I deeply love the trope (cantillation melody) of the Torah reading for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It is slow and hauntingly beautiful and forces me to listen to every word of the text being read. On the first day of Rosh Hashana that text is the Akedah, the story of Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of Isaac. We read that story again this week, in Parsha Vayera, but this time the Torah melody is the standard one of a Shabbat reading and to me that makes the story pass quickly, bereft of the searing agony of a few weeks before. So, it is really on Rosh Hashana that I dwell on the story that the plaintive music carries along.
This pandemic year, with limits on synagogue seating, we put together a beautiful minyan for the High Holidays with some of our dearest friends in one of our backyards. It was especially joyous to have my daughter beside me, and equally sad not to be taking our usual trip to Jerusalem for Yom Kippur where our son and daughter-in-law—and our added bonus first grandchild, are residing.
On that first day of Rosh Hashana when services ended, I walked ahead of my husband and daughter to get a head start on the holiday lunch when I bumped into the son of friends, spending Rosh Hashana with his in-laws. “How are your parents,” I asked. But he heard: “how long has it been since you’ve seen your parents?” And this grown investment banker suddenly transformed into a son, a child, as he shared when he had last seen his now Israeli citizen aging parents and his sadness over all the beloved time being sacrificed.
And this grown investment banker suddenly transformed into a son, a child, as he shared when he had last seen his now Israeli citizen aging parents and his sadness over all the beloved time being sacrificed.
We shared a knowing sigh and I walked on, and soon ran into a young community member his same age, who had suffered a profound loss this year. Trailing with two children he brightened when he saw me, wider than I’d expected. It occurred to me that he was seeing not just me, but someone of his parents’ age, a poor substitute, but a substitute just the same until they were reunited. More sacrifice.
As I headed home I thought about a short video I had watched recently, part of The Akedah Project, a video series of everyday folks and scholars discussing an aspect of the Akedah, or of their own sacrifice. Video topics included the Akedah in Jewish liturgy, the sacrifice of feminists and that of Jews of color. The one that left the deepest impression on me was shared by the Orthodox mother of an Orthodox son who is gay.
Asked by the interviewer if she would have made the same choice as Abraham to cast off her son, she says no. Instead says the mother, “I listened to the voice of the Angel who tells Abraham not to put his hand to the child.”
That made me think, as I often do when I hear the Akedah story, of the walk Abraham and Isaac took up the mountain. The commentaries tell us Isaac was no youngster, likely in his 40s, though he is called a na’ar, someone youthful, in the text. Rabbi Shai Held, president of Hadar, describes what Isaac does after he comes down off the altar, only physically unscathed. He goes to the well referred to in Genesis as be’er l’chai ro’i where God had previously met Hagar, Abraham’s other wife and mother of Ishmael.Genesis Rabba (60:14) expounds on this verse and explains that Isaac brings Hagar home. Rabbi Held explains that this verse is meant to highlight the importance of treating family with esteem and respect. You don’t separate them and you certainly don’t threaten to slaughter them. Instead, you gather up your family members to reunite them. Isaac is a boy when he’s laid on the altar. Between that time and when he gets down, he grows into a man, no longer taking instructions but giving them instead.
Instead, you gather up your family members to reunite them.
And it’s that interim period—between getting down and getting up from the altar — I fear is my sacrifice now. At 63, I still have—I think (I hope!) –what to offer my children: life experience, advice, time, laundry skills, the odd project management and emotional, spiritual and material support. But I am already seeing a turning of the tables as they are beginning to fend for me. On a trip to Israel last year I spent an hour confused about how to reach a dentist’s office in a winding building and asked my son for help (which took him a hot second to figure out). During his college graduation ceremonies when my husband and daughter headed back to the hotel to address invitations for our son’s upcoming wedding my son motioned me to stay behind and sent me to his dorm room for a nap, knowing I had flown in from a work trip for the celebration and was soon headed on another. Even within the comfort of my own home, the sound of me, once again, frustrated by Zoom, brings my daughter immediately to my side. I know I have to work around the sacrifice. It’s almost a year since I lit Chanukah candles with my Israeli children, expecting to see them again in their home just a few weeks later. Now we have multiple digital platforms for everything but hugging, running errands for them sitting around the table for a Shabbat meal.
Even within the comfort of my own home, the sound of me, once again, frustrated by Zoom, brings my daughter immediately to my side. I know I have to work around the sacrifice.
Did you think it through, Abraham? Did you ask God for another option? And even if you knew, somehow, there would be a last minute save, didn’t you realize the end result would be sacrificial anyway?
Every year, at Rosh Hashana and on Parshat Vayera I imagine that Abraham changes his mind and brings a ram to sacrifice right from the start. And says to God that his faith is so strong he refuses to sacrifice God’s greatest gift to man—children. This year, more than ever before, I can’t imagine any other choice.
Fran Kritz is a health policy writer whose work frequently appears on NPR.org and in the Washington Post. She is based in Silver Spring, Maryland, and, when there is no pandemic, in Jerusalem.
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