“And after these things, Abraham was tested.” Each year we return to this haunting text. Each year, we hear the words, “Take your son, your only son, your beloved, Isaac, and take him to Moriah up onto the mountain that I will show you, and offer him up there as a sacrifice.” Every year, we watch as Abraham raises up his knife to slay his son, and every year, we take a deep sigh of relief as the angel of God stops him and tells him that he need not kill his son. Instead, a ram that was caught in a nearby thicket is sacrificed, and Abraham’s faith has been proven to God.
We think that, at that point, everything is just hunky-dory, and everyone can just get back to their lives. However, there is a very interesting clue in the text that leads us to believe that all is not what it seems. In verse 19, near the end of this chapter, we read, “So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beer-sheba.”
Why is this significant? It only tells us about Abraham – where in the world is Isaac? They both went up to the top of the mountain together, but only Abraham comes down. As you might imagine, these gives us pause, and makes us wonder – where did Isaac go?
He has just witnessed the unimaginable – his father about to kill him on an altar up on a mountaintop. Does he not come down off the mountain? Does he go elsewhere? What happens to him?
I posed this question to some of our congregants, wondering, if YOU were Isaac, where might you have gone? How might you have been feeling? I was fascinated by the responses:
Alison Miller said:
Perhaps it was Abraham who was doing the testing, knowing full well he’d never sacrifice Isaac. Maybe Abraham was testing G-d, trying to decide if G-d was worthy of his absolute devotion? Abraham raises the knife and then winks at his son or says something that makes Isaac think its all pretend, sparing Isaac the trauma. Then G-d stops Abraham, giving Abraham the reassurance he need about following G-d. Those who were recounting the story may have preferred the interpretation that is so often used, but some things don’t add up. Abraham shows no signs of concern, anxiety, or even just apprehension about what would obviously be considered a heinous act by any healthy parent. And we know Abraham to be a welcoming, gracious host and wise soul, someone who would not be able to do something like this with a cold heart.
Karen Burzin shared:
I would be thinking long and hard about what kind of God would accept the sacrifice of someone’s son? How could my father love God so much that he would sacrifice me. What if I don’t love God as much as my father…am I a terrible person-that I don’t love God as much as someone else? I am not sure where I would go. I would probably hide. I’d hide from my Father and I would hide from God. I wouldn’t want to see either of them for feelings of fear, anger and confusion would consume me. I am sure I would have feelings of inadequacy as well.
David Tilles imagined Isaac’s response in 2018:
At the top of the mountain, Isaac still says nothing. He looks at his father, in reproach, in love, in anger at his father’s God, in desperation as he knows that now he, too, must live in this covenant and now it will be without his father’s guiding hand. Abraham says, “What else could I have done,” and starts to walk down the mountain. …Abraham stumbles back to the two servant lads without Isaac. The servants ask, “Where is Isaac?” Abraham mumbles an incomprehensible answer. They return to the home tents at Beersheba. Sarah sees Isaac’s donkey but not Isaac. She takes what she needs from her tent, and rides to Hebron on Isaac’s donkey, never to return. In Hebron, she is met with affection by her former neighbors, the Hittite women, and to them she releases her fury at her husband. The Hittite women speak of this to the Hittite princes, who send a fast runner to the abuse hotline. Abraham is arrested and social workers ascend the mountain and whisk Isaac away to a trauma counselor….
Our Sages, over the past two thousand years, were just as perplexed by the absence of Isaac, and they gave a number of explanations for where he might have been. These explanations are known as Midrashim, or interpretations, of the puzzles, inconsistencies, or redundancies found throughout the Bible. Most rabbis of long ago agreed that it was significant that Isaac was missing immediately following the events of the Akedah, though the implication varied from rabbi to rabbi.
Some believed that Isaac, instead of coming home with Abraham, traveled to the yeshiva, the house of study, of Shem and Ever, and studied there for three years. Because of course there were yeshivas in Abraham’s day! But that is the beauty of midrash: we reflect our own reality onto the ancient text. Shem was one of the 3 sons of Noah, and Ever was his great grandson. They are Abraham’s forebears, and, remember, those first generations in Genesis lived a very, very long time. So if you do the math, they were still alive when Isaac was born, and Jacob, for that matter. So the midrash assigns Shem and Ever the role of the keepers and transmitters of sacred wisdom, and they train the patriarchs in the ways of Torah. In the midrash, Abraham even tells Sarah at the time of his departure with Isaac that he is taking Isaac away to the yeshiva, and Sarah of course assents.
