Aruba and the Binding of Isaac

Aruba and the Binding of Isaac

A Sermon for Rosh HaShannah Day 5777

By Rabbi Pamela Frydman

(This talk is also linked to the website of Congregation P’nai Tikvah.)

Today we read the story that describes how Abraham bound his son Isaac on the altar and an angel intervened and said, “Abraham! Abraham! Do not do this! Do not sacrifice your son!”[1]

Judaism is full of paradox. If Judaism was not a religion of paradox, it would not be relevant to human life, because human life is, in and of itself, full of paradox. Let me give you an example. Say you are a lawyer and you are not Jewish, but you work for a Jewish firm and all the Jewish lawyers in the firm are taking off for the high holy days. And the Jewish holidays are paid days off for the staff in your firm. So you use a few of your vacation days and you string together your vacation days with your paid days off for Rosh HaShannah, Yom Kippur and the weekend in between and you and your spouse plan a getaway to the Caribbean.

Now that might not happen in Las Vegas, but it did happen in New York and the non-Jewish lawyer was caught up short when he found himself in court with a Jewish judge who wanted to schedule a hearing for a date between Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur.

The lawyer said, “Your Honor. I have religious obligations during October and I can’t be available on the holidays of Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur and the days in between.”

The judge said: “Yes, I know about the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. You’ve told me that you won’t work those days. I understand.”

The lawyer said, “And also the days between. I’m not allowed to work for those 10 days.”

The judge said, “I see. Well, how about October 17?”

The lawyer said: “Yes, Your Honor, October 17 is fine.”

The judge asked “Are you sure?”

The lawyer said, “Yes, just not between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.”

The judge leaned over his bench and said, “Counsel, I just want to make sure I am hearing you correctly. You say your religious commitments preclude you from working from October 2 through the end of October 12, but you can work on October 17. Is that correct?”

“Yes,” said the lawyer.

Then the judge asked, “And that’s because October 2 starts Rosh Hashanah and October 12 is Yom Kippur?”

“Yes, that’s right, Your Honor,” said the lawyer.

“And October 17 is Sukkot, right?” asked the judge.

“Sukkot? What’s that?” asked the lawyer.

“Now tell me the truth, counsel,” said the judge. “Where exactly will you be in early October?”

The lawyer looked down at his shoes and said. “Aruba.”

Sometimes we do our best to explain the truth, by mingling the truth with what are commonly call white lies. A white lie is considered to be better than an out-and-out lie, because a white lie is just the bending of truth.

But what we don’t really think about is the fact that this same phenomenon of bending the truth happens in our ears as well as in our mouths and with our keyboards and pens. Sometimes we hear what we think we are supposed to hear rather than what is being said. And that is what seems to have happened to Abraham.

As best as we can tell, G-o-d never intended for Abraham to kill Isaac. If G-o-d had intended that Isaac should be sacrificed, then G-o-d’s angel would not have had a reason to stop Abraham from killing Isaac.

Abraham lived during a time when people in his neighborhood were still sacrificing human beings. Abraham heard a voice that said, “Please take your son, … Isaac, and go away to the land of Moriah and bring him up there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains, of which I will tell you.”

G-o-d was essentially saying, “hay Abraham, go up the mountain, take your son, offer a burnt offering, and your son will be with you while you do it.” Abraham missed the subtlety of the message because he heard the message through the filter of what was going on in his neighborhood, and that is why Abraham thought that his son was to be the burnt offering.

The sages point out that after the binding of Isaac, and until the end of Abraham’s life, the Torah does not report any conversations between Abraham and Isaac. The sages say that that is evidence that Isaac never spoke to Abraham again because of what happened on the mountain.

It does say in the Torah that after Abraham died, Isaac and Ishmael buried their father. So Isaac and Ishmael were still in Abraham’s life, but according to the rabbis, Isaac did not speak with Abraham after Abraham mistakenly bound Isaac on the altar.

This tragedy of misunderstanding also included Sarah. As we know, Sarah was Abraham’s wife and Isaac’s mother. Sarah does not have a speaking role in the story of the binding of Isaac, and according to the Torah, she died right afterward. There are two commentaries with diametrically opposed interpretations as to why Sarah died just then.

The sages say that Sarah was a very great Prophet, even greater than Abraham. Rabbi Avraham Bornsztain of Sochotchov[2] taught that because of Sarah’s great capacity for prophecy, she knew that it was not God’s will that Isaac be killed, so when Sarah heard that Abraham had almost killed Isaac, Sarah became so upset that her soul literally departed from her body and she died.[3]

Rabbi Yaacov Aharon Regensberg of Alexander had a completely different take about why Sarah died after the binding of Isaac. Rabbi Yaacov Aharon taught that Sarah actually regretted that her son Isaac was not seen as being fit to be sacrificed. So when Sarah heard that Isaac was almost sacrificed, and the sacrifice did not take place, the intensity of Sarah’s grief caused her soul to depart and she died.[4]

So who is right? And who is telling the truth? We all know that the lawyer in the New York courtroom was not telling the truth, because we know from firsthand experience that Jews are allowed to work during the days between Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur. But if we did not know that fact, how would we know that the lawyer in the New York courtroom was not telling the truth?

