וְהָאֱלֹהִים נִסָּה אֶת־אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי: וַיֹּאמֶר קַח־נָא אֶת־בִּנְךָ אֶת־יְחִֽידְךָ אֲשֶׁר־אָהַבְתָּ אֶת־יִצְחָק וְלֶךְ־לְךָ אֶל־אֶרֶץ הַמֹּֽרִיָּה וְהַֽעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם לְעֹלָה עַל אַחַד הֶֽהָרִים אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶֽיךָ:
V’ha’Elohim nisah et Avraham va’yomer eilav Avraham, va’yomer hineni. Va’yomer kakh na et binkha et y’khidkha asher ahavta et Yitzkhak v’lekh lekha el eretz hamoriah v’ha’aleihu sham l’olah al akhad heharim asher omar eilekha.
And God tested Abraham. God said to him, “Abraham,” and Abraham answered, “Here I am.” And God said, “Take your son, your only one, the one you love, Isaac and offer him to me on a mountain that I will show you” (Genesis 22:1–2).
The Torah speaks on many levels. It is a book of ethics, laws, our people’s ancient history and lore. It is also a book of spiritual wisdom and guidance. I grew up studying Torah as ethics and laws, and as ancient history and lore, but only as an adult did I begin to encounter Torah as a wellspring of spiritual wisdom. Our sages compare Torah to a magnificent gemstone with innumerable facets. Every way you turn the gem reveals a new refraction of the meaning of the words, a new glimmering. The longer I study Torah, the more I come to know that this is true: I turn it and turn it like a beautiful gem, the light shines on it and through it, and deeper and deeper insights reveal themselves. Paradoxically, the deeper the insights, the more evanescent they are, the more they slip through my fingers, and the harder they are to put into words. Yet their truth rings in my soul like a bell.
I hope to be studying Torah the rest of my life.
To be available to this realm of Torah, I have had to learn humility, or at least, the beginnings of humility. I was raised and educated to be intellectually arrogant, and to assume that the writings of tribal ancestors must be inherently lacking in sophistication and depth. Still, a question nagged at me: Why would some ancient collection of law and lore still be considered so important unless it contained within it timeless wisdom? Maybe the shortcomings and shortsightedness were at least partly my own. With this admission, I could begin.
That does not mean I then gave up my critical thinking; that would be the opposite of what our tradition requires for Torah study. There is a reason why Jews prize thinking! It is central to the Jewish spiritual quest. Not my intellectual acumen, but my intellectual arrogance had to go. That arrogance, which constantly rears its head, must be subdued and replaced by curiosity, wonder and awe.
Let us, then, approach the story of Abraham and his near-sacrifice of his son, Isaac (Yitzkhak יִצְחָק). This story makes most of us shudder, to say the least. Why does our tradition present this story of the Father of our People trying to kill his son? It is so disturbing. And why did our sages require us to read it not only when it arrives in the weekly cycle, but also single it out to be read again on Rosh Hashanah?
In our discomfort, we distance ourselves from the text, try to explain it away, neutralize it, justify it, ignore it … but what if the story of Abraham and his son was meant to make us feel uncomfortable? What if the teaching encoded in this story is difficult and uncomfortable? What if the Torah meant to make us squirm? What if some spiritual truths are difficult to confront?
Spiritual teachings of all traditions force us to confront life. We want to be comfortable, to be told that everything is alright; the child in us wants to be reassured. But what if life is inherently a struggle and everything is not all right, and our measure as human beings is taken by how we respond to life’s challenges? Perhaps this is the deep wisdom we seek: How are we to respond to life’s fundamental and terrible uncertainty? Let us embrace our discomfort and plumb our Torah for guidance.
To read the Torah on this level, we’ve got to stop being so literal. We must read the story as myth or as dream, full of symbolism and allusions, images pregnant with meaning. We must know that the story is about us. This is what makes it timeless and present. And so, we read: And God tested Abraham. God said to him, “Abraham,” and Abraham answered, “Here I am.” And God said, “Take your son, your only one, the one you love, Isaac, and offer him up to me on a mountain that I will show you” (Genesis 22:1–2).
