Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac, as depicted in a Welsh missal, ca. 1310 (Photo/National Library of Wales)
Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac, as depicted in a Welsh missal, ca. 1310 (Photo/National Library of Wales)

In ‘sacrifice’ of Isaac, learning to see oneself in both father and son

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Genesis 18:1–22:24

II Kings 4:1-37 (Ashkenazi)

II Kings 4:1-23 (Sephardi)

We are firmly entrenched in 5778. The month of Tishrei is behind us. Happily ensconced in the month of Cheshvan, (or, to some “Marcheshvan,” adding the world “bitter” for its lack of holidays) we soak in the regularity of our calendar.

No need to take extra days off work for repentance, prayer and charity. No need to cook or clean for a break-fast meal. No need to sweeten our challah with a little extra honey — though we might sneak a little taste anyway.

We have happily passed through the gates of 5777 and entered the present moment.

The High Holy Days, while joyful in their celebration of the new year’s sweetness, are also difficult as we acknowledge the failures and missed opportunities of the year gone by. And when we read the story of the Akedah (the binding of Isaac) on Rosh Hashanah morning, we were particularly aware of the fine line between what God wants of us and our ability to listen closely to God’s requests.

In Genesis 22, God puts Abraham to the test. God instructs Abraham to take his son, Isaac, early in the morning and lead him up Mount Moriah. “Hineini,” Abraham answers God. “Here I am” (Genesis 22:1). God asks Abraham to offer his son as a sacrifice, and Abraham, with tears in his eyes (we imagine) obliges.

The story dramatically unfolds as Abraham stoically ties him to the altar. Just as Abraham raises the knife above his beloved son, he hears God calling him again. “Hineini,” Abraham answers, again. “Here I am” (Genesis 22:11). God provides a ram for the sacrifice, and Isaac is able to walk away physically unscathed — though we can only begin to intuit the challenges this must have unearthed for their father-son dynamic in the years ahead.

Isaac lives because Abraham listens. Isaac lives because Abraham is prepared to say “Hineini” (“Here I am”).

Throughout the High Holy Days we were presented with our own hineini moments. Running through the list of ways that we have missed the mark, we promise to do better, to listen more attentively, to come closer this year to being the people God expects us to be.

This week we revisit the Akedah, slightly more than a month after we last read it on Rosh Hashanah. Now, several weeks in, 5778 is no longer a blank slate. How have we held up our promise? Now, back to the regularity of life, are we still ready to say “hineini”?

Since the High Holy Days ended, the news has been an endless cycle of tragedy — from a massive shooting in Las Vegas to the devastating wildfires in our own backyard. Our world is still healing from the hurricanes that did terrible damage before 5777’s conclusion, and the political unrest that is deeply dividing Americans each and every day continues.

It feels as if we are standing at the top of our own Mount Moriah, each one of us laying upon the altar, waiting for the blade to drop. Who will say “hineini” for us? Who will carry us down the mountain to our mother’s waiting arms, away from the tragedy and heartache that greeted us with the onset of this new year?

Cheshvan is a return to regularity — and its other name, Marcheshvan, reminds us that the regular can be bitter, not sweet.

As we read the Akedah this year, we must take a wide view and see ourselves not only in Isaac, passively awaiting a tragic end, but also in Abraham, attentively listening, waiting to say “hineini.”

In our hands we hold the knife — a capacity for destruction. But with our eyes we also see the ram — a way out, a lifeline, a divine imperative to turn this story around. How will we remain present, stay alert and continue to say “hineini” for one another, for our communities and for our world?

The High Holy Days have passed, but our opportunities for repentance, prayer and charity are still abundant and necessary. Our year is not a blank slate but a canvas that bears our first brushstrokes. May we continue to hear the call, and may we always be compelled to act upon it.

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin is an associate rabbi and educator at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. She can be reached at [email protected].