Monday, September 13, 2010

The Akedah: Forgiving the deepest betrayal

The story of the Akedah –the binding of Isaac- that we read today, - is perhaps one of the most difficult of all the Torah portions we read over the course of the year. Unlike some portions, it’s not difficult because it’s hard to understand what’s going on, but because the ideas presented in it are so challenging to us.

I struggle with the portion every year, to make sense of it from a religious point of view, and I always have trouble accepting the ideas presented in it as ones which I can accept. So, today, instead of speaking about the Akedah, I want to talk about what happens after the Akedah, after Isaac is saved, and he and Abraham return to their lives, and descend the mountain.

The Torah tells us that after Abraham offers Isaac to God on the mountain, and after Isaac is saved by God, Abraham returns to his young men, and they went together to Beer Sheva, and Abraham dwelt in Beer Sheva (ber. 22:19). The next thing we hear is of Sarah’s death, which is in Kiryat Arba in Hevron – and Abraham must travel there to mourn for her. The midrash tells us that her death was from hearing about what Abraham did to Isaac.

The next piece is Abraham’s sending his servant to find a wife for Isaac. When the servant succeeds in bringing Rebecca back, the Torah tells us that Isaac had just returned from Beer Lachai Ro’I (24:62) and finally, when Abraham dies ( 25:8) Isaac and Ishmael return together to bury him, and then Isaac returns to Beer Lachai Ro’i.

The text hints at something which is perhaps not terribly surprising: Abraham’s life after the Akedah is quite different. His family is essentially destroyed. Sarah according to midrash, dies of horror as Abraham returns, of what he has done to Isaac (or almost done); in the plain words of the text, she is living somewhere else than he at the time of her death.
Abraham does take a new wife after the death of Sarah and is given a whole new family, but the evidence seems to be that, either way, he never directly speaks again to Sarah or Isaac.

It is suggestive that the place Isaac returns to after his experience on the mountain is Beer Lachai Ro’I, which is the place named by Hagar when she has an experience of God. While we know that Ishmael lives elsewhere in the wilderness of Paran, it is possible that Hagar is still living there, and that Isaac goes to stay with her after the death of his mother. He leaves his father, and goes to another person who has been betrayed by his father.

We see from a close reading of the Torah itself that the family relationships of Abraham are destroyed: Abraham and Sarah are no longer together, Abraham and Isaac are also living apart, and as far as we know, during Abraham’s lifetime, his relationships with his family are never repaired, and Isaac never forgives him during his lifetime

Why do we tell the story of the Akedah on Rosh Hashanah? During these days of repentance, is the story of Abraham and Isaac one about repentance? I think that perhaps it is actually, a story of forgiveness.
Let’s talk about forgiveness for a moment:

It is odd, given the amount of time we spend talking about repentance, how little we really talk about forgiveness. We know that there is a process of teshuvah - we have to admit our sin to God and where relevant, our human victim, say we are sorry, make restitution, and then for complete teshuvah, repentance, not make the same mistake again when the opportunity presents itself.

In one of the classic sources that we use to talk about teshuva, repentance, Rambam’s hilchot teshuva (Laws of repentance), I found relatively little about human forgiveness of others: “It is forbidden for one to be harsh and non-appeasing. One should rather be forgiving and slow to anger, and whenever a sinner asks one for forgiveness one should grant it wholeheartedly. Even if the sinner had distressed one considerably and sinned against one a lot, one should/may not take revenge or bear a grudge, in the manner of a true Jew…" The main advice about forgiveness that we receive from tradition is that we shouldn’t withhold it from one who asks for forgiveness, and that if a person asks in good faith for forgiveness two or three times, and they are refused, in most cases, the person who did not forgive becomes the sinner.

In one of the passages in which Maimonides speaks about repentance, he talks about how repentance actually changes the person’s relationship with God, saying, “Teshuvah brings near those who were far removed. Previously, this person was hated by God, disgusting, far removed, and abominable. Now, he is beloved and desirable, close, and dear…Yesterday he was separated from the Lord God of Israel, …today he is attached to the Divine Presence.”

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, (Likutei Sichot vol. 28) pointed out that Maimonides’ perspective involves the victim in the process of repentance. The victim must assist the offender in hir process of rejoining with the Creator by offering forgiveness and treating the offender as though the incident had not happened. That is why the late Rabbi Schneerson emphasizes that the victim must forgive the offender with “a generous spirit” –most importantly looking upon the offender as someone who is precious and beloved.

As I thought about the parshah, I came to wonder what Abraham thought, not during the Akedah, but afterwards. Did he think that, as God had asked him to sacrifice his son, that there was nothing that he needed to apologize for? Did he try to apologize and Isaac refuse to accept it? We don’t know. There’s not enough information in the Torah itself, and the midrash doesn’t seem to be interested in taking up this narrative challenge.

But I can imagine the feelings of betrayal that Isaac felt. It is easy enough to forgive those who have no connection to us – perhaps even for fairly significant wrongs. When we know that the person has no real power over us, then it may be easy enough to simply forgive someone and move on. But when we are wronged by someone whom we love, then forgiveness is much more difficult:
When it is someone we love who wronged us, if it is serious, how can we forgive? How can we act as if we do not fear that we will be betrayed again?

Not long ago, I had a conversation with another parent about the fact that my son knows that I’m the tooth fairy. I actually have this conversation on a pretty regular basis, since Maiyan is fond of telling people both about his lost teeth, and also about his Ima who pretends to be the tooth fairy.

