Posts Tagged 'Binding of Isaac'

The Binding: Fenrir and Isaac

On the Second day of Rosh HaShana we read arguably the most central texts to Jewish life, the story of the test of Avraham. As we read God commands Avraham to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. Isaac is bound and placed on the altar, and Avraham raises the knife to slaughter his son. A voice from heaven calls to stop him, saying that it was a test; a ram, caught in the undergrowth by its horns, is offered in Isaac’s place.

The Bible doesn’t specify how old Isaac was at the time of event. One clue to his age is when Isaac notices wood and fire but, seeing no animal, asks Avraham about it (Genesis 22:7). This implies that Isaac is at least old enough to know what the proper sacrificial process is and perceptive enough to ask his father about it. From the chronology of Sarah’s life we learn that the oldest he could have been was  36 or 37 when he was offered as a sacrifice (Sanhedrin 89b and Genesis Rabbah 56:8). So, Isaac was certainly not an older man when he was to be offered as a sacrifice, but neither was he a toddler. Probably the most useful clue to how old Isaac was their climb up the mountain.  Isaac is the one carrying the large pile of wood (Genesis 22:6). This fact tells us Isaac wasn’t a small child when he was to be sacrificed; he was at least a healthy teenager.

What is invested in the age of Isaac? If he was strong enough to carry the wood up the mountain, then he was probably physically and mentally strong enough to resist being sacrificed. The fact that Isaac allowed himself to be bound and placed on the altar shows that Isaac continued to trust his father.

I was thinking about this question recently while reading up on my Norse mythology.  And yes I was preparing to take my boys to see Thor: Ragnarok which is coming out in theaters soon. I read the story of Fenrir  the monstrous wolf  who is foretold to kill the god Odin during the events of Ragnarök. As the story goes Odin foresees that Fenrir will kill him so he gets the gods to capture him in hopes of saving himself. The gods plan is to control Fenrir to preempt his destroying the world by binding him in chains. Like a virile teenager Fenrir enjoys the challenge and is happy to prove his growing strength in breaking their chains. Eventually they produce Gleipnir, a magical slender unbreakable silken strip. Even though he wants to prove his strength Fenrir is no fool and does not trust them. He concedes to be bound as long as one of them will place their hand in his mouth. Everyone refused to place their hand in Fenrir’s mouth until Týr put out his right hand and placed it into the wolf’s jaws. They bind him and like the wolf from Peter and the Wolf the more Fenrir kicked, Gleipnir caught tightly, and the more Fenrir struggled, the stronger the band grew. At this, everyone laughed, except Týr, who there lost his right hand.

Why does Fenrir want to be bound to prove his strength? Fenrir is driven by pride and glory. Like a teen Fenrir needs to test his limits to understand himself. This growing power is exactly what the other gods fear in him and leads to his tragic capture. Ultimately he is limited by his drive for success. And while the gods do this for self-protection, it is not without a price.

Coming back to this test of Avraham the story of Fenrir is a fascinating foil. First of all it is not ever called the test of Avraham, but rather the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. If in fact he is not a young lad at the time of his binding, it is easy to see him as a teen. What is Isaac proving by carrying the wood, let alone being complicit his binding, getting on the alter, and almost sacrifice? Isaac is seeking to push his limits and understand the limits of his own body and his relationship with his father.  And what does the binding of a 37-year-old man mean?  Like Fenrir does Isaac have something to prove? We never see Avraham and Isaac interact again after the Akedah. Might their relationship be severed like  Týr’s right hand?

Coming back to Rosh HaShana the story of Fenrir is also a fascinating foil. What drives us to success? Might these traits that help us grow and strive for more also limit our success? In what ways are we heroic or tragic in proving we can deal with being bound?  May we all find a way to be unbound this coming year. Shana Tova.

