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11.3.2017 Weekly Torah Portion

PostPosted: Fri Nov 03, 2017 6:46 pm
by RabbiMark
The Torah isn’t an easy document. Yes, it can be inspiring, moving, transformational. But whether because of the language, the time between it was composed and now, or the content of the stories themselves (or all of the above), it can be challenging. Of all the difficult narratives, perhaps no story is tougher for me than the story of the Akedah, Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son, Isaac, found in this week’s parsha. Each year, I seem to ask myself similar questions: how could God ask this of Abraham? How could Abraham go along with it? Is this the kind of religious tradition I want to be a part of? That I’m obligated to be a part of?

I recently had a realization that helped me work through my consistent wrestling with this text. When my first son was born, I felt conflicted going into the bris. In Judaism, the formal requirement for circumcision is specifically for the father- usually, these days, the father defers this obligation to the mohel. However, multiple men in my life, with sons of their own, spoke to me of the powerful experience they had felt in making the cut themselves. At that point, I barely trusted myself with a kitchen knife to slice fruit, let alone circumcising my 8-day-old son. Yet, their voices felt compelling, telling me what I “should” do. And so, I did it. The act itself, thankfully, was uneventful; my son, despite his initial cries, was completely fine. When I took the action, however, I felt something tear within me: this moment - which I had anticipated would be elevating, connective, holy - felt painful and shattering. I was deeply shaken; something had gone wrong, and I didn’t know why. Only as time went on and the internal wound healed a bit, was I able to gain some clarity on what had happened.

The voice of “should” is strong; for a long time, I confused my religious obligations as dictated by others with the right choice for me as an individual. But, looking back, the “should” voice wasn’t the only voice present in my mind. I had my doubts, my fears, my concerns, my sense of what was the best choice for me. I chose not to give those voices their proper place, and there were consequences. I am not saying that this is of the same scale as Abraham (nor am I advocating against the bris as a ceremony itself). I can see, however, how easy it is to confuse an internal voice with THE internal voice, how he could confuse a divine command with an unnecessary sacrifice. Fortunately, in the story, as Abraham is bringing the knife down upon Isaac, he hears an angel call to him and stops before he does him any physical harm. I n my case, I didn’t hear the voice of “stop!” until too late. The true call was there all along, but it got muddled. I wasn’t able to really hear it. I think there are always multiple internal voices at the same time. The challenge of staying open to the symphony (cacophony?) and trying to decide which one is dictating the right action is where the challenge and opportunity lies.

The Sfat Emet describes how Abraham is understood in our tradition as to have connected through God primarily with love, and so “it really wasn’t God’s will that he slaughter Isaac. Abraham’s heart felt no love or attachment to God in this act, since it was not God’s true will. That is why it says ‘he saw ha-makom (the place) from afar,’ meaning that he saw God (Ha-Makom) was far from him.” Here, the Sfat Emet utilizes wordplay, that “ha-makom” in Hebrew refers to both a physical location and is another name for God, to highlight Abraham’s distance from God in making this decision. The comment, however, is confusing. Couldn’t Abraham, of all people, differentiate what God’s “true will” would be? The answer is both confounding and reassuring to me: he couldn’t! This grants me a measure of compassion for myself: discerning between the “should” and my own authentic path is neither simple nor easy. Each person connects to God in a different way, and it’s my obligation to find what that is for me.

Finding a way to hear the different voices present in a charged and confusing situation and then make an informed, personal choice, which may fly in the face of what people I trust and care about are telling me to do, is no small feat. Looking at the big picture and reflecting on my initial questions, I very much want to be a part of a religious tradition that stresses the importance of hearing multiple opinions and ideas, and determining which one makes the most sense. My experience has taught me that doing the work to notice and discern between the conflicting thoughts and feelings I have is what leads me to greater wholeness. May we each be blessed to do this work, today and every day.

And, in case you’re wondering, we still had a bris for my second son. This time, though, I deferred to the mohel.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Matt