In a conventional reading of the Torah, God is a character in the story — a willful, sometimes benevolent, sometimes harsh parent or potentate who is guiding his creation. But what if we read the passage like this: And Life tested Abraham (or you, or me). Life said to him, “Abraham,” and Abraham answered, “Here I am.” And Life said, “Take that which is absolutely the most precious to you and be willing to let it go.”
To symbolize this test, the Torah chooses the most emotionally loaded figure we can imagine: one’s child. And the Torah increases the stakes. Abraham didn’t have this child that had been promised him until he was 100 years old, and all the promises of the future are contained in Isaac’s being. Take your son, that in which you have invested your deepest attachment, your hopes for the future, your unfinished business, your promise of immortality … and be willing to let it go.
Life tests us every day in the most mundane ways. I make a plan for my day. It’s a good plan. I’m attached to my plan. The day proceeds, life happens, my kid gets sick and has to be picked up at school, and my plan is soon in complete tatters. I then have two basic options. I can spend the rest of the day frustrated and angry, or I can say: Life, here I am. I offer up to you my hopes and expectations for this day, so that I might be present to the life that has been given to me this moment.
Some days, I rise to the test. Other days, I act like a jerk, petulant and resentful about my good plan being ruined. I’m no fun to be with, and I miss another opportunity to serve Life Unfolding with joy.
Then there are the more difficult tests, not the everyday variety, but the tragedies in our lives: the deaths of loved ones; the losses of illness and disability; house fires, bankruptcies, broken dreams; the deep despair of watching human folly and destruction, and having such limited abilities to help ease human suffering and make the world a better place. And Life tested Abraham: Are you willing to say “Here I am” to these tests, and still serve Life with reverence and joy?
I spoke with my mom of blessed memory about this, and she talked with me about getting older. The trajectory was clear. She was facing, inexorably, one loss after another — the loss of physical abilities, the loss of friends, perhaps the loss of mental acuity, until the ultimate loss, the loss of life.
I don’t mean to sound depressing; it’s just true. Yet how we have lived each day prepares us for the great tests we face as we age. Life is a harsh taskmaster, and there is no guarantee that we will pass these tests. We all know people who have been trodden under, or embittered or broken or who seem to have given up. As I said, true spiritual teachings do not dance around reality and make nice. The purpose of a religious life is to prepare us to meet our lives and say, “Here I am, what have you got next for me?”
This is Abraham’s greatness and the reason we (along with billions of other humans on the planet) consider him our spiritual father: because he was able to respond to Life as it tested him and say הִנֵּנִי hineni, “Here I am.”
He was not quiescent in his acceptance of Life. Remember, Abraham is renowned for arguing with God over the fate of innocents in Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham fights faithfully for justice and goodness. Yet Abraham also was willing to accept Life. As with all spiritual teachings, herein lies a crucial paradox: We must love life and all that is in it passionately, and at the same time be willing to let it go. In 1950, as Rabbi Milton Steinberg, of blessed memory, approached an untimely death due to heart disease, he titled his final sermon “To Hold With Open Arms.” He instructed his congregation “to hold life at once infinitely precious and yet as a thing to be lightly surrendered … to clasp the world, but with relaxed hands; to embrace it, but with open arms.”
And so, Abraham walks hand in hand with his son, and when his son says, “Father,” Abraham responds: “Here I am, my son.” Can we hold what we love with open arms, knowing that we might at any time have to release our grip? Perhaps real love is precisely this paradoxical ability to hold with open arms.
In our story, thank God, Abraham does not have to relinquish his son, his hopes, his dreams. The knife is lowered. The cancer goes into remission. The airbags deploy, and no one is killed. But the message is unavoidable: As long as we are alive, loss is unavoidable. May we have the courage to accept this truth, and still open our arms to life and to love.