not to an only child, which of course is factually inaccurate in this case, but as a reference to a child inextricably intertwined in his father’s ego, his sense of individuality, his yikhid, as a ram might be caught in a thicket by its horns. And so the father must take the son up to an altar, bind him with rope, hold a knife above his throat, and then be told to stop what he is doing, and let him go. As a result the father may lose his son, his only son, or yikhid, but he can still come to know the man named Isaac, whom he loves. And this becomes an ideal story for the High Holidays–a story about what it takes to let go of what we cannot bring ourselves to release; or, as we will say on Yom Kippur, in the words of kol nidrei, what it means to release all that we have bound, and release all that binds us.
And this is what I want to give you a few moments to reflect on with each other now. I drew on one modernist author in my talk yesterday, and I have another one in mind today. When William Faulkner was asked to give advice to aspiring writers, he said, “Kill your darlings.” This is generally understood to mean that writers can be come so proud of, and attached to, certain passages they have produced, that they fail to realize that this passages are choking the proper development of the larger work. Reflecting on the place of the Akedah in our High Holiday story telling, it makes me thing that we talk a lot about greed and avarice, sloth and apathy as the sins that blind us. But what about love and attachment? Because, I think in the end that this is the hard question the Akedah forces us to confront. When is our love itself a stumbling block? What does it take to realize that something we cherish must die–and just in case it needs to be said I’m not talking about murder but the kind of metaphoric or ceremonial death that we encounter in the Akedah, and that I described in that movie that made such an impression on me. Abraham’s example challenges us to confront the reality that we must sometimes kill our darlings. What, if anything, does this mean to us in the context of tshuvah?