Isaac was nearly out of breath. The two servants had disappeared into the darkness, and he now walked alone with his father, Abraham, the one who loved him. 'Then Isaac said to his father, 'Father!' And he answered, 'Yes, my son.' And Isaac said, 'Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?' And Abraham said, 'God will see to the sheep for God's burnt offering, my son.' And the two of them walked on together.' (Genesis 22:7-8)
But before he knew it, Isaac was bound on the altar, wood pressed against his flesh, ropes wrapped around his arms and legs. He looked up at the sky, only to see a silver streak suddenly sailing toward him. Down and down it traveled, until Isaac heard angelic words descend like dew from heaven: 'Abraham! Abraham!… Do not raise your hand against the boy or do anything to him.' (Genesis 22:11-12)
Only then did Abraham's hand release the knife, and it fell to the ground. All was silence. I imagine that Isaac then took a long, deep breath and descended the mountain… to life renewed.
I have the feeling that Isaac's life was never the same again. A brush with death will change a person. It stirs the soul and wakens us to the miracle of life. Fortunately, in Judaism we do not have to have a physical brush with death in order to live again. Instead, we enact ritual dramas, like the reading of the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, to 'experience' the dangerous. We ritualize death so that we can live life.
Victor Frankl once advised, 'Live life as if you were living a second time and as though you had acted wrongly the first time.' Live life in order to do it better. Live life so that you can move forward and continue the journey.
Judaism greets the future with great optimism. We are not mired in sin. If you find yourself falling into the same harmful patterns of behavior, you can begin again. If you have been involved in an unending conflict, an argument filled with recrimination and blame, you can begin again. It is this positive outlook toward the future that writer Thomas Cahill considers to be one of the great gifts of the Jews. Cahill writes,
For the ancients, the future was always to be a replay of the past… [but] for the Jews, the moral is not that history repeats itself but that it is always something new.… The future will not be what has happened before; indeed, the only reality that the future has is that it has not happened yet…. For this reason, the concept of the future for the first time holds out promise, rather than just the same old thing. We are not doomed…. We are free.
The story of the Binding of Isaac reminds us that it is a new year, a year filled with great promise. We stand on a mountain with the sun shining above us, looking toward a new day. How do you plan to improve upon the last year? Will you embrace life as never before? L'shanah Tovah. Happy New Year.
For Further Reading: The Gifts of the Jews, Thomas Cahill, New York: Doubleday, 1998.
Joel Sisenwine is the senior rabbi of Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley Hills, MA
After a child is born, we recite a Mi Shebeirach at a baby naming or a bris. Grateful parents ask the Creator to grant their offspring the very best that life has to offer. Among the requested blessings are chochmah, binah, v'haskeil-wisdom, understanding, and discernment. Of the three, discernment is the most valuable and rare.
Discernment is more than simple smarts. Discernment is the ability to see, really see. It enables a person to look into the heart of a matter and then evaluate it in ways not obvious or ordinary. Someone once said that a genius is a person who looks at what everyone else looks at but sees what no one else sees.
Seeing is very much the subject of the Torah portion traditionally read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Sarah sees the potential threat that Ishmael poses to Isaac's inheritance. (Genesis 21:9-10) Hagar weeps in despair, not wanting to look at her thirsting, dying son. (Genesis 21:16) And finally, God hears her son's cry and opens Hagar's eyes to the presence of a nearby well of water. (Genesis 21:17, 19) God does not dig the well: Rather, God opens Hagar's eyes and she sees. She discerns that the instrument for her survival had been there all along.
There are times when life seems to have reached a dead end. We seek solutions and answers, but none come. And then, from somewhere, seemingly nowhere, an answer takes shape. Very often, the solution comes from seeing the situation the way it really is and discerning new possibilities for action.
In the above verses from Parashat Vayera, God opens our eyes and renews our ability to discover. In this sense, every 'aha' moment is a revelation. Discernment is the ability to see heretofore unknown possibilities. Faith is the belief that such new possibilities are there for the seeing. Jewish faith assures us that the One who helps us see new possibilities will be there with us when we are in desperate need of that kind of vision.
In the movie Field of Dreams, long-departed baseball greats return to take up the game in an Iowa cornfield. Initially, only the farm family can see the men, but in time, others discern their presence. 'When did all these ball-players get here?' someone asks. The truth is that they had been there all along. Just because one doesn't see something doesn't mean that it isn't there.
Torah study itself provides a means to cultivate this capacity for discernment. In Judaism, to open the text is to begin with the assumption that there is always something new to discover, that the answer or the meaning is not obvious, that it can all come together in a novel and unexpected way. In Yiddish, such an insight is called a chup. To come up with a new interpretation-to see in the text something you never saw before-is to have your eyes opened. To discover meaning where previously only confusion and question reigned is to experience something that is as life-giving and life-affirming as Hagar's discovery of the well. Hence for us, too, a talent for discovery is a great survival skill.
There is a fine line between discovery and revelation, or perhaps there is no line at all. In the end, discernment is a partnership-a joint venture between the One who opens eyes and the one who has the courage and faith to seek what was probably always there to see.
For Reform congregations, Genesis, chapter 22 -the Akeidah (the Binding of Isaac)-is read on Rosh Hashanah. Our machzor also provides Genesis, chapter 1--the Creation story-- which can be read on a second day, if applicable, or as an alternative on the first day. Non-Reform congregations read Genesis, chapter 21-the story of Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael-on the first day, and Genesis, chapter 22 on the second day, because of the interesting connections that can be drawn between the two narratives. While this is not Reform practice, the editors have choosen to present commentaries on chapters 21 and 22.
Yom Rishon shel Rosh HaShanah, Genesis 22:1‒19
The Torah, A Modern Commentary, pp. 146‒147; Revised Edition, pp. 135 ‒136;
The Torah, A Women's Commentary, pp. 101–103