New “Ball of Fire”?

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary — published in 2008 by the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) — includes full English and Hebrew Torah texts interspersed with commentary; introductory essays; and an overview, poetic “voices” and “another view” for each weekly portion. It encompasses the commentary of 100 authors, from across the spectrum of Jewish practice and belief, and incorporates the work of 140 poets. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is attractive and useful, but it is unclear whether it does — or should — meet its creators’ expectations.

I find this publication situation a bit reminiscent of the 1941 Cooper/Stanwyck movie, “Ball of Fire”:  Professor Bertram Potts and fellow lexicographers are about to publish their long-researched dictionary when Potts realizes that language usage has changed — “cats” are spending “dough” — while they’ve been in their study. Much has changed between 1992, when the URJ commentary was conceived, and 2008, when it appeared — and those years are not clearly reflected in the new volume.

I was similarly struck when Alison Lavie spoke at the conference, “This is My PrayerVa’ani tefillati: Jewish Women in Prayer,” on March 1 (2009). Her comments centered around her personal discovery of women’s prayer traditions from various points in Jewish history. To some Israeli audiences, “Why didn’t I know about the women’s traditions of my ancestors?” might have been a reasonable refrain; to a U.S. audience — one self-selected for an interest in prayer, and women’s prayer at that — the question drew many puzzled looks and mutterings long the lines of, “Good question. Why didn’t you know about women’s traditions?”

Various compilations of Jewish women’s prayers have been available in English for nearly 20 years. And, while Lavie’s recent English publication, A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book, was a welcome addition, it was not “groundbreaking” for U.S. readers — and her remarks were not news to many in the conference audience.
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Flour and Torah: Mah Tovu

Places of Jacob and Israel– how good are both!
In last week’s Torah portion, the final portion of Genesis, Jacob/Israel adopts two of his grandsons, blesses his sons, gives them directions for his burial and dies. The Patriarch is called both “Jacob” and “Israel” throughout his life, even to his death, never becoming wholly “Israel.” “Israel” — the name given Jacob at Gen 32:29, because he had “wrestled with the Divine and with man and [had] overcome” — is usually understood as referencing his spiritual self.
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Worm-Hole Aliens, the Mikveh, and the Akeda

I’d like to tell you a story. For those of you who don’t happen to be Star Trek fans, don’t worry about the details–it’s mostly the punch-line we’re after:

Sometime in the 24th Century, Starfleet officer Benjamin Sisko encounters powerful, telepathic beings who exist in a worm-hole outside of linear time. The aliens repeatedly show Sisko a tragic image from his own past: his wife is killed during a battle, while his efforts are required elsewhere on the ship, so he can do nothing to save her. One of the worm-hole beings meets him in the middle of the battle scene, demanding: “You exist here! Why do you exist here?”

I see the Akeda as a moment similar to the image in Sisko’s memory, a moment in which each participant acts in a way that reflects something fundamental about who they are–with heartbreaking consequences. It’s the proverbial “moment of truth.” Abraham, Isaac and God exist in the moment of the Akeda, behaving as they must because of who they are. Sarah also exists there, reacting–when she learns the news–as she must. But most importantly, I think, we exist there. The Akeda is also our moment of truth.

Changing the Questions

To understand what I mean requires that you set aside the usual reactions to this story. I want to consider the Akeda as description, rather than prescription or proscription, and suspend all “should” questions. We can’t ask: Should God have demanded such a test? Should Abraham have complied without argument? Does this story prescribe unquestioning faith or proscribe human sacrifice?

I want to examine the Akeda for what it can tell us about the human condition and our relationship to God, to consider the Akeda as more of an existential tale than a moral one. So let’s not ask why Isaac doesn’t say, “Abba, we’ve got to talk,” or why Abraham doesn’t simply put down the knife. Instead, let’s ask: Why does the Akeda retain such power over us? Can it atone for us? Why do we all–Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, God, all of us here today–exist in this tragic moment?

The Akeda is a moment of transition, a turning point in Genesis, a point of terrifying uncertainty for everyone associated with it. Eden has long been empty of its promise, the ten post-Eden generations were a near failure, and now, in the tenth post-deluge generation, Sarah and Abraham are to parent a great nation. At this moment, however, it is uncertain whether their son Isaac will live out that promise or become its ashes.

