In June of 2015, I delivered an ELI Talk (http://elitalks.org/take-your-son-your-only-son-raising-children-dangerous-world). If you’re not familiar with ELI Talks, imagine a TED Talk but with a Jewish theme; specifically, one that highlights Jewish religious Engagement, Literacy and Identity (hence the acronym ELI). I chose to speak about the Akeidah or binding of Isaac, which takes place in this week’s parasha, Va’yera.
Using the Akeidah story, I attempt to confront the realities of God having a created a world in which parents cannot protect their children. And, while there is no shortage of troubling elements to a story in which God commands a human being to kill a beloved child, the part of the story that I find hardest to reconcile myself to is Avraham’s acquiescence to God’s evil decree. That Avraham, this giant of a man, who begged God to save the worthless citizens of S’dom, did not utter a word of protest to try to save his only son, the son of his old age, the son whom he loved, has always been incomprehensible to me.
I’ve looked to the traditional Jewish commentaries for solace and found none. The consensus is that Avraham’s obedience is praiseworthy and that his, is the faith to which we should aspire. Well, not me. This is no faith I hope to have.
That, boldly, said, I’m willing to recognize that if God ever speaks to me directly and commands me to do anything, even something that I deem unjust, I may fold like an origami structure in the rain. And, yet, this is not how I see myself. I would like to believe that I would speak up against injustice. If God ever commanded me to kill one of my children, I need to believe that I would argue with God, that I would beg God, that I would throw myself onto the altar in my child’s place and refuse to carry out the heinous act.
There is one commentary I’ve found in which I take comfort, although it comes from Soren Kierkegaard, in a book entitled Fear and Trembling, a decidedly non-Jewish source.
It goes like this: Avraham had what Kierkegaard calls an “absurd” faith, believing he must carry out God’s command, but at the same time believing, with complete conviction, that God could never allow him to carry out the act. In Kierkegaard’s absurd faith, these two seemingly irreconcilable outcomes can co-exist. To Avraham, the manner in which God would end the drama was irrelevant; all that mattered were the realities of God’s command, God’s moral character, and Avraham’s unassailable belief that the two would never be in contradiction.
In essence, the fix was in! Avraham didn’t need to argue with God or disobey a direct order, because his absurd faith in God’s just nature informed his actions. It wasn’t necessary to argue or disobey because, in the end, God would never let him kill his son.
As an aside, when I explained the absurd faith concept to one Orthodox rabbi I know, he was excited and intrigued. He said he had never heard this commentary before and asked me where I found it. When I told him, he looked like I had just forced him to drink from a carton of spoiled milk. I suppose it’s unfair for me, on some level, to deride him for this; after all, he is a man of faith and his faith doesn’t allow for wisdom derived from what he deems to be impure sources. I, on the other hand, take my existential solace wherever and whenever I can find it.
And with the phrase, “wherever and whenever,” as an introduction, I offer you my parsha poem for this week, entitled A Soldier Learns to Sleep. If you listen to my ELI Talk, you’ll hear me tell a story about a friend of mine in Israel who was confronted, late one night, by his ultimate fear. This poem, is my attempt to articulate that fear; to speak to the incalculable cost of the sacrifices parents make simply by bringing their children into this incomprehensible and dangerous world.
A Soldier Learns to Sleep
wherever and whenever he can. Once,
he slept in the back of a truck, heading
to battle on the Syrian border. Undisturbed
by the rutted road or sound of gunfire
in the distance, he dreamed he was
in bed with his wife, their infant son
nestled between them. When the truck
stopped, they had to poke his shoulder
with the butt of an M-16 to wake him.
That day, Tal, Yoav, and Itamar fell.
Years later, in bed with his wife, he
dreams he is riding in the back of a truck,
heading to battle on the Syrian border.
Next to him is his son. Undisturbed by
the rutted road or sound of gunfire in the
distance, his son sleeps, like a soldier.
Reality. Memory. Dream. Nightmare.
When the conscious and unconscious
converge, even the dead awaken.