Sermon Saturday Morning
- Shabbat Shalom
- One of the difficulties that many people have with the study of the Bible is that there is so much inside the text that is very hard to comprehend. There are many people who get stuck right from the beginning, with the creation story, trying to figure out how a seven day creation has any meaning in our world of Darwin and the dinosaurs. Adam and Eve and their eating of the forbidden fruit, why does God punish them so severely? If there are only three people in the world, Adam, Eve and their son Cain, who does Cain marry? The list goes on and on. We want to read the Bible as the story of the beginning of humanity but it is not a coherent narrative. If God wrote the Bible then why is it so difficult? If God didn’t write the Bible, why do I care at all what it says?
- I am not going to answer those questions today; I want to call attention, to another difficult text in the Torah. For centuries, Jews and non-Jews have tried to understand the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac. How does a father go to sacrifice his son? How could Abraham raise a knife to his son’s throat? What kind of a God asks a father to sacrifice a son? The Torah calls this a test, but what kind of a test does God need to understand humanity? If God already understands us, why does God need to make the test?
- Most of these questions we can dismiss rather easily. The Torah does not teach us history nor does it want to be an accurate recording of what goes on in the world. The Torah is a book of morality; it tries to tell us, directly or through parables, what we should do and what we should not do. Sometimes, when we face difficult choices, we need to know that while there may not be any one right answer, there are some wrong answers. We need to be able to identify the wrong answers and focus on making good decisions. So what is the lesson that we are supposed to learn from the Akedah?
- Some say that we are supposed to carry away from this story that God does not want us to sacrifice our children. The purpose of the story is to show that animal sacrifice is permitted but human sacrifice is not. If this is the real purpose then clearly Abraham failed that test. God was asking Abraham to stand his ground, to refuse to sacrifice his son, to tell God that if he was required to sacrifice his son, then he would withdraw from the covenant between Abraham and God. Let God give the land to someone else.
- Abraham, of course, does nothing of the kind. Abraham is told to sacrifice his son, so he gets up early the next day and takes what he needs from the house; takes his son and heads out to the place where he will sacrifice the boy to God. When Isaac questions his father about what is to happen, Abraham does not fill his son in on the reason for the journey. I don’t know if Isaac figures out what is going to happen right then or if he finds out just before he is put on the alter. Either way, Isaac can’t be happy with the news. In the end, the story is about Abraham and not Isaac. Abraham leaves alone. His son will no longer travel with him. Abraham will remain alone; his wife dies when he returns home and even God will no longer speak to Abraham, not even to console him on the death of Sarah.
- But in the end, the story is not even about Abraham. We must never lose sight of the real purpose of the Torah, to teach us valuable lessons in life. The main character in the story may be Abraham, but the real focus of the story is us. We are Abraham. We are the ones being asked to sacrifice our children. How do we respond to that call? What must we do to pass God’s test?
- During the eleventh century, Europeans gathered to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims. On their way to the Middle East, they found cities with Jews in the Rhine Valley. Why go all the way to the Middle East to kill unbelievers when there were Jews right there in Europe who didn’t believe in their religion? Entire cities of Jews will be slaughtered before the governments who were supposed to protect them, finally move against the Crusaders. Whole families, who are given the “choice” to convert to Christianity or die, choose to die by their own hand rather than be tortured by the enemy. Many of the parents said to their children before they killed them with their own hands “Go tell Father Abraham, that he was told to sacrifice one child to God, we are sacrificing all our children. His sacrifice was a test, ours is a reality. If Abraham merited blessings, so too do we deserve God’s blessing.”
- Is it really a surprise that after the Holocaust, where over one million children were killed, suffocated and burned, that the first thing many survivors wanted to do was to have more children? They had made the ultimate sacrifice but they were prepared to live on, and see to it that while they could not prevent the death of so many children, they would not give up on the eternity of the Jewish people. This past week was the anniversary of Kristalnacht, the night of broken glass, that marks the beginning of the slaughter of our people in Europe. Our parsha, in one respect, declares that we are the end of that dark story. We are all not survivors, but we are all the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, to make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.
- However, I don’t believe that the Akedah is a story about rising from the ashes, about the resurrection of our people after the sacrifice. That would be a very dark story, darker than most other stories in the Torah. There has to be another way to see what Abraham’s journey has to say to us.
- I know that we all think that we would never sacrifice our children to God, like Abraham, but I am sometimes not so sure that we really mean it. There are times where life would have us sacrifice our children and we are tested in those moments as Abraham was tested.
- There are people who sacrifice their children for their own needs. These people hold their children back when they want to go out and find their way in the world. These parents feel that it is more important that they stay with us, that they show their love for us by never leaving us. “How can you leave me after all that I have done for you?” They ask. They ask their children to sacrifice their lives to care for the selfish needs of the parents.
- There are other parents in our country, who sacrificed their children for their career. In the name of getting ahead, making more money and being a better provider, they were never there for their children. They sacrificed the needs of their children for their own career advancement. They were never there to see their child’s accomplishments, nor were they there to dry the tears of frustration and defeat when their children were hurt. How many children never knew a parents love because the parent was too busy “sacrificing for their children”. Little did they know that in reality, they were sacrificing their children.
- Finally, how can we blame Abraham for not loving his son enough, when there are those whom we know who, for all kinds of absurd reasons, stop loving their children. In the heat of anger, words of hate and frustration are spoken and a rift opens up between parent and child. The hurt cuts so deep that they are prepared to cut all ties to their children, to sacrifice their love for the anger of a moment. Pride becomes more important than love, and we sacrifice our children while we wait for an apology. Yes, I know that sometimes children are the ones who create the rift between us. Sometimes they create the rift that rips apart our family and our hearts. We did not push them away, and it is their anger that enforces the separation. Still, no matter what or why, we must never let go of the love and the hope that someday that gap will be bridged. Maybe we can’t force them to love us and to forgive us, but we have to be always open for a child who wants to find his or her way back into the family. A parent should not be the barrier to a child who wants to come home.
- The Akedah teaches us, in the end, that nothing should sever the connection between a parent and a child. Life is a long and sometimes difficult journey, but we must never let go of our child’s hand. Yes they have to grow and go their own way. Yes they have to find love for themselves, find a spouse, raise a family, understand what it means to be a parent. But we must always have our hearts open to them, to be able to look them in the eye and share love. Abraham may not have actually sacrificed his son on the alter to God, but just raising the knife was enough to create the rift between father and son.
- I believe that there is another way for this story to end. The Jewish Poet, Danny Siegel tells his own story of what happened on the mountain top so long ago. He says that he prefers the story to end with Abraham turning to Isaac, realizing what an awful thing he is being asked to do, and then throwing all the instruments for the sacrifice on the ground and saying to his son, “Forget it Isaac, lets go home.” Before we lose our temper with our children, before we compound the mistakes that we make by defending self or sacrifice over family, before we create a rift so great that it will take years to bridge the gap, let us take a deep breath, let the love we have for our children fill our hearts. Let us throw down all that would stand between us, hold out our hands and say, “Forget it my child, lets go home!”
May God always turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of the children to their parents and may there always be love in our homes and in our lives as we say …
AMEN AND SHABBAT SHALOM