“Look Behind You”: Akedah 5770

In their great love my parents saved me from disappointment,
from pain and sorrow. Now I am left with their savings
plan the pain I would like to spare my children.
How all those savings have piled up on me!

The 20th Century Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote a number of poems that clearly reference the Akedah [Binding of Isaac, Genesis/Breishit 22]. But I think this section of “My Parents’ Lodging Place” — from the collection, Open Closed Open — reaches the heart of the Akedah as well as anything he – or anyone else – has written about it… even if he didn’t plan it that way.

Many commentators note that the Akedah begins with the phrase “va-y’hi achar ha-devarim ha-eleh” — “and it happened after these things.” For thousands of years, readers have been asking, “What things?” and developing all sorts of responses based on the Torah text itself and on midrashic readings between the lines.

One answer, I suggest, is that the Akedah is, in some sense, about the simple fact that each generation occurs after the one before it: each generation inherits a “savings plan” of pain while hoping to spare the next. Quite seriously, I think, one terror of the text is that the only thing scarier than realizing that we’re turning into our parents is contemplating what we are passing along – regardless of our intentions – to those who will come after us.


Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, in her relatively new book, The Murmuring Deep, points out that the phrase “after these things” introduces three different episodes in Abraham’s story. Each is linked to “hirhurim” — “qualms” or “misgivings.”

Genesis 14 concerns Abraham battling neighboring kings. His battle triumph is followed, in chapter 15, verse 1, by: Achar ha-devarim ha-eleh

After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision. He said, “Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.”

The midrash collection Breishit Rabbah asks about this verse, “after these things?” and answers with three sets of misgivings [hirhurim]:

Perhaps Abraham says to himself: “Would you say that there was one righteous man among the troops that I slew?” Maybe he wonders if the kings’ sons will collect troops and wage war with him. Or maybe he worries, “Would you say that I have already received my reward in this world and I have nothing reserved for the future world?” (Breishit Rabbah 44:5; Zornberg, p.174)

Today’s reading closes with, “Va-y’hi acharei ha-devarim ha-eleh“:

“After these things, Abraham was told, ‘Milcah too has borne children to your brother Nachor….’” (Genesis/Breishit 22:20

Rashi’s commentary includes this midrash: “…When he returned from Mount Moriah, Abraham had qualms [hirhurim]: ‘If my son had really been slain, he would have died without children!’” In response, God sends word of Rebecca’s birth, so that Abraham will not marry Isaac to a local girl in his panic. (Rashi, Genesis 22:20; Zornberg, p.175)

Abraham has habitual qualms, Zornberg argues.

Somewhat paradoxically, he remains steadfast toward God, in her view; his uncertainties are about himself and his ability to understand God’s commands.

I don’t know of any midrash that has Isaac learning directly about any of these misgivings. We might assume that Abraham and Sarah, like Amichai’s parents, intended to save Isaac from them. It seems likely, nonetheless, that Isaac – like the rest of us – was left with his parents’ “savings plan of pain.” And this is not the end of Isaac’s inheritance.


In classical midrash, Abraham was tested nine times prior to the Akedah. The first test involves Abraham’s brother, Haran, and their father Terach. In these stories, Terach is an idol-maker by trade. When Abraham rebels from his father’s ways, smashing the idols, Terach brings him to Nimrod’s court. Nimrod orders Abraham thrown into a fiery furnace, but God saves him. Haran is then asked whose side he is on. Having witnessed his brother’s salvation, Haran gambles on following Abraham. Haran is killed.

Terach, knowing the law, consciously condemned Abraham to death by bringing him to court and indirectly caused Haran’s death as well. A parent prepared to sacrifice one son after the other. A frightening motif repeated in Abraham’s life.

Zornberg believes, following Freud, that the Torah text carries traces of this suppressed experience, an “unbearable narrative” found only in midrash because it’s too painful for the text. (cf. p.188). She explores the affect of this trauma in her psychoanalytic reading of Abraham’s life. I recommend her essay, but I’d like to return, for the moment, to Amichai and his parents:

In their great love my parents saved me from disappointment,
from pain and sorrow. Now I am left with their savings
plan the pain I would like to spare my children.
How all those savings have piled up on me!
My parents always told me, “I’ll show you,”
sometimes threatening, sometimes in a voice of sweet love:
I’ll show you. Just you wait, I’ll show you.
“Someday you’ll learn,” sternly. “Someday you’ll learn,”
in a soothing, reassuring voice.
“Do whatever you want,” yelling and screaming
and “Do what you want, you’re a free person,”
like the good angels singing in chorus.
You don’t know what you want,
you don’t know what you want. (Open Closed Open, p.57)

Midrash Tanchuma shows Abraham – just after he’s been told to desist from sacrificing Isaac — demanding that God recognize the near sacrifice for the benefit of Isaac’s children. Zornberg says Abraham is seeking here to “inoculate his children against future sin, indeed against the traumas of history.”

