I want to start by expressing my gratitude to our community. I am writing this week’s Shabbat Shalom message from the Annual National Association for Temple Administration Conference in Clearwater Beach, Florida. Thank you for allowing me to escape the impending cold Chicago winter for the sunny beaches of Florida. But seriously, thank you for being so supportive of my continued professional development and engagement with our national movement. I don’t take it for granted. While here, I have had the great pleasure of learning from Pastor Stephen King, Executive Director of Meals on Wheels. Stephen started his session with a story.
The story goes something like this: Jimmy and Johnny, younger boys, are fighting. The fighting continues to escalate, and their father begins to get annoyed and involved. The frustration continues to grow as the boys arguing becomes less and less rational. Being a man of faith, the father warns his boys that if the fighting continues, he would drag them across the street to the local church where the pastor would set them straight. Sure enough, the fighting did not cease. The father grabs Jimmy and sits him in the kitchen and says, “wait your turn.” He then grabs Johnny by the arm and pulls him across the street to the pastor. Johnny is sitting in the pastor’s study when the pastor walks in and stands in front of him. The pastor asks, “Johnny, do you know where God is?” Johnny is visibly anxious from the question and starts to cling to the chair. The pastor repeats the question, “Johnny, where is God?” Johnny is clearly in distress now. The tears are starting to fill his eyes. The pastor asks again, “Johnny, where is God?” Johnny is so upset at this time, he jumps from his chair sobbing, darts across the street, bolts up the stairs of his home and slams his bedroom door behind him. Jimmy sees his brother so distraught and bolts up the stairs to check on his brother. “Johnny, what happened over there,” Jimmy asked. Johnny cracks the door, and says to his brother, “God is missing, and they think it’s our fault.” (Insert quiet chuckle as you think about the naivety of two little boys).
I wanted to share this story because this week we read Parsha Vayeira, which contains the Akedah (the binding of Isaac). God instructed Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah. To this point, Abraham has had an interesting relationship with God. Abraham has been told to leave his home for a land he is not familiar with, he creates a covenant with God that calls for circumcision and argued with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah. God has looked out for him thus far but is now asking for him to slay his “only” son. Why did God need to test Abraham’s faith in such a dramatic fashion? Why did Abraham heed God’s instruction to sacrifice Isaac without offering any resistance? Our Torah Commentary does not even reference a single emotion from Abraham as he is leading his son to death by his hands. Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard referred to the Akedah with the emotions of “fear and trembling.” God commands Abraham to slay his son and true to order his command is revoked at the last possible second. The point has been made, nonetheless, that in Kierkegaard’s terminology, there can be, so far as ‘the knight of faith’ is concerned, a ‘teleological suspension of the ethical.’ As an ‘ethical man’ as well as ‘knight of faith,’ Abraham goes in ‘fear and trembling’ but the ultimate for him is not the ethical norm but his individual relationship to his God. According to biblical scholar Phyllis Trible, the Akedah, first and foremost, tests Abraham’s willingness to detach from his son so as to be able to turn to God: To attach is to practice idolatry. In adoring Isaac, Abraham turns from God. The test, then, is an opportunity for understanding and healing. To relinquish attachment is to discover freedom. To give up human anxiety is to receive divine assurance. To disavow idolatry is to find God.
We are left to think about what our story would be if Abraham decided that God was asking too much of him. Would Abraham’s love for his son be enough of a message to God to still receive the blessing on his decedents? Or to turn the tables completely, was Abraham testing God? Did he believe that God would allow him to go through this horrific act and was playing a biblical game of chicken? When asking these questions one of our sages referred to the angel that stops Abraham from committing the act of murder a representation of God’s failure. It is an interesting take that even God is fallible. We strive to make the wisest decisions in our lives and hope that a higher being would be able to provide guidance without flaws, however, under this presumption, it is very possible that nothing is perfect. It is my hope considering the state of things around us that we can make decisions that will allow us to lead the most fulfilled lives.