Even before we begin the Torah reading today, I know you can picture the story. It is one of Judaism’s most perplexing reruns - I can call it that because it is read twice a year from the Torah. God calls Abraham to take his son Isaac to a specific mountain to offer a sacrifice there. They embark on their journey. The main moment of dialogue is when Isaac asks his father where the animal is for the offering. Abraham tells his son God will provide whatever they need when the time comes. They ascend Mount Moriah, and the next “cry aloud” comes not from Isaac, or Abraham, but an angel, who stops the action and prevents the tragedy at the last moment.
Many commentators on this tale have held up Abraham as a great exemplar of faith because of his desire to do anything for God. Others have asserted that the lesson of the story may not be that one should follow God without asking questions. After all, just 4 chapters before, Abraham had argued with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. He convinced God to spare the cities even if there should be found only 10 righteous people in the population. In this story of the journey to a far-off mountain, for some unknown reason, Abraham lost his voice. What was it that took away his ability to utter even a feeble protest?
The answer is still elusive for me, after many years of speaking about this passage. Rabbi Donniel Hartman, in his book PUTTING GOD SECOND: HOW TO SAVE RELIGION FROM ITSELF, expressed his own concerns about what this and other biblical stories might teach us. Looking at our world and people who practice various religions, Hartman suggested that some people who are fervent about their faith may become so focused on God that they will see or hear nothing else. What he calls “God intoxication” can lead a person or a group of people to apply and mobilize religious texts in a way that defines some human beings out of the circle of salvation.
For Hartman, this type of God intoxication and God mobilization is not religion at its best. Anyone who sees Abraham in this instance as a superhero of faith might not be able to discover the best lesson of this story that can guide us in the New Year. And one thing that we know and admire about superheroes is their usual desire to help people who are in danger and, when necessary, to listen to a respected, external guiding voice turning him or her to do good.
Early in his book, Hartman shared a poignant story about balancing between faith and concern for our fellow human beings.
A famous Hassidic master was walking along a cobbled street in Eastern Europe some two hundred years ago, when he heard the cry of a baby coming from his student’s house—a cry that pierced the night. He rushed into the house and saw his student enraptured in prayer, swaying in pious devotion. The rabbi walked over to the baby, took her into his arms, sat down, and rocked her to sleep. When the student emerged from his prayers, he was shocked and embarrassed to find his master in his house, holding his baby. “Master,” he said, “what are you doing? Why are you here?” “I was walking in the street when I heard crying,” he responded, “so I followed it and found her alone.” “Master,” the student replied, “I was so engrossed in my prayers that I did not hear her.” The master replied, “My dear student, if praying makes one deaf to the cries of a child, there is something flawed in the prayer.”
The father who did not see or hear his child was not acting like God, because God sees and hears people in distress in some of the most important tales in the Torah. In Exodus Chapter 3, when God revealed the divine presence to Moses from the burning bush, God said, “I have clearly seen the plight of My people in Egypt and have heard their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings.” And God knew that Moses was the right person to lead the Israelites because he turned aside to see the wonder of a bush that appeared to be burning but remained intact.
Various forms of the verb “see” appear in this morning’s Torah reading. Abraham saw their destination from far away. He told his son that “God would see to the ram for the offering.” But Abraham did not truly see his son, at least, not at first.
What changed Abraham’s ability to see so that he spared his Isaac? It was something he heard. It was the cry of the angel, that declared, “Abraham! Abraham! "Do not lay your hand on the lad; do nothing to him; for now I know that you are one who reveres God!” Abraham’s eyes were opened again so that he saw Isaac clearly, and he saw the ram caught in a nearby thicket. According to the Torah, that place gained the name ADONAI YIR’EH: the place where God will see.
So we are called upon to hear and see like God, and sometimes we need an angel nearby to make that happen.
In his book, Hartman encapsulates the message of Judaism with the term “nonindifference.” That means that we are obligated not to ignore the cry of someone who needs our help. We are commanded to identify with people who are on the outside looking in, because we have been in that position so many times throughout our history. “A Jewish society,” Hartman said, “is one in which everyone is obligated to be able to see and be seen. Jews must create a society in which seeing is possible.”
The title of Hartman’s book, “Putting God Second,” was intended to elevate the importance of basic human decency in our tradition. Calling people to remember to be ethical and respectful was the mission of the prophets in Israelite society. In the story of the binding of Isaac, the Angel was the prophet, the conscience, issuing the call that reminded the Torah’s first monotheist that piety should not take the form of blinders that shut out other people.
We are likely familiar with the Talmudic story of the man who went to both of the ancient teachers Shammai and Hillel and asked them, “Teach me the Torah while I stand on one foot.” In his impatience, Shammai drove the man out of his house with a measuring rod. Hillel, though, calmly answered him, saying, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary. Now, go and study.”
