A couple I know wanted more than anything to have children. But, they were unable to conceive. They tried everything. Eventually, they even tried using a surrogate mother, but once the surrogate became pregnant, she started taunting the wife, playing on her feelings of shame and failure. Finally the surrogate pulled the most heartbreaking trick of all and backed out on the deal, saying that she wanted to raise her son by herself. The couple, especially the wife, was devastated. Then, miraculously, one day, the doctor told them that they were going to have a baby! This woman I know laughed. She thought that she had reached menopause and was too old to have a baby of her own. Their joy at learning of her pregnancy was infectious. Their son was born and grew up into a quiet young man. Then, one day, father and son went camping. The son was sunbathing on a rock when something inexplicable possessed the father to grab his hunting knife. He knelt down with the knife to his son’s throat, when a gust of wind blew the smoke from the fire into his eyes. When the father’s eyes had cleared, so had his mind, and the boy escaped physically unscathed. Tragically, by the time they got home, they found that the boy’s mother had died that same day. The boy, devastated by grief and trauma, never spoke to his father again.
A tragic story all around but, why did I tell you the long preamble about the son’s miraculous conception? What does it have to do with his near-death experience? Wouldn’t the story have been just as tragic if I told you it this way instead: I know this father who took his son camping. The son was sunbathing on a rock when something inexplicable possessed the father to grab his hunting knife. He knelt down with the knife to his son’s throat, when a gust of wind blew the smoke from the fire into his eyes. When the father’s eyes had cleared, so had his mind, and the boy escaped physically unscathed. Tragically, by the time they got home, they found that the boy’s mother had died that same day. The boy, devastated by grief and trauma, never spoke to his father again.
Both stories are about a father who almost killed his son, a son who escaped, and a mother who died before seeing that her son was safe. But in the first story, we care a lot more about the son because of the effort his parents put into his birth. All children are precious, but it can be hard to care about an abstract boy in a story, especially when we know almost nothing about the boy himself, even if the person telling the story knows the family personally. In our story, however, we know more about the son. He’s a miracle child, and the parents went through a lot to bring him into the world. This fact gives him an added value.
It’s human nature to attach higher value to things we work for than to things which come easily. I’ll give you an example from my own life. When I was in college, I was on my school’s crew team. Every year, the first year team started out with about forty members, but because crew was such a demanding sport, only a few were left by the end of the year. For those of us who survived, we were awarded with the same crew team sweatshirts the upperclasswomen wore. Even though I grew up in New England and my closet was full of sweatshirts, I wanted a crew sweatshirt for myself. Why? because you couldn’t just buy a one. You had to earn it by working hard and staying on the team for an entire year. It was a clear symbol of the effort I put in to become a being member of the team Now, I have long since discarded all of those other sweatshirts that I wore back in college. But I am still proud to own and wear that crew sweatshirt.
Clearly, a child cannot be compared to a sweatshirt. But, that same feeling of triumph and accomplishment are there in the son’s conception and birth. (And if you hadn’t guessed it yet, the family in my first story was Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac.) By telling the story of Abraham and Sarah’s infertility followed by Isaac’s miraculous conception and birth, the audience comes to value Isaac as his parents did, making the story of his binding, the akedah, that much more dramatic. Any story of child sacrifice is bound to be dramatic and send chills up your spine, as in the stories of Yiftach and his daughter, or Agamemnon and Iphigenia. This is especially true if the listener is either a child or a parent (and we are, after all, all someone’s child). But the level of drama increases when the child in question is an only child. The story becomes even more dramatic still when this only child to be sacrificed was the result of a miraculous birth. This is one of the major themes of the miracle of Isaac’s birth.
The more you value something, the harder it is to give it up. We all have objects that we value more because of the effort involved in attaining them. Sometimes the object is tangible, as in the case of my sweatshirt, a trophy won, or the publication of a piece of writing. Other times, it is the attainment of a particular job title, praise from a particular colleague or supervisor, or a flash of insight. Such objects, whether they are tangible or intangible, are sources of pride and accomplishment. When we are forced, whether by time, economic necessity, or the pressure of a family member to relinquish that object, the loss is always painful. When we have built up a sense of personal identity intertwined with the attainment of the object in question, the loss is that much more painful.
Yet, we all go through such trials, and most of us are able to survive them in a healthy manner. Sometimes, we have re-envisioned who we are before needing to give up that tangible reminder. While I remain proud of my accomplishment as a member of a collegiate crew team, I no longer row, nor do I consider myself an athlete in any sense of the word. If I were to lose my sweatshirt, or my husband were to throw it out, I would be upset, but in no way shaken to my core. (Not that I’m suggesting that anyone should go home and throw out their spouse’s things!)
