This week we have the circumstances surrounding the birth of Isaac, from the time three visitors announce Sarah will become pregnant, through the events of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Issac’s birth and weaning ceremony and the Akedah, the binding of Issac.
There is a midrash usually associated with Lecha Lecha which has parallels to the akedah. It is the second half of the well known story of Abram smashing the Idols in his father’s store. He tells his father that the idols had a fight and the big one won. His father immediately said that Idols aren’t real and can’t do that.
Should not your ears listen to what your mouth is saying,’ he [Abram] retorted. Thereupon he seized him and delivered him to Nimrod. ‘Let us worship the fire!’ he [Nimrod] proposed. ‘ Let us rather worship water, which extinguishes the fire,’ replied he. ‘ Then let us worship water! ‘ ‘ Let us rather worship the clouds which bear the water. ‘ ‘ Then let us worship the clouds! ‘ ‘ Let us rather worship the winds which disperse the clouds.’ ‘ Then let us worship the wind!’ ‘ Let us rather worship human beings, who withstand the wind.’ ‘You are just bandying words,’ he exclaimed; ‘we will worship nought but the fire. Behold, I will cast you into it, and let your God whom you adore come and save you from it.’ Now Haran [Abram’s brother] was standing there undecided. If Abram is victorious, [thought he], I will say that I am of Abram’s belief, while if Nimrod is victorious I will say that I am on Nimrod’s side. When Abram descended into the fiery furnace and was saved, he [Nimrod] asked him, ‘Of whose belief are you?’ ‘Of Abram’s,’ he replied. Thereupon he seized and cast him into the fire; his inwards were scorched and he died in his father’s presence. Hence it is written, AND HARAN DIED IN THE PRESENCE OF (‘ AL PENE) HIS FATHER TERAH “(Genesis 11:28 ) [Genesis R. XXXVII:13 ]
Several elements are parallel to the akedah, a sacrifice by fire, a father willingly taking his sons to be sacrificed. The akedah was a test we are told, and Nimrod was a test as well. it is the differences which provide a bit of insight. Another parallel is that Midrash tells us that it was in the fire God said to Abraham, “Lech Leha,” which begins his journey, while the Akedah begins:
1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did test Abraham, and said unto him: ‘Abraham’; and he said: ‘Here am I.’ 2. And He said: ‘Take now your son, your only son, whom thou love, Isaac, and go for yourself [Lech lecha] into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.'[Genesis 22]
Since the time of the Akedah, commentators have tried to figure out what happened and why. The way the Rabbis told the story of the death of Haran, who incidentally is Lot’s father, indicates one possibility. God was testing Abraham and Issac. Isaac’s test was to test his belief. Was he like his Uncle Haran, who believed in Abraham’s god, when it appeared Abraham’s god was stronger? Does Issac believe, like his father, in God? Abraham rebelled against the gods of his father, would Isaac rebel against the One God of his father? If Abraham did a good job of teaching and raising Isaac, then Issac would answer those questions correctly.
Abraham had an incredible mind shift to get to monotheism. He needed to transmit that mindshift to his sons Issac and Ishmael in order for monotheism to continue. One an idea is established It hard for any of us to understand why anyone thought the way people did in the past, so its difficult for contemporary people to really understand why this test was so important.
I am a painter. I’m not very good but I’m able to do some half decent portraits in watercolor. For portability reasons, I decide to invest in a an iPad and a few different art apps and learn to paint digitally. One might think that painting on a computer would be similar to painting watercolors. The experience, I have found is very different. It requires me to think differently about how to use color, and how to use the brushes in the programs. even in the same size area, drawing is not easy. I’m using a very different mindset, and one that was very difficult for me to accept. Here’s two different paintings and although they are both my paintings, they look entirely different .I have to approach the blank white page so very differently.
I think that was the point of the Akedah. It is so very difficult to change, especially in a world so very different than you see it. Isaac could have assimilated into the culture around him, but he didn’t. Abraham and God needed God to be in the new mindset. To learn good techniques there is plenty of good watercolorists around ready to teach me that. Digital painting on a iPad is a different story — even related techniques for PC’s or Macs don’t help me. It’s such a new product with even newer application to do art, there is little for me to learn from. But the thing is, as I learn, I can pass my ways of making art on an iPad to others, by writing tutorials. Issac had to learn not only what is monotheism, which is even more difficult than understanding some of my paint programs, but then teach the next generation such things.
There is a very special place in the Talmud for those who take on the task of learning and teaching. In one of the more powerful statements, found at the end of several of the tractates of the talmud, we read:
R. Eleazar said in the name of R. Hanina: The disciples of the Sages increase peace in the world, as it is said, And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children(Is. 54:13) . Read not ‘thy children’ [banayik], but ‘thy builders’[bonayik]. [K’rithoth 28b]
Students are not just children growing up, but the builders of the next generation. It’s important for them to transmit the mindshift to the next generation. This is not just book learning but something deeper. It’s an attitude and belief at one’s core, in one’s heart and soul. Superficial learning or forcing someone, like Nimrod did, will not transmit much of this core change. If the core change happens, then we get the attitude of Abram confronting Nimrod, not the attitude of Haran his brother. Abraham may have been an architect of monotheism but it would take builders like Isaac and Jacob to really turn it into something lasting.
For sixty years or so, I believe we have been in the middle of a modern paradigm shift, a mind shift so mind blowing that it is very difficult for many to completely understand it. LIike Nimrod, again and again those who don’t understand try to suppress it. The idea is old, but after the Holocaust and Hiroshima, what it means to so many people has changed radically. One of the most poetic version of it is the instructions given to death penalty witness in the Talmud:
[Adam was created alone] because of the peace of creation that no man shall say to his fellow “my father is greater than your father” and no heretical groups shall say “many rule in heaven.” To tell of the greatness of the Holy One, Blessed be He, that man stamps many coins with one seal, and each is like the other, but the King, King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, stamps every man with the seal of the first man and not one of them is like his fellow.
[Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, B Sanhedrin 37a]
The story of creation means we are all family. Adam and Eve is everyone’s ancestor. What is more we are all created in the image of the first human, and the image of the first human was in Btzelem Elohim God’s image. To destroy Btzelem Elohim is to desecrate God. Yet to profess the greatness of God, we are paradoxically all different and all minted in that divine image. To not celebrate and honor those differences such as gender, race, sexual orientation, and belief system is to deny God’s greatness.
There are Nimrods out there still, trying to enforce their beliefs. Btzelem Elohim for them is about one people being so, but not others. They feel more validated in such a belief, and thus superior to everything else. For them, there is a superior and inferior people, not that we are all reflections of the Divine. Like Nimrod, they enforce it with violence to the soul, to the heart and to the body. Somewhere inside of them they are threatened that they will no longer be superior, or that violence is the only way they can be superior. There are also Harans out there, following whoever seems to be the strongest. There are a few Abrahams, giving us the new paradigm. There are the Issacs, and Jacobs, the builders, those who do not enforce a belief, but make it their very day life and their core being.
Most of us are somewhere between Haran and Issac. Unfortunately the only way to tell where our core is under extreme stress, where there is only the core thinking. Abrham put Isaac thought the same intense situation that he went through, a burmt sacrifice, knowing full well what God was doing. Isaac did not have to choose like Haran who was stronger, but believe with all his heart all his soul and all his being that God is One. In that Isaac succeeded, and Abraham succeeded in teaching him to be so.