Hartman revealed in his book that some streams of rabbinic tradition criticized Hillel’s statement for its lack of reference to God. Such comments claimed that fervent belief in the Eternal was more important than seeing, hearing and even loving one’s fellow human being as oneself.
Hartman also cited the two great medieval Jewish sages who were ready to back up Hillel 150%. Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman, Nachmanides, taught that we should always try to do what is good and upright. Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon, Maimonides, asserted that “piety and wisdom” should guide us, where piety is expressed in action to help other people and not just in belief. Maimonides taught that all the stories in the Torah must be evaluated based on a high ethical standard. That is why the Angel of the binding of Isaac episode might be considered the moral superhero of the tale.
So consideration, decency, respect and seeing and hearing people calling for our help should be the values at the foundation of our moral approach to the world.
And there is one more value to mention. The father and the baby in the story I told before were living in their home, side-by-side, and it took the passing rebbe to remind the father to activate the love inside him and turn his attention to his crying infant daughter. Abraham and Isaac walked side by side to Mount Moriah, and it took an Angel to open Abrham’s eyes to this child that he loved.
Yes, the son he loved. God had originally called out to Abraham, “Take your son, your only one, the one you love, Isaac.” We might prefer that this loving father had refused to take his son on this divinely-commanded journey. God may have wanted Abraham to do just that in this instance: at least to question the command he was given.
Perhaps this story relates to the times when loving families face difficult times. We hope that people who love one another know how to navigate the challenges of life while preserving an ability to see and hear each other in their time of need.
In his book, THE FIRST LOVE STORY: ADAM, EVE AND US, Bruce Feiler expressed why he believed the Bible’s first description of human relationships is actually a story of two people who learned to support each other based on the value of love. In his book, Feiler shared and evaluated many classic interpretations of the Garden of Eden story and its aftermath.
Feiler first thought of writing this book when, while standing in the Sistine Chapel, his daughter made him see, for the first time, that the famous depiction of God and Adam by Michelangelo also portrayed Eve sheltered under God’s arm. This realization led to a journey of discovery to find the essence of the Garden of Eden story that took Feiler around the world to explore centuries of telling and retelling the biblical recounting of the origins of humanity.
Feiler gravitated to religious commentaries that established Adam and Eve as equal partners, which even the Hebrew text does in its own way.
So why did Feiler view the tale of their relationship as “The First Love Story?”
It was because Adam and Eve faced great upheaval and displacement in their lives, and their relationship survived. It didn’t matter so much to Feiler, as with some other authors and commentators, that it was the actions of the first man and woman in this story that led to what has been called their expulsion from the garden. Some scholars and sages have asserted that Adam and Eve were destined not to remain in paradise, because, even in the context of the Torah’s narrative, humanity would not have been humanity without Adam’s and Eve’s exit from Eden.
In the Garden, the Torah portrayed two human beings, living side by side, within God’s love. We aren’t sure, though, that they loved each other. According to Feiler, their love wasn’t certain until they began their post-paradise lives. It was out of their new existence filled with toil, pain and hardship that they were able to truly experience real contentment and, yes, love.
So if Adam and Eve could survive through all of those changes, then it was love that kept them together. Or, as Feiler said, quoting from the famous lyrics from “Fiddler on the Roof,” “if that’s not love, what is?”
Like that first couple, we live side-by-side not only as spouses and as members of different generations in a family, but also as neighbors, colleagues, and friends. We thrive when we meet challenges together. We are stronger when we see and hear each other, both in good times and in moments of challenge when it is crucial to reach out and offer our assistance and support.
And such times came upon us in recent days. How many of you have friends or family who were affected by Hurricane Harvey ? How many of you have friends or family touched by the strong winds of Hurricane Irma? Many of the victims of the storms have expressed their feeling of despair. Along with that sense of loss and uncertainty has been extreme and heartfelt gratitude for those who have sent many types of donations and offered help in person to enable people who lived in the areas damaged by the storms to gradually get back on their feet. It will take them a long time to recover, but they deeply appreciate that so many of us have seen and heard them, providing them with hope and even love. And the last several days have seen more disasters, with more deaths and more people to whom we must offer our help.
To see and hear each other and to love one another - these are crucial to our well-being as individuals and as members of the greater human community. We can be angels for each other when we need a reminder of who we are and where we need to go, making sure that no one in the human family is on the outside looking in. So may we hear the child’s cry and answer right at that moment. May we see the plight of the despairing and oppressed and bring them into our circle of hope. May we walk along the path of life doing what is good and upright, pious and wise, so that we will feel in our feet that God is walking with us, side-by-side.