Unbinding Isaac

בְּראֹשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many will pass on and how many will be born; who will live and who will die… who by fire and who by water; who by sword and who by beast; who by hunger and who by thirst; who by earthquake and who by plague.

These familiar words are part of Unetaneh Tokef, which make up a central part of the musaf service in a little while. I spoke about this prayer last year. It is a prayer that engenders fear, it is designed to make us worried about what might befall us in the year to come, and inspire us to תשובה, to repentance, to תפילה, to prayer, and to צדקה. Last year I rejected this idea, I didn’t see value in living a life of fear. And I still don’t.

But this year, I am forced to contend with a different question: what do we do when the calamities described in this prayer come to pass. How do we respond when things happen in our lives, in our communities, in our country, and in our world that impact us, that harm us, and that are outside of our control?

Who by fire? And who by water? None of you need me to tell you about the natural disasters that have battered our country and other communities around the world. It seems that we cannot even catch our breath before there is another storm or fire or earthquake demanding our attention.

These natural disasters have been so severe, that there was a serious article in the Science section of the NY Times that concluded by quoting a meteorology professor who said: “It just feels like, you know, it’s the apocalyptic end times.”

And the natural world is not the only thing threatening people’s lives. In communities across the country, and in countries around the world, powers greater than any one person are emphasizing the lines that divide people, and refusing to see the humanity of anyone on the other side. As Jews, we have seen these trends many times before, and are aware of how quickly hateful words turn into violent actions.

How are we meant to respond? What is the appropriate reaction when things happen to us that are outside of our control? According to Unetaneh Tokef, perhaps it is time for תשובה, תפילה, and צדקה. But that is meant – according to the prayer itself – to avert the decree, not to respond to it after the fact. Still, if we were to view the events of the past year as a punishment, then those might be the appropriate responses, at least they might help to avert future disasters.

This sort of theology, though, seems more like magic than prayer. Theurgy – rituals or prayers that are meant to force God to respond to us in a specific way – flips the divine/human relationship, and imagines a world that is far removed from the one that we experience. And it is rejected in the margins of our mahzor itself. In the commentary immediately following those words, the editors of Lev Shalem wrote: “We do not now how our regret may influence what God writes in the Books of Life and Death. Yet we can transform our experience – however harsh – through how we see ourselves and deal with others.” According to this commentary, תשובה, תפילה, and צדקה are not meant to change the world around us, but how we engage with the world.

This view of Divine reward and punishment is not some modern or post-modern rejection of our tradition. It follows in the footsteps of traditional and authoritative rabbinic sages like Maimonides. He wrote, in one of his most famous treatises: “in order that the masses stay faithful and do the commandments, it was permitted to tell them that they might hope for a reward and to warn them against transgression out of fear of punishment.” He saw value in teaching this theology, even as he didn’t believe it himself, because it would lead individuals to observe the mitzvot and live righteous lives. He supported this idea, but with the hope that one day people would not need it, and they would observe the mitzvot out of a love for God and for the mitzvot themselves, and not as a transaction designed to earn rewards and avoid punishments.

This rejection is important. Because if we take the words of Unetaneh Tokef literally, and we look at the year that has passed, we would have to conclude that we deserve this. That our actions have brought these calamities down on us as a punishment. That the people around the world battered by nature, or those threatened and abused and killed because of who they are, or who they aren’t, sinned so severely that they were afflicted with disasters.

Speaking about the earthquake in Mexico on Tuesday, one government employee appeared to take this perspective, saying “It’s like Sodom and Gomorrah, like God is angry at us.”

Imagine for a moment that this were the case. If these natural disasters were a divine punishment for sins, then everyone who suffered and died deserved it. And if they deserved such suffering, then why would we care? We could continue to live our lives, unmoved by their pain. We would be confident that as long as we are decent and righteous, we will never suffer as they have suffered.

But as much as it would be easier if the world functioned that way, as much I wish I could say that everything is cause and effect, reward and punishment, the reality is, so much of the world is outside of our control. The world is bigger than any one of us, and it is bigger than all of us put together. Our actions cause reactions, but in such subtle ways that it is often impossible to see what we might have done differently to avert disaster.

Accepting that reality, we must return to the question: How do we respond to the events of the past year? I believe that we can look to the life of Isaac for guidance.

This morning, we read the terrifying narrative of the Binding of Isaac. When we react to it, we almost always have questions about Abraham’s humanity, and about God’s decency. Our questions rarely focus on Isaac, himself. How can they, he doesn’t seem to do anything throughout the story. He is not a character here, but an object that God commands Abraham to act upon.

There are midrashim that imagine that Isaac was a willing and active participant in the Akeida. One goes so far as to say that Isaac demanded his father tie him down to the altar, so that he could not try to escape at the last moment. But all of these midrashim are simply that, they’re legends. They are attempts to challenge the simple reading that Isaac was a passive figure during the Akeida. If he is to be one of the patriarchs, then he must be a stronger and more active figure than that.

