Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
Anyone who’s every attended Sunday school has a pretty vivid memory of this parshah: God instructs Abraham to take his son, “your only child, your beloved” to Mt. Moriah and “bring him there as an offering.” And the Torah, the same scroll that tells us in vivid detail the bargaining that Abraham engages in with God before the destruction of Sodom, this Torah is silent about why Abraham acquiesces seemingly without a murmur of dispute.
It even says that Abraham, Isaac, and servants journeyed for three days, certainly long enough to develop some kind of Plan B, or a good argument about why not to do this. When Isaac asks What’s going on the altar? Abraham says God will provide. They ascend the mountain. Abraham the faithful servant builds the altar, binds his son, again without any recorded word of doubt or protest.
Only when he has the knife in hand does an angel stop him and reveal a ram ensnared in nearby bushes. And we’re told that because Abraham withheld nothing from God he becomes even more blessed, and his offspring will become “like stars upon the heavens and like sands upon the seashore.” Abraham and Isaac return to Beersheva. The parshah ends with news that Abraham’s brother has also fathered many sons.
For me the core of the story comes down to a series of questions about surrender: Abraham to God, Isaac to Abraham. Here’s some questions to think about, before or after tashlich:
To what do you surrender? Which voices do you listen to among all those you hear, inner and outer?
Do you surrender out of faith? And what level of faith must one have to sacrifice their own child?
Is there some price so high you would not obey?
Or is your devotion to the divine the only standard that you truly value and act by? Not just today or this week, but any normal day.
How can you really know the level of your faith without it being tested? Is some sacrifice necessary to validate it?
And what happens if you turn the story on its head? If you look through Isaac’s eyes. To what do you surrender? Is your trust in your father? Or in God? Is your own faith so absolute that even when the knife is raised, you would not speak?
Whom do you obey? and why? Do you obey out of faith, or out of habit, social propriety, or perhaps with some hopeful agenda?
What binds you? What limits your options in life? Are these constraints imposed by others, or by yourself?
For me the lesson of this parshah is that life offers us many paths to holiness, and many opportunities to wrestle with these issues. They’re rarely this dramatic or potentially lethal. But every day we make choices: big ones and little ones.
Big concepts like surrender and trust are teachers. They teach us to approach every choice we make as a holy act. If we think about each Yes or each No in a holy way, we cultivate awareness. Not just at as intellectual concept but in a visceral way. And in doing so we learn a lot about our own values and about our relationship to whatever we accept as God.
Through that learning we cultivate faith.
Then, of course, it all comes back to how we act. And as we know, every time we act with kavanah, it is a holy act.
-Delivered as a Drash, Rosh Hashonh Day 2, at TBI Eugene, Oregon, 2009 by Helen Rosenau. All rights reserved.