In a study that came out abut a year ago and was released in the Journal of Moral Education, Professor Gail Heyman, of the University of California, it was shown that parents lie to their children regularly, abut all kinds of things. The study suggested that , in fact, socially approved lies, such as telling children that there is such a thing as the tooth fairy may be a necessity, not for the children, but for the parents, as it sets up a safe lie which teaches children – in a relatively harmless way- the necessary lesson that your parents lie to you.
It is an interesting point.
It is rare that we can be in a loving relationship that does not have moments of betrayal. And if nothing else, all of us eventually die, leaving behind our loved ones, grieving.

So it is part of the human condition to need to forgive, as well as to need to repent. But coming back to our story, Isaac doesn’t seem to have been able to do it. The picture we have from the plain reading of the Torah’s story is a son who cannot forgive his father.

But the Torah (and its midrash) does give us some insight. What happens to a person who cannot forgive? In Isaac’s case, the Torah tells us that as he aged, his eyes became dim: Several sources understand this in a very broad sense, that Isaac’s blindness was not only physical, but spiritual. It affected him in two ways:
The first is that he was unable to see the faults in others – that’s the midrash’s understanding. He looked at his sons and was not able to know which of them was the one who God wished to inherit him and become the father of the Israelite nation. But that blindness was a random blindness – the second way in which he was affected is precisely because of the fear he continued to hold inside him:
He preferred which son? Not the dweller in tents, the son who was more like him, but the son who was more like his brother Ishmael: outdoorsy, strong, self-willed. Esaiv would never have let himself be dragged up a mountain to be sacrificed in blood. Isaac’s blindness was that he couldn’t see *himself*. He was unable to see what his own good qualities were and why they were necessary to someone who would lead his descendants.

There are three ways we can react to the betrayal of a loved one:
1. We can, like Sarah, accept betrayal as normal, but be unable to live with the world as it is, and find a way to protect ourselves form the inevitable betrayal by shutting love out, no longer engaging with the world
2. We can, like Isaac, develop a spiritual blindness, instead blaming oneself, or one’s loved one, for the betrayal, and holding onto that fear throughout life.
3. Or we can take a third option: forgiveness. We can see the world as it really is, and learn to accept that part of the human condition. Neither making for oneself a shell that no one can break through, refusing to be open to love again, nor remaining a victim, but moving beyond the moment of betrayal and healing the harm - when there is true desire for repair in the heart of the one who did the harm
How do we forgive, with a whole heart, those we love?

Every morning, we say during the bircot hashachar a set of blessings, which include blessings such as "blessed are you who clothes the naked,…blessed are you who releases the bound…"
In the Talmud (Sotah 14a) we read, R. Hama son of R. Hanina further said: What means the text: Ye shall walk after the Lord your God? Is it, then, possible for a human being to walk after the Shechinah? …But [the meaning is] to walk after the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He. As He clothes the naked, … so do thou also clothe the naked.

The Talmud explains that we say these blessings in the morning as a reminder that we have the power to act b’tzelem elohim in God’s image. In forgiveness, too, we ought to be reminded that we act in God’s image. If it is our part during these days of awe to repent, it is also our part to imitate God and to forgive. We speak constantly during these days of the power of God’s forgiveness, we, in fact, rely on it, for release from the bad habits of our past. If God is a forgiving God, so must we also be forgiving people, in God’s tzel, in God’s image. To forgive one another, but also, as in our story of the man who could not forgive his father, to forgive not only our father, those we love who are human, but also to forgive our Father, God.

I came to wonder as I thought about Isaac, if maybe, in the end, that’s really what the story of the Akedah is: Maybe the test was not to offer Isaac, but that Abraham knew, he knew that after he put his son on the altar – he trusted that God would not allow his son to die- but his son, his wife, Sarah, how could they forgive Abraham for putting Isaac on the altar and holding the knife to his throat? And he knew that after he walked down the mountain, he would never be forgiven. When God said, “you did not withhold your son, your only son,” maybe what he meant was that Abraham knew that he allowed his son to feel betrayed by his father, and the test, that was really the rest of his life, in which he did not speak again to him, which he lived without Sarah, and until his dying day, when Isaac and Ishmael, his two betrayed sons, came together to bury him, he did not speak to them again, and that was God’s test of Abraham.

But remember the study of the lies we tell our children: Like children who are betrayed by their parents by hearing lies from them, we also feel betrayed by our Father, by God sometimes. Sometimes when life gets difficult, it is nearly impossible to remember the love, because of the feeling that somehow, God has betrayed us in this moment of our difficulty. And in fact we have a powerful story about what this type of betrayal might teach us – namely to teach us, as humans, to forgive:

The story is told of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev:
A tailor once came to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak and told him about an argument he had had with God on Yom Kippur. The tailor said: “I declared to God, ‘You wish me to repent my sins, but I have committed only minor offenses.” I may have kept leftover cloth, or I may have eaten non-kosher food, or not blessed my meal. But You, O God, have committed great sins: You have taken babies from their mothers and mothers from their babies. Let’s call it even; may You forgive me, and I will forgive You.’”
After listening intently, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak rose in anger and said, “You fool! You ignoramus! Why did you let God off so easily? You might have forced God to redeem the whole world!”

God is up to the challenge. In God’s demand of us that we forgive with a whole heart, however difficult, we are being asked to also forgive God. And because it is difficult, for us to forgive those we love, and those whom we ought to trust, we are caught, but perhaps we need betrayal from God to teach us how to forgive? Within us, we have the power to forgive one another, and perhaps even God, as wholeheartedly as God forgives us, when we come with true repentance.

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