Torah | Binding of Isaac raises intriguing questions

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Genesis 18:1-22:24
II Kings 4:1-37

In rabbinical school, I served as student rabbi in Lake Norman, North Carolina. The congregation met in St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, where I became close with the Rev. David Buck, a friend and colleague who taught me so much about being clergy, the importance of interfaith dialogue and the beauty of bringing community together through shared values.

Periodically, Father Buck and I led an interfaith Bible study. On one such occasion, we taught the binding of Isaac, and to this day, Father David’s approach, responding to each verse with a question relevant to our lives, has stuck with me. This week, I want to share Father Buck’s questions entwined with my own.

Genesis: “After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’” Buck: In what ways does God test you today, if God does? Me: What does it mean to say, “Here I am”? When in your life do you say, “Here I am,” and when are times when you wish you’d do it more often?

Genesis: “God said, ‘Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’” Buck: If you were God, why would you demand something as grotesque as that? What was God doing to Abraham’s future? How much do you trust God for your future? Me: What kind of sacrifices do you make in your life? When do you sacrifice things you love and cherish?

Genesis: “Early the next morning … Abraham set out and went to the place in the distance that God had told him.” Buck: What do you suppose Abraham said to Sarah, his wife, Isaac’s mom, as they left? If you could interview Abraham, Isaac, Sarah or God, what questions would you ask? Me: Is there a time in your life when you feel like you’ve answered God’s call? Or better yet, if God called, would you answer?   

Genesis: “Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac, and he carried the fire and the knife. And the two of them walked on together.” Buck: If you were Isaac, what would you think when you saw that knife? Me: What does it mean to walk together in moments of pain, in times of fear? How often, when walking with someone, are you really present for him or her?

Genesis: “Isaac said to his father Abraham … ‘Here is the fire and wood; where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God will provide the sheep for the burnt offering, my son.’ The two of them walked on together.” Buck: To what extent do you believe that God will provide for you? Me: Why do you think Isaac continues to walk with Abraham assuming his fate?

Genesis: “They came to the place that God had told him, Abraham built an altar; he laid the wood. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.” Buck: Do you think he would have actually done it? Who is the real victim here? Isaac? Abraham? Sarah? God? Where do you get the strength to say ‘yes’ to God when everything else inside of you says ‘no’?

Genesis: “The angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Do not raise your hand on the boy … I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from me.’ When Abraham looked up he saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. …[offering] it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. Abraham called that place Adonai-Yireh.” Buck: What for you in your life has been a “ram caught in the thicket”? What does Elie Wiesel mean when he says Holocaust victims are those for whom there was no ram caught in the thicket? What makes this story so compelling for people of all faiths?

Every year, as I read this story, both on Rosh Hashanah and during the normal Torah reading cycle, I am reminded that we have the ability to find new perspectives as we wrestle with the complexities of our tradition. Yet, Father Buck also teaches me that sometimes, we can go deeper if we spend time not just questioning the simple meaning of the text, but more importantly, questioning how the text informs the way we live today. Not doing so may be the ultimate sacrifice.

Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at [email protected].

Rabbi Corey Helfand
Rabbi Corey Helfand

Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at [email protected].