How can we know which Chassidic master who lived during the 19th century was telling the truth about what happened to our mother Sarah when her son Isaac was almost sacrificed and the angel spared him? Was Sarah devastated because she knew that sacrificing human beings was no longer appropriate? Or did Sarah believe in human sacrifice and she was devastated that her son was not accepted as a sacrifice?

Perhaps neither of these commentaries are reflections of truth. Perhaps Sarah died of old age and not because of the binding of her son Isaac at the hands of her husband Abraham. After all, Sarah was 127 years old when she died, so old age is a plausible cause of her death.

How can we know the truth of why Sarah died when she did? In truth we cannot know. We can only speculate, and our speculations can only take us on the journey to where our minds are willing to go.

We must condemn modern suicide bombers. And I, for one, also condemn Hamas leaders for calling for a Day of Rage during last Friday’s funeral for Israel’s former President Shimon Peres. But we cannot turn our backs on the reality that our Jewish tradition includes the story of our founding father Abraham having bound his son on an altar on the very mountain where King Solomon later built the Holy Temple. We must condemn fanaticism, but we must also develop a heart of wisdom – Solomonic wisdom if you will – in order to understand that all of our religious traditions have fanaticism in their roots. And that fanaticism must be rooted out in order for there to be peace, and in order for our children and grandchildren to live in a world that is safe from ideologically motivated atrocities.

The President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas sent a letter of condolence to Israel’s leaders upon the passing of former President Shimon Peres. President Abbas also attended the funeral and he and Prime Minitster Netanyahu shook hands and exchanged greetings. Their meeting was covered in the Jerusalem Post and other Israeli and international media outlets.

So what does this have to do with the high holy days? It has to do with the very reason that we will all be admitting to the sins in the confessional prayers next week on Yom Kippur. We confess to those communal sins in order to distance ourselves from communal treachery. We confess to those sins in order to point out for ourselves, and everyone around us, that those sins are very bad and we do not want to be a part of those sinful activities.

We don’t always have time to go out on the internet to make sure that we know all the good news about people who are doing the right thing. And besides, good news does not sell as well as bad news does. Bad news attracts more readers and listeners than good news. Therefore, bad news attracts more advertisers so we get to experience a lot more bad news in the media than good news.

There is absolutely nothing that justifies atrocities of terrorism and fanaticism that call for one people to eradicate another people. But the situation is often more complex and more textured than we realize or than we read about in the news. There are many moderate leaders like President Abbas who reach beyond their comfort zone to do what they believe is right, even in the face of harsh criticism from their colleagues. We just don’t hear much about these moderates when they are acting in moderation, because the media covers the atrocities more than it covers the acts of moderation. Now it is true, or at least, I believe it is true, that we do need to be aware of the atrocities going on in our world, because what we don’t know can hurt us and the people we love.

But it is the distancing of ourselves from the truth of the treachery of our own sacred stories that allows us to demonize others without realizing that our demonizing is dangerous because it affects our ability to hear the truth, and see the truth, when those we demonize are acting appropriately, or at least, in moderation. By owning our own demonic stories, we are reminded to practice tolerance, and to look beyond the headlines to learn about the good people in the community of moderates, the moderates with whom we can develop meaningful relationships and work together toward a safer and more peaceful world.

The nation of Myanmar was formerly called Burma. During the past six years, Myanmar Buddhists have been perpetuating atrocities against Rohingya Muslims. These atrocities have been recognized as genocide. Buddhism is often thought to be one of the most peaceful religions, but it turns out that Buddhism has a lot in common with other religions. The Buddhist path is a peaceful path, but there is also treachery in the Buddhist teachings just like there is treachery in the Jewish teachings and in the teachings of almost all peoples.

There are two aspects of the story of the binding of Isaac that I find to be very redeeming. One redeeming aspect of the binding of Isaac is that Isaac was not killed. Another redeeming aspect of the binding of Isaac is that our sages not only assigned the story to be read in sequence as we make our way through the Torah during the course of each year, but the sages have also assigned the binding of Isaac, as a Torah reading on Rosh HaShannah so that we may never forget that we are not better than other peoples. We are just more sophisticated, or at least we should be more sophisticated, in realizing that we need to overcome our violent stories rather than emulating them.

By acknowledging that we know our people’s violent stories, and that we have come to peace with these stories, we, as Jews, can become a light unto the nations, helping to lead the way on the path toward peace, as the Prophet Isaiah envisioned[5]. May this be the year that we, as Jews and as caring citizens, move a little bit closer to listening with both ears, and seeing with both eyes, into the point of view of the other. May this be the year that we are able to help our families and communities move closer toward peace and understanding both here in Las Vegas and in our state and our nation, and with Israel and her neighbors, and with the entire world.

Kayn yehi ratzon. So may it be. Amen.

[1] Genesis 22.

[2] Rabbi Avraham Bornstain lived from 1838 to 1910.

[3] Humash P’ninay HaChasidut, Vol. 1, Bereishit. Compiled by Rabbi Shalom Dov Kovelsky, Rabbi Yitzchak HaCohen Feigenbaum, and Rabbi Shalom Chaim Prosh. (Jerusalem: 5747 (1986), Isaac Lieberman, Publisher), p. 187.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Isaiah 42.