Other times, however, the loss seems nearly unbearable. This could be the loss of a job, or the death of a family member, or the destruction of a building such as the world trade center. When a loss like this occurs, we feel as if our whole sense of self is being brought into question. This, I imagine, is what Sarah, Abraham, and Isaac all felt that fateful day on Mount Moriah.
(Sarah) Most mothers feel such strong bonds with their children that they would lay down their own lives for that of their children. The thought of losing a child is unbearably painful. When that child is an only child and there is no hope of any more, many mothers become a little extra protective, and Sarah was no exception. She banished Ishmael to protect her son. How bereft she must have felt upon finding out about her husband’s intent to sacrifice her son!
(Abraham) And what of her husband? Didn’t Abraham feel reluctance, remorse, trepidation, and loss in what he felt he was commanded to do? According to the classic midrash found in the Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin page 89b, Abraham was reluctant to answer G-d’s call. When G-d told Abraham “Take your son,” Abraham replied “But, God, I have two sons (Isaac and Ishmael).” Clearly, he was worried about what G-d was about to require of him. So, G-d clarified, “Your only son.” Still not wanting to believe his ears, Abraham replied “Each is the only son of his mother.” To this, G-d added “Whom you love.” Abraham rejoined “But, God, I love both of them.” So G-d was forced to be blunt and say “Isaac.” If Isaac’s miraculous conception and birth were not enough to make him extra precious in his father’s eyes, then surely this exchange between G-d and Abraham heightens the bond between them. Isaac is considered to be the greater of two loves, as if he were Abraham’s only son. What relief Abraham must have felt when his hand was stayed and the life of his precious son was spared!
(Isaac) And what about the loss that Isaac himself must have felt? Even if he was a 37 year old man at the time of the akedah, as sources such as the Targum Yonatan describes, he must have felt out of control, not having been given a choice in the matter. And despite having physically survived the ordeal, when his father held that knife over him, I imagine that Isaac’s trust in his father was irrevocably shattered. Isaac’s world was permanently altered that day. From this point forward, the Tanach does not record any more conversations or interactions between Isaac and Abraham. Their relationship died bound to that alter on Mount Moriah. With the physical death of his mother following on the heels of the akedah, Isaac was left an orphan. Can there be any greater sense of loss than losing your entire family?
At least three lives were changed forever on Mount Moriah. It is a drama worthy of any modern-day soap opera, reality t.v. show, or bestselling novel. But why does the story of the akedah, the binding of Isaac, need to be such a dramatic story? Why is it so built up, starting all the way back with Isaac’s miraculous birth?
The story of Sarah and Abraham’s struggle with infertility highlights the preciousness of this particular person, Isaac. The trial of the akedah serves the same purpose – to make Isaac really special and important in our eyes. Through these two stories, Isaac is established as a hero worthy of being one of the patriarchs of the entire Jewish people. Without the build-up, Isaac would simply be a man whose wife consoled him after his mother’s death, and who spent his entire adult life redigging the wells that his father had dug before him. An unexciting schlumph schlepping his way through life. Not a very heroic character to uphold as an ancestor to be venerated… But a man who is the result of a miraculous conception, who is willing to be sacrificed to God, who survives this near-death experience, and yet who is able to get married, raise children and support his family, a man who knows how to survive and triumph over his own losses – sure sounds like a hero to me.
Each and every one of us has the potential to be a hero like Isaac: A person who is able to triumph over devastating personal losses, and continue to go about his own important but unacknowledged work in the world. The world is full of heroes like this. Acknowledge your losses. Grieve them as I’m sure Isaac grieved the loss of his relationship with his father Abraham. Then move on to share your legacy with the world, however humble it may seem in other people’s eyes. Your birth may not seem to be as miraculous as Isaacs, but remember every birth is a miracle. Your sacrifices may not seem to be as public or as large as Isaac’s, but they are sacrifices none-the-less. Isaac’s real greatness, his true contribution to the Jewish people is the one that we don’t discuss every year – the wells that he re-dug and the traditions that he passed on from his father to his sons, his silent but highly successful re-imaging of his self and taking charge of his own future even if it meant rethinking his life story. In other words, the reason we hold Isaac in such high regard is his ability to move past the grief and mistakes of his past and to move forward. In this regard, Judaism demands that we all be silent heroes like Isaac: that we savor our accomplishments, and that we acknowledge the struggles we have endured. And that we do this not just for ourselves, but for those around us as well.
This is a time of year during which we evaluate our past: our triumphs and our failures, our gains and our losses. May this year be the year that You live up to all of your potential as a hero, able to overcome your challenges, and able to celebrate your own achievements as well as the accomplishments of your friends and family.