 

 

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Wait for Me Until I Welcome: Further Reflections from an Orthodox Rabbi to his Gay Children

As a religious person I am moved by a sense of divine purpose. While we as Jews do not use the word “calling”, I do feel that I work in the service of realizing God’s will on earth. As a Rabbi and Jewish communal servant I have a sense of what it means to sacrifice happiness for a cause. How many nights do I spend away from my own children working to enrich the lives of other people’s children? Avraham is a model of someone who lived with divine purpose. Even if God directed Avraham, as a father it is hard for me to imagine that Avraham kicked Yishmael out and almost sacrificed Yitzhak. Did he not love his sons? If he did, why didn’t Avraham protest on behalf of his sons as he did for the people of Sodom (Genesis 18:23- 33)? In that case, God actually listens to Avraham and engages him in debate. Or even better, why didn’t Avraham just politely “take leave” of God for the sake of his sons?  At the beginning of the Torah portion, three strangers approach Avraham in the desert.  Commenting on this, the Midrash says that “he turned to God and said, ‘with purity of heart, Master of the world, let the Shekhinah (the divine presence) wait for me until I welcome these guests.’”(Midrash HaGadol on Genesis 18:2).

What was Avraham thinking when he drove his son Yishmael away and made him wander in the desert? What was Avraham thinking when he brought Yitzhak up to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him? In the case of Sodom, God is willing to engage in debate. In the case of the strangers, God understands that Avraham’s turning away is not disrespectful, but it is in service of another value. Is anything so sacred that we would be unable to welcome those who feel marginalized, are in danger, and need our help? What if they are our own children?

Since the publication of Promises for My Gay Children, Pastor John Pavlovitz and I have carved out some time to Skype. We have only begun to talk, learn, and reflect together, but we have much to share regarding how we decided to come out in support of people who might be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or  Transgender (LGBT). We realized that despite our differences of our faith, religion, and culture, we both share some fundamental things. The most obvious one is that we both have a profound love of our children as well as a deep love of all of God’s children. For both of us it is our faith itself that has lead us to where we are. We were also both moved to speak about the staggering statistics. Here are a few:

  • A LGBT youth is more than twice as likely to be homeless ( National Coalition for the Homeless)
  • Family rejection of gay and transgender youth often leads to attempted suicide. According to a 2009 study, gay youth who reported higher levels of family rejection in adolescence were 8.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide than their gay peers who did not experience family rejection. They were also 5.9 times as likely to have experienced depression, 3.4 times as likely to have used illicit drugs, and 3.4 times as likely to have had unprotected sex. ( Center for American Progress)
  • A Columbia University study showed that roughly 20% of LGBT teens have attempted suicide, compared to 4% of straight teenagers. That is five times more likely.

Rejecting who our children are is tantamount to asking them to sacrifice themselves on the alter of our expectations. With these stark numbers, we cannot be silent. Shetikah KeHodaah Damia – Silence is Acquiescence ( Ketubot 14b).  We need to argue and debate as if our children’s lives depended on it.  Not being intentional and explicit about our unconditional love might drive them out of our lives.

In Vayera, this week’s Torah portion, we read all of these stories of Avraham’s trying to manifest his divine purpose on earth. We should humbly choose which narratives of Avraham to tell in order to ensure that our children are not made to feel like strangers. In the Midrash, Rabbi Aha depicts a speculative dialogue between Avraham and God at the binding of Yitzhak. There we read:

When I [God] commanded you [Avraham], ‘Take now your son,’ [to sacrifice him] (Genesis 22:2), I will not alter that which has gone out of my lips. Did I tell you, ‘Slaughter him?’ No! But, ‘take him up’ (Genesis 22:2). You have taken him up. Now take him down.  (Genesis Rabbah 56:8)

If we think our tradition demands we risk our children’s lives by not accepting them, like Avraham maybe we are misreading our tradition. God does not need our defense and God will most certainly be there when we get back. All of our children are angels who are just waiting to be welcomed into the tent.


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