These are Days of Awe—the ten days between Rosh Hashanahh and Yom Kippur. Suddenly I am trying to reflect on a year’s worth of living in less than two weeks, as if I am cramming for an exam. This is also a time when God opens the Book of Life, revising everyone’s fate non-stop, pulling all-nighters. God—unseen and unheard—invented the omniscient narrative. And within that classic narrative the question of who shall live and who shall die gives way to more relative quandaries like: Who shall be present and who shall be absent? Who shall be included and who shall be excluded? Who shall be fulfilled and who shall be disappointed?
This is a strange time of year made more intense by reading the story in the bible of the binding of Isaac. God asks Abraham to prove his faith by sacrificing Isaac his only child, the miracle child of his old age. Abraham, famous for challenging God, is oddly silent about the request. Perhaps he is the first to discover that silence is the language with which we most often communicate with God. But as Everett Fox points out there are several conundrums in the text with which to grapple. Why is there no record of sleepless nights for Abraham, or even a suggestion that the father wishes to change places with the son? It’s impossible to comprehend as a parent. Abraham seems to be living life on automatic pilot. Maybe he is shocked by what God asks of him. Maybe that is what newfound faith is, the shock of belief being reconciled with the clarity of trust.
Isaac himself does not say much. “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the offering-up?” There are no descriptions of struggle or fear from Isaac. Again, everyone operates in shock until a messenger from God breaks the spell. “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, do not do anything to him! For now I know that you are in awe of God.” We have all been like Abraham, given power that seems beyond our capabilities to handle. We have been Isaac, helpless in the face of our own destiny. We can empathize with Sarah who has been cut out of the loop altogether.
For the moment my siblings and I are like Abraham. Making decisions for my parents transforms my father into an Isaac on the altar and my mother into a Sarah who feels powerless among her three children. Shall he stay in his own house or shall he go to a nursing home? The answer depends upon whether or not we think that we can detect if he, suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease, will notice any difference in his environment. This is the humiliation of his illness. This is the humiliation of a living a life in absentia. I pray that a messenger from God is on the way.
The binding of Isaac is the story of an archetypal family. It puts a human face on the potential savagery of domestic life. It also shows how contradiction can be one of the languages of faith. In the end Isaac is exchanged for a ram caught in a nearby thicket whose horn becomes a seminal Jewish symbol, one primarily associated with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Perhaps the blasts of the ram’s horn or shofar are the cries that we never hear from Isaac, from our ancestors. The blasts are the cries that we ourselves never dare to express. Ultimately, the impact of the shofar implores us to repent. The noise of the ram’s horn is the almost unbearable sound of our sins detonating.
The Baal Shem Tov, a mystic who lived in the eighteenth century, says that the sheer force of the shofar enables one to repent from the very depths of the soul. “There are many halls in the king’s palace,” says the Baal Shem Tov, “and intricate keys to all the doors, but the ax is stronger than all of these, the master key to God’s house is the broken heart.” That is the real sound of the shofar—the breaking of the heart. It’s what God heard from Abraham as the latter prepared to sacrifice Isaac. It’s what God hears from me, from my father and my mother. The shofar makes audible the silent language of our heartache. It clears space for the still small voice of awe escaping from the tekiah gedola*.
*The long blast of the shofar or the ram’s horn.
Judith Bolton-Fasman is an associate editor for the on-line magazine Jewish Family & Life!-www.JewishFamily.com