Conversely, a later commentary says that Abraham feared that if he and his son stayed together, the extreme joy that they would share over Isaac being alive would imply that they had not been truly ready to sacrifice Isaac, and that this would mean that they had questioned God’s will. Abraham and Isaac therefore separated until the excitement dissipated.
Abraham Ibn Ezra (a 12th century Spanish commentator) records an opinion that the angel’s call came too late and that Isaac was, in fact, killed by Abraham. Some even speculate that he was killed and resurrected later – which allows him to return for the rest of his narrative later in the Torah.
Rabbi Yehuda said: when the knife touched Isaac’s neck [during the Binding of Isaac], his soul flew out of his body. When the Heavenly Voice emerged from between the cherubim and commanded, “Do not send your hand to hurt the youth…” his soul returned to his body, and Isaac stood up on his feet, and realized that so too would the dead be eventually resurrected. He declared, “Blessed are you O God, who resurrects the dead.”
In a related midrash from Genesis Rabbah, the rabbis suggested that Isaac’s later blindness was caused by the tears of the angels crying over the possible sacrifice. The angels’ tears fell into Isaac’s eyes, in the hopes that Isaac would not see the image of his father standing above him with a knife. In a sense, the immensity of the tragedy blinds him and brings suffering to those around him.
One text attributes Minchah, the afternoon prayer service, to Isaac (and likewise morning prayer to his father, Abraham, and evening prayer to Jacob). The rabbis thought about how we feel in the late afternoon, about how exhausted we can feel after a day of work. They felt that, during the Morning prayer, Abraham stands proudly before God, a living portrait of majestic humanity. He prays in the morning and couches his prayer confidently in terms of semi-demands. The image of Isaac’s prayer stance is that of a person on the edge of collapse; he prays towards the evening, at the end of the day. He cannot even summon the energy to beg in an organized fashion; he merely pours out his heart in the form of a disorganized conversation.
Almost all are in agreement that Isaac was changed after his father bound him to the altar. And, no matter how we decide to interpret the text, it still says that Abraham descended from the mountain alone. As human beings, reading a story about human beings, it is impossible not to feel sympathetic towards Isaac. I’ve always found myself imagining him traumatized, having survived something horrific, and not sure how to cope. I imagine him wandering aimlessly for awhile. In Isaac, I think that anyone who has endured a traumatic event could identify with this wandering.
So many of us have also gone through life-changing ordeals, sometimes even events that take place in a matter of minutes. So many of us have felt tested, possibly even beyond our limits.
Some of us may have been let down or hurt by someone who was supposed to protect us. Some of us have experienced the loss of a loved one and will never be the same. Some of us have found ourselves in dreadful situations, the likes of which we never expected. Some of us have battled illness or injuries or are in chronic pain. For some the struggle is financial. For others, the pain is physical or emotional. And in this era of #MeToo, a number of individuals have had disturbing memories brought back to the surface, memories which demand to be faced in a new way.
How do we sit up, like Isaac presumably did, and go on? How do we survive like he did? How might we even go one step further than Isaac and begin to heal?
I think, first, one of the hardest steps is just admitting that we hurt. So often, we want to put on a happy face, or be “strong,” or pretend that everything is fine. As much as we might want to run from our suffering, it has a crazy way of catching up with us. We may have no idea how to solve our problem, or how to reduce our suffering, or even how to begin the healing process, but there is something powerful in just allowing ourselves to first acknowledge that we are in pain.
Rabbi Naomi Levy, who has written beautiful modern prayers, wrote a prayer of healing that I find quite moving. Rabbi Levy wrote:
I am hurting, God. I feel lost, helpless, alone. My tragedy seems so senseless. Help me, God, to embrace what I cannot understand, to find meaning in my suffering. Remind me that though I am powerless to choose my fate, I hold the power to choose a response to my fate. May I never be defeated, May I never grow bitter. May my sorrow lead me to strength, to wisdom, to compassion, and to You. Amen.
We need to allow ourselves to feel the brokenness within us before we can begin to heal. Estelle Frankel, a Jewish educator and therapist, describes in her book, Sacred Therapy, an exercise in which she gathers a group of people in a circle, then breaks an earthen vessel in the center of the circle. Each participant then took a piece of the shattered vessel, and focused on an aspect of his/her life that felt broken or in pain. Then they were each instructed to hold it with compassion and forgiveness, knowing that brokenness is just a part of life, something everyone in that circle shared, and part of the very fabric of existence.
