God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No”, Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well, Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”. -Bob Dylan, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’
Every week we read a portion of the Torah. This week’s portion is Vayeira, Hebrew for ‘and he appeared’ (referring to God before Abraham). There is a lot going on in this portion, as there is in most of the book of Genesis. Sarah is promised a son, Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed, Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt, Lot escapes, sleeps with his daughters, and fathers two sons. Sarah is abducted by Abimelech, a Philistine king, and rescued, Isaac is born, Hagar and Ishmael are thrown out of Abraham’s house and rescued by an Angel, and in the most chilling episode in the entire Torah, God sets Abraham’s tenth trial: The Akeidah, The Binding of Isaac on the Altar. Sounds like an episode of “All My Children.”
Before Jake was born, I didn’t really read the Torah much. In fact, I didn’t read it at all. I knew about Abraham’s trial abstractly, knew Dylan’s song, Highway 61, but there wasn’t any emotional connection. The story didn’t mean much, nor have any effect on me. Until I became a father. Once Jake came along and I heard this read for the first time, when he was about 12 years old, my blood ran cold at the telling of the story. What father could calmly bind his child, sharpen up the knife and prepare to offer him up as a sacrifice? God or no God.
By this point in the story, God has promised Abraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars, will inherit the Land, and as long as Abe follows God’s instructions, all will be well. And then He asks, no, tells him to ‘offer up his son, his only son, the one he loves, Isaac’, to prove his faith. Wait, to prove his faith? Hasn’t God put Abraham through enough? This is, after all, the Tenth Trial. Didn’t Abraham pick up everything and leave home at the drop of a hat for an unknown destination? Didn’t he go down to Egypt where Sarah was abducted for the first time by Pharaoh? Didn’t Abimelech abduct her again and try to make her his wife just a few verses ago? Didn’t Abe have to deal with famine? Wasn’t he forced into war with the five kings to rescue his nephew, Lot? Didn’t he circumcise himself?? Who circumcises himself? God certainly needed a lot of convincing. Why wasn’t nine enough? There are so many discourses about this by a legion of sages and commentators; it is a topic of endless discussion even until today.
I sat in shul today, and let the Hebrew of the reading of the Akedah roll over me, eyes closed and brimming with tears; I couldn’t bear to follow along with the English translation. I already know the story. To make matters worse, the Haftorah, the weekly companion section of the Prophets, tells a story of a boy who dies, and the prophet Elisha brings him back to life. Where was Elisha when I needed him to breathe life back into my son, my only son, the one I loved, Jacob. On what altar was Jake sacrificed? For what purpose? What good did it do, whom did it serve? What demonic plan includes the heart wrenching sorrow of a mother and father deprived of their only son in the blossom of his life? Who needed Jake more than we did? There will never be answers to these and the ten million questions I ask daily. Of course the key difference between the Akedah and Jake’s story, is that an Angel stays Abraham’s hand at the final second and spares Isaac’s life. Where was Jake’s angel at the crucial moment?
Jake taught me that as a father, my job was to protect him and my family. From all comers. To nurture him and tend him as he grew. Not being as righteous as Abraham, or more accurately, possessing that kind of faith, I could never put him in harm’s way even for God. Never. In fact, for his 24½ years, I did everything in my power to keep him out of danger, both from external and internal dangers. The tricky part is that we can see the external dangers, usually. Can take measures to avoid them, can defend against them when we see them coming. It is the internal dangers, hidden in the dim reaches of the mind and spirit that are more difficult to detect, and impossible to defend against. I did my best to protect my son from whatever dangers I could see, I just couldn’t protect him from himself.
I still think maybe there was something more I could have done. Something I shouldn’t have done; I may think that forever. Not the most productive train of thought, but I can’t help it. No one who has gone through such a tragedy can help but question themselves. More questions for which there are no answers. People tell me that I did the best I could at the time, at each time I had to make a choice. In hindsight, which is perfect, I might have made different choices that might have led to different outcomes. Who can know?
So for now, I am walking down Highway 61, thumb out, looking for a ride to a better place. It’s hot out here. And dusty. Not much traffic, and those cars that do come along whiz past without a second glance. I’ll just keep walking. Maybe I’ll find Abraham’s tent and he will welcome me in for a cool drink and something to eat. Maybe that oasis ahead is just a mirage. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Only time and distance will tell; I have so much farther to travel.