But that’s not how it works out – in Abraham’s generation or in ours. Just as Abraham, Sarah and Hagar must have shouted “Someday you’ll learn” at Isaac and at Ishmael, Isaac and Rebecca undoubtedly did the same with Esau and Jacob. The Akedah doesn’t stop the “You don’t know what you want” chorus for any of the generations, including Amichai’s parents’ or his children’s. Instead, God promises Abraham, as Tanchuma continues:

Isaac’s children will indeed sin before Me, and I will judge them on Rosh Hashanah. But if they wish Me to seek out merit for them and remember to their credit Isaac’s Akedah, then let them blow the shofar of this one before Me. Abraham asked: What is the shofar? God told him: Turn around and look behind you! “And Abraham lifted up his eyes and he saw – behold! — a ram – caught in the thicket by its horns.” (Tanchuma Va-yera 23; Zornberg p.205)

The ram in the Torah verse is not “acharav – behind him,” as would make grammatical sense. It’s “achar”– just plain “behind” or “after.” [*]

The Akedah, in Zornberg’s view, was a response to Abraham’s own psychic crisis He is saved from repeating the traumas of his past through “looking behind,” in a kind of therapeutic event engineered by God.

I’m not entirely sure about the whole Torah-as-psychoanalysis project. I think it’s worth considering, though, what Zornberg says about Abraham – and the Torah text itself – being unaware of a frightening inheritance from a previous generation, and how that emotional ignorance nearly leads to a sacrifice of the subsequent generation.

In our history and in many families within our community, there is damage – unfortunately, not always so different from Abraham’s traumatic youth – to be repaired.

There are a lot of qualms that need resolution.

And I don’t think we necessarily know – individually or collectively – all that needs repair or resolution.

The poem, “My Parents’ Lodging Place,” goes on to speak of the ordinary inheritance Amichai received from his parents: “You’ll be sorry…you’ll really love it, you won’t be able, you won’t like that, you’ll never manage to close it…please don’t bear false witness against your neighbor. (Open Closed Open, p58)

This particular poem doesn’t reference the additional inheritance that combat veterans, Holocaust survivors, and others transmit to their children, despite – or perhaps because of – their best efforts. But this poem does suggest the power of all we receive from the generation before us. And I think one of the lessons of the Akedah is that we must make an effort to be conscious of the ordinary and the extraordinary “savings plans” we may have inherited, so that we are not passing them along – unexamined – to the next generation.

The machzor is designed, I think, to reflect the fact that we’re better – in general — at blaming others than at taking responsibility for our own errors. But I think maybe the Akedah – especially Zornberg’s reading of it — teaches that we could also use help sometimes acknowledging the other side of all those ashamnus….

“We’ve been sinned against, we’ve been betrayed, we’ve been robbed and we’ve been deceived. Others have acted basely toward us and caused evil for us… “

Some of the individual hurts can be addressed and relationships repaired. In some cases, though, that is difficult at best – because the damaging parties are too damaged themselves to see the hurt they’ve caused, or because they’re no longer around, or maybe due to another generation’s savings plan that we’re barely conscious of having inherited.

One lesson of the Akedah is that we need to “look behind.” And, just as we support each other through communal confession toward repairing injuries we’ve caused, I believe we need to support each other to repair injuries we’ve suffered.

…if they wish Me to seek out merit for them and remember to their credit Isaac’s Akedah, then let them blow the shofar….Turn around and look behind you!


* Note that some scholars insist the reish was meant to be a dalet, replacing “achar” with “echad.” Cf. Robert Alter. Translators seem about split on this matter. See Va-Yera: Language and Translation for additional notes.

The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. NY: Schocken/Random House, 2009. Essay referenced here is “Abraham Bound and UnBound.” Zornberg discusses this essay on YouTube.)

Open Closed Open. Yehuda Amichai. Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld, translators. NY: Harcourt, 2000. The Hebrew was published by Schocken, Tel Aviv, 1998. “My Parents’ Lodging Place” is on pages 55-59 in the English; “Milon Horai” is on pages 56-58 in the Hebrew edition. Here is another discussion of this poem and its namesake from Ibn Ezra.

This drash was given at Fabrangen Rosh Hashanah services, 5770 (September 20, 2009). For one of the drashes I decided not to give, see “Emissary and the Akedah.”

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages WeLuvBooks.org, blogs on general stuff a vspatz.net and more Jewish topics at songeveryday.org and Rereading4Liberation.com

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