They learned that they were not alone in feeling broken, hurt, or damaged. Just as we, in this very moment of Rosh Hashanah morning, are not alone. We are surrounded by friends, family members, or even strangers, but all of us are in this moment together. We all have regrets, sorrows, mistakes, injuries, or wounds – parts of ourselves that we wish to heal.
There’s a paradox, of course, to healing. We can’t do anything to change the past, whether hurt was done to us, or whether we caused harm to others. It is only when we fully accept that the past cannot be changed that we can begin to move beyond it. What’s done is done – but that doesn’t mean that we must remain stagnant. Instead, we can look at ourselves with love, compassion, and kindness. We can acknowledge the suffering, take steps forward, repair what we can, and heal during the remaining time in our lives. That is, perhaps, one of the greatest hopes wrapped up in the New Year – a hope that we will heal and begin once again – recovered, repaired, and renewed.
Let’s think back to the story of The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy, a young girl who is ill, has a profound dream in which she is carried far away from her Kansas home. Throughout the dream, she longs to return home, but first she must journey to the Land of Oz. Dorothy is joined along the way by the Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion, and the journey becomes a search for wholeness, healing, and self-awareness. Each seeks a part of him or herself that each fears is missing – the Tin Man seeks a heart, the Scarecrow a brain, and the Lion seeks courage. Interestingly, and it is unclear if L. Frank Baum intended this, but Oz in Hebrew means “strength.” Dorothy’s journey seems to be a search for strength, and, once she finds it, she is able to return home.
The High Holy Days have the potential to signal a return home for all of us. When we are hurt, physically or emotionally, we feel stranded in a strange land, and we often don’t feel like we are at home in ourselves. Teshuvah, which we usually translate as “Repentance,” can also be translated as “returning.” We use this time each year to return to ourselves, to our souls, to our homes. Just as Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion discover that they had each piece within themselves the whole time, so do we use this holy season to rediscover or reconnect with the healing potential that lies dormant within us all year.
If we resist reconnecting with ourselves, or if we refuse to heal, the hurt just grows or deepens. Perhaps Isaac, in our Torah text, goes blind because he never faces his trauma. His eyes become symbolic of the blindness he has taken towards his own suffering. In some way, he remained forever tied to that altar, just as some of us remain forever bound to our past injuries or experiences.
Perhaps this year can be the year that we reconnect, rebuild, or heal. Perhaps this can be the year that we let go of something that has been weighing us down for far too long. Perhaps, as we symbolically toss cracked corn into the water during Tashlich this afternoon, we can also allow some of our traumas or pain to float away as well.
Through this process of Teshuvah, of returning, we can come away with a new understanding of our own higher purpose, that of others, or even the world as a whole.
A contemporary poet, Rashani, captures this beautifully, and I leave you with her words:
It is only by breaking open entirely,
By allowing our heart and whole being
To break open again and again
Wider than we ever thought possible,
That the unbreakable jewel is revealed
The belovedness of being itself,
The radiant diamond that we have always been.
By loving, truly loving every aspect
Of who we are,
An inexplicable laughter is born
From the deepest sorrow
An exquisite song emerges
From the most terrifying scream
The most tender child is awakened
Through the hateful murderer
Our purest holiness is revealed
By our willingness to embrace
The very thing that most frightens us
And we find unexpectedly the treasure
Where we least expect it to be
Often in the most disavowed part
Of who we are.
Frankel, Estelle. Sacred Therapy: Jewish Spiritual Teachings on Emotional Healing and Inner Wholeness. Boston: Shambhala, 2005.
Levy, Naomi. To Begin Again: The Journey Toward Comfort, Strength, and Faith in Difficult Times. New York: Ballantine Books, 1998.
Person, Hara E., ed. The Mitzvah of Healing. New York: WRJ/UAHC Press, 2003.
Spiegler, Wally. Sha’arei Refuah: Gates of Jewish Healing. Morrisville, NC: Luluville Enterprises, Inc., 2006.
Weintraub, Rabbi Simkha Y., CSW, ed. Healing of Soul, Healing of Body. Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1994.
 Targum Yonatan – (1st century CE) Mishnaic sage, the greatest of Hillel’s students, translated the Prophets and much of the Holy Writings into Aramaic. This translation is known as “Targum Jonathan.”
 Shabbatai ben Meir HaKohen, a 17th century Talmudist and Halachist.
 Pirkei D’ R’Eliezer, 30
 BT Berachot 26b