There are a few things missing from the Torah portion we read today, the Akedah, the story of the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham, but two stand out to my mind in particular, both coming to our attention during the one exchange of words that takes place between the two main characters. This happens in verses 7 and 8. Isaac, who knows the least of all what is going on, though it is clear he assumes they have gone into the wilderness to sacrifice an animal, notices that his father is carrying wood and also transporting fire to set it alight. Or at least those are the only things that he mentions to his father he has noticed. What is interesting is that the narrative of the text has told us that Abraham is carrying three things–the wood, the fire, and the knife–but Isaac only echoes two of these three. Does he not see the knife? Does Abraham have it concealed, hidden away in the folds of his robe? If so, why should he hide it? Isaac clearly knows that they are on the way to slaughter an animal, so why shouldn’t he see the knife? Maybe it is some impulse on Abraham’s part to conceal it even if this isn’t necessary, out of terror or guilt, or some less nameable emotion, just as he conceals the ultimate purpose of their journey, as he understands it. Or maybe Isaac does see it, and some similar unconscious impulse or intuition imbues it for him with a kind of terrible and overwhelming shine, such that he can’t bring himself to name it. But whereas this absence is an unnamed presence, the other one is a named absence. “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?’ he asks his father. We might wonder at his tone. Is it innocence or dawning awareness? And what about his father’s answer? “God will provide the lamb,” he says, as the two walk on together. Is this an obfuscation, whether palliative or anesthetic? Or is it possibly an expression of faith, or hope, that there is perhaps a better resolution to the tension between them then the one he can foresee? All of this mystery is quite fitting for a story whose enduring relevance lies in the fact that it is full of holes.
The characterization of the Akedah in this way, as a story remarkable for what it lacks, is borrowed from Erich Auerbach, the mid-20th century German-Jewish literary scholar, and particularly from the famous first chapter of his classic work “Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature”, published in 1946 and composed while the author was living in Istanbul as a refugee from the Nazis. This chapter, which is frequently read as a stand-alone essay, is called “Odysseus’s Scar,” and it analyzes what Auerbach considered the key distinctions between the ancient Greek Homeric method of narration–as found in the Iliad and the Odyssey–and the Biblical style, typified by the Akedah. The difference boiled down to what Auerbach described as “lacunae”, or “lacuna” in the singular, meaning literally a small cavity or pit, or a discontinuity in anatomical structure, or, more to the point, a blank space; a missing part. Some of the effectiveness of Auerbach’s analysis comes through in the symbolic power of the details on which he hangs the contrast, on the one hand a gaping, empty space, and on the other a scar, a wound that has healed itself over and left a mark, but no essential interruption in the continuity of the skin or tissue. The scar in question, on the body of the wandering Odysseus, is what makes him known to his old nurse when he returns home, even though he is disguised to everyone else. “Here is the scar,” writes Auerbach, “and Homer’s feeling will simply not permit him to see it appear out of the darkness of an unilluminated past.” Instead, as Auerbach reminds the reader, it is described, physically and historically, in a delightful abundance of detail, which is the salient characteristic of the Homeric approach. “Never is there a form left fragmentary,” he says. “The Homeric style knows only a foreground, only a uniformly illuminated, uniformly objective present.”
The lacuna-ridden biblical style stands in striking contrast, exhibiting, in Auerbach’s words, “the externalization of only so much of the phenomena as is necessary for the purpose of the narrative, all else left in obscurity.” Paradoxically, because less is said of them, the biblical characters, of whom so much must be intuited or interpreted, seem much more real. Taking his own stab at character study, Auerbach describes Abraham’s “soul [as] torn between desperate rebellion and hopeful expectation; his silent obedience is multilayered, has background,” and adds, “such a problematic psychological situation as this is impossible for any of the Homeric heroes, whose destiny is clearly defined and who wake every morning as if it were the first day of their lives.” (Vayashkem Odysseus baboker.) This is also what differentiates legend from history. “Homer,” says Auerbach, “remains within the legendary” a genre that “is generally quickly recognizable by its composition…It runs far too smoothly.” But history, as a literary genre, makes itself known to us by its inability to offer, for once and all, a singular and objective version of what happened, and its missing or contradictory details provoke from the telling the ambiguous and irresolute texture of real life. “To write history is so difficult,” Auerbach adds,” that most historians are forced to make concession to the technique of legend.”
Auerbach’s theory appeals to me, not the least because it provides me with additional terminology to try to articulate the manner in which I have approached this story throughout my adult life. As long as I can recall, I have been pushing away what I received as the standard contemporary reception of the Akedah, which was characterized by an almost priggish moral revulsion, expressed in a series of questions of the “what kind of a god would ask this?” and “what kind of a man would do this?” variety. This reading, of course, is based in a reasonable understanding of what happens in the story: a man of unswerving faith demonstrates his heroism through a readiness to offer to his god, unflinchingly, even his beloved son. But, borrowing Auerbach’s terms, couldn’t we say that’s a rather legendary reading of the story, as if Abraham were a Homeric character, fellow to Achilles and Agamemnon, rather than father to Ishmael and Isaac? As Auerbach makes clear, the Akedah is not about a scar, but rather an open wound, and the mythic material of the divine voice and the promise, for me at least, have always seemed to float above the complex realism of its laconic texture, as if these supernatural details were the concession to legend that Auerbach says the historian often makes to simplify her work. How much harder would it be without them to invoke the texture of a parent-child relationship, played against the backdrop of real life, and pulsing with the appearance and the disappearance of the knife and the lamb!