But according to the Torah, he isn’t. Abraham and God conspire together to act upon him, to offer him up as a sacrifice, and there wasn’t a single thing that Isaac could say or do to influence the situation. What interests me now, is how Isaac responds after the fact. How does he deal with violence that was outside of his control?

The Torah is, frustratingly, mostly silent on the subject. After the ram is sacrificed in his place, Isaac virtually vanishes from the narrative – we read that Abraham climbed down the mountain, but not Isaac. His absence continues: Isaac is not mentioned in relation to Sarah’s death, Abraham mourns, but Isaac  is missing. The entire next chapter in the Torah deals with the search for a bride for Isaac, but even there, he is conspicuous for his absence.

Isaac does not go out in search of a wife himself, a common task for prominent figures in the Torah. Instead, that responsibility is given to Abraham’s servant. In fact, Isaac never leaves the land of Israel throughout his life. Perhaps most significantly, Isaac’s name does not even appear, neither in the narrative of his mother’s death and burial, nor in the narrative about finding him a wife. The Akeida ended with Isaac alive, but it seems that he was scarred by the event, and withdrew from the world as a result.

Rabbi Brad Artson interprets the Akeida as a turning point in Isaac’s life, he believes that Isaac learned the futility of material pursuits as he faced death, and chose instead to lead a life that valued peace and commitment, love and faith. He claims that contemplating his own mortality transformed him, and made him into a different sort of a leader than his father was.

While I agree that Isaac led a life that emphasized these values, I do not believe that he came to them as his father bound him to the altar. Following that trauma, Isaac withdrew from the world, he did not engage with it. 

And he remains absent, until Rebecca shows up. It is only when she rides up to the field that his name appears again in the Torah. It is only when they are married that we read about his grief over Sarah’s death, and that he was comforted. The most active moments in Isaac’s life come in his interactions with Rebecca, and on her behalf.

When Isaac and Rebecca are married, we read that Isaac loved Rebecca, the first time that romantic love is described in the Torah. Later, when they are unable to have children, Isaac takes the initiative to plead with God on Rebecca’s behalf, something that neither Abraham nor Jacob did when they were in similar situations. His love for Rebecca even got him into some trouble when he couldn’t keep up the façade that she was his sister and not his wife.

The human connection that Rebecca provided for Isaac helped him to find a way forward, she gave him love and support, and enabled him to become an actor in his own life, rather than the object of other people’s actions.

Isaac’s arc has certain points of similarity with the story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Like Isaac, Shimon’s life was threatened by outside forces. In his case, the Roman government had condemned him to death for speaking ill of it. Like Isaac, Shimon withdrew from the world, retreating into himself as a response to outside threats that he could not influence or control. Shimon and his son Elazar hid in a cave for twelve years. And like Isaac, he eventually returned to the world.

But that is where the similarities end. Shimon and Elazar emerged from their self-imposed exile when the emperor who had condemned them died, and they were no longer in danger. They had spent those twelve years studying Torah, and leading lives of absolute religious piety and devotion. They returned to the world so certain of their righteousness and spiritual superiority that they could only view everyone else with disdain. And so when they saw a farmer working hard to grow his crops, they condemned him for not instead working hard to study and increase his connection with the Divine. And miraculously, that condemning gaze caused the farmer to burst into flame.

This continued, until a bat kol, a divine voice, called to them from the heavens, and said: “Did you emerge only to destroy my world? Go back to your cave!” They weren’t told that they were wrong to condemn people for misplacing their values, they weren’t even told that they were sinning by killing these farmers. They may have been right in their judgement, but they were destroying the world, and that was unacceptable.

Twelve years in the cave did not teach them to live in the world – just the opposite, Shimon and Elazar spent twelve years in an echo chamber, telling one another that they were right, and that the outside world was wrong and sinful. Without any contact with the rest of the world, without another person to humanize what they could not understand, they became more and more certain, more and more self-righteous, until they literally could not exist in a world where the people did not share their values.

Like Shimon, Isaac withdrew. He was perhaps tortured by the memories of what had happened, and his inability to change God’s decree, or his father’s actions. And there he stayed for years, until Rebecca drew him out. It was through human connection and love that Isaac was able to return to the world. When Isaac eventually emerges, he doesn’t challenge the father who held the knife to slaughter him, or the God who commanded that it happen. He emerged to build a life and a family.

The world will remind us, time and again, that it is outside of our control. Sometimes in small ways, and sometimes in devastating tragedies that challenge our basic beliefs. When such events happen, we must follow in the footsteps of יצחק אבינו, of Isaac our Father. We must seek out family and community – and derive our strength through relationships. It is together that we can discover a common purpose and develop greater resilience. We can seek out the parts of the world that we are able to influence, and we can work to make them better. But it is rare that any one of us could achieve this alone, it is only in community that we can hope to have a lasting impact. It is together that we can survive whatever happens in the year to come, and reach the other side strengthened by our love.