This conception of the story has led me, over the course of my adulthood so far, to expound two distinct pieces of “Akedah Torah.” I claim neither one as the original intent of the text–why should that stop me?–though I do believe that both are plausible constructions, built out of its indefinite substance and in keeping with its mood and tenor. The first of these came to me when I was in my early twenties. I can still remember thinking it through while loafing off at the office job I held after graduating college, though I didn’t actually deliver it in any form till I was in my later-twenties. It occurred to me through an association of the Akedah with a movie I saw as a kid that made an enormous impression on me, John Boorman’s “The Emerald Forrest”, in particular the sequence in which the white boy being raised by an Amazonian tribe goes through a fire-ant ceremony, a ritual death, so that he can become a man. I started thinking of this binding of Isaac as just such a ritual death, with the added complication that his father must also play a role in the ritual, because it is the father’s shadow, and not the boy’s innate immaturity, that is preventing growth. So God instructs Abraham to raise the knife, metonymy of the force of drive and personality that he wields over his son, and then to put it down and unbind the young man. I thought of this as young man’s Torah at its best, and I proceeded to tell it in one version or another throughout the superannuated adolescence of my thirties, the last time being my first years at the JCA, till I became a father myself, at which point my perspective embedded itself more deeply in Abraham. With the gift of a baby boy in my arms, and a pervasive foreboding about his fate on this tumultuous planet, and, I’ll be a little more frank, an odd sense of guilt that I had consented to have him knowing in full detail the implications of climate change, I began to tell the story of a father who walks a dark and brooding road with his son, a bit more Cormac McCarthy than John Boorman, hoping against hope for the lamb he has told his son they will find.
But personal events this year have given a new twist to my reading. One morning this winter, I picked up a voicemail from my younger brother (named Isaac, by the way) informing me that our father had suffered a heart attack. To my good fortune, I didn’t get this message till the prognosis had already been established as very good, but the episode shook us all up, especially, I’d imagine, my father and his husband, who have since reevaluated certain expectations of their lives and accelerated along the trajectory of retirement and relocation. Soon after, my mother began experiencing episodes of cardiac arrhythmia, a racing heart rate, and had to be hospitalized a few times before an ablation set her body right. We later pieced together the coincidence that she had been admitted to Mass General on the same day that my father was having his first follow-up there with the cardiologist. She, too, has continued to improve, but I could still say, thinking selfishly for a moment, that two parents developing heart conditions in a single year marks a turning in the life of a man in his mid-forties. I found myself bringing all of this new experience to bear on my reading of the Akedah, and realizing that what it meant was that I wasn’t done playing Isaac; that what I might begin to envision was a scenario in which a middle-aged Isaac realized he would, in a way, be carrying Abraham down the same road to the mountain they had walked years ago, that time they had hoped for the lamb without speaking of the knife.
Auerbach takes his analysis a step further, suggesting that another significant distinction between the Bible and Homer is that only the former claims it is telling the one true story, an insistence he describes as “tyrannical” in the obligations it places upon the reader. Not only because of its empty space must this tale be continually reinterpreted, but because it is a sacred story that must travel with us through time and be reinhabited from subsequent perspectives. Though I don’t know the extent to which his own Jewish sensibility had been etiolated through assimilation, it should be quite clear to us that Auerbach is describing the process of Midrash, of reading our way into an ambiguous story that we are compelled to revisit. But I want to suggest that the real text here is not so much the Torah as life itself, and that the narrative, slippery and undefined in a way that allows for the portrayal of the reality of change and progression in human identity and relationships, is only a means to an end; a way of measuring ourselves as we move through time and it moves through us, with regard to strength and weakness, youth and age, responsibility and decline, carrying the burden and being, in this sense, the burden that is carried; how one man in his time plays many parts, and Abraham becomes Isaac and Isaac becomes the Abraham to the Isaac that was Abraham. How it is a story made history, made true, by its lacunae, full of things we don’t know how to name, or pretend not to see, or try to say, or forget, and partaking of the egoistic self-assertion that proves the test of love–the knife–and the lamb: the hope for peace and reconciliation, for the sharing of a common ceremony that may arise, in the end, out of the realization that both parents and children are a part of the same imperfection, and nobody is a legend because everything is full of holes.
And I started to imagine this new Isaac–my double, my brother–watching his sons grow and remarking on how a man as overwhelming as his father could only be carried in the third generation by splitting his personality between twins, one for his vigor and the other for his cunning, and noticing that his eyes aren’t what they used to be, and the taste for game burgeoning in his mouth, and remembering that time he took me into the wild and held the knife over my head and then put it down. I can still remember what it looked like, flapping from his belt as he walked and glinting in the sun, the long one he always used for slaughtering the sheep, and the sun was shining, and I can remember that it seemed too strange, and I had this feeling that I couldn’t even name, and then what happened. Why did he do it? What did it mean for him? Where did we go from there? And I was wondering where the lamb was, so I asked him, and he told me some story about it. A lie. No, he didn’t lie. He said it was a missing piece.