The Torah only uses the expression “lekh lekha“–go-you-forth–twice: first, when Abraham is asked to give up his past and go forth to an unknown place. Here, he is asked to journey to an unknown place and give up his son, his future. Similarly, we must exist in the single moment of the present, without being able to change what has brought us to this place and without knowing for certain what will come of our actions. Getting into an airplane, strapping an infant into a car-seat or giving a teenager the car keys, visiting a Federal building after terrorism has been threatened, or, in some circumstances, simply being identifiable as a Jew or an Irish Catholic or a Kurd might lead to dire consequences.

Why do we exist in the Akeda? Because we can never be certain that our actions–even the most spiritually-based or the seemingly most sensible– aren’t somehow putting a knife to the throat of someone we love.

Why do we exist in the Akeda? Because we can never be certain that our actions–even the most spiritually-based or the seemingly most sensible– aren’t somehow putting a knife to the throat of someone we love.

Narratively, the Akeda is placed between the well at Beer-Sheba, a source of life in the desert, and the cave at Machpelah, a tomb. This story literally takes place between life and death. We exist in the Akeda because it’s where we are–between birth and death, with no control over the past and knowing the future hangs in the balance.

Each character in the Akeda knows this truth in a different way. Tradition has it that Sarah’s death–which is reported in the passage immediately following the one we read today–is precipitated by the news of the binding of Isaac. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg argues that it is not sorrow for the trial Isaac has been through or shock at what Abraham has nearly done that leads to her death. Nor is it grief in being told Isaac is dead or joy at hearing that he’s been saved, as various midrashim would have it.

Sarah and the Near Miss

Zornberg says that what happens to Sarah when she learns of the Akeda is similar to what happens to us in what might be called “near miss” experiences: You bend over to tie your shoe and watch a truck barrel through the red light at the crosswalk you were about to enter. You look up just as an infant you thought was sleeping reaches the top of a tall staircase. A relative misses a train that later derails. A friend of mine was walking in the woods when lightening struck just feet behind him. These near misses expose us, however briefly, to the fragility of our lives and raise questions about the limits of God’s providence.

Sarah’s perspective on the Akeda is framed by its near-miss quality. She has been the analytical one in the family, the planner, trying to ensure that God’s promise is being achieved, ever on the lookout for threats to Isaac. But after the Akeda, Sarah sees that her efforts to protect Isaac, her attempts to fulfill God’s promise–her life’s work, in fact–came a hair’s breadth away from being for nought. The 16th Century commentator Maharal says Sarah suffers from “the human reaction of panic, on realizing that only a small thing separated one from such a fate.”

According to Zornberg, “Sarah dies of this radical angst, of this radical sense of doubt about the meaning and the coherence of her life…. she didn’t manage to come through.”

Why do we exist in the Akeda? Because, like Sarah, we sometimes suffer doubt about the meaning of our lives. At least occasionally, those “near misses” illuminate the cracks and warn us that our lives may not be as coherent as they sometimes seem.

Abraham and the Moment

Abraham’s relationship with God is apparently much more solid than Sarah’s. It gives him a present solid enough to balance God’s promise of legacy with the possibilty of annihilation. Rashi and others note how often Abraham acts without knowing the outcome–where God means him to settle, where in the land of Moriah he is to bring his son, or if his son will make it back.

Abraham survives the Akeda by staying within and affirming the moment. He responds three times in the space of this terse story: “Hineini, Here I am.” Unlike Adam who answers God’s “Where are you?” with a song and dance about Eve giving him an apple, Abraham immediately responds simply “here I am.” When his son queries him about his intentions, even when he is caught with a knife to his son’s throat, he doesn’t offer explanations or excuses. He only responds, “here I am.” He doesn’t deny the contradiction between God’s promise to him and the demand to sacrifice Isaac but he doesn’t demand resolution, either.

Somehow Abraham is able to survive, at least for the space of the Akeda, within the contradictions. Why do we exist in the Akeda? Because, like Abraham, we at least occasionally realize that it is not in our power to resolve all the contradictions in our lives, and that now is all we have.

Akeda and Atonement

As for Isaac, his single utterance on the climb up the mountain seems to indicate that he well knew his father’s tendency to lose himself in his relationship with God. There is also a midrash noting Isaac’s concern that his mother not be told about Mt. Moriah while she is near the edge of a pit or on roof-top; this seems to indicate that he understood his mother’s perspective as well. Isaac survives where his mother could not, because he has inherited Abraham’s ability to leave contradictions unresolved through trust in God. On the other hand, Isaac has also inherited enough of Sarah’s analytical sight to keep him outside of Abraham’s here-I-am; he isn’t as completely in the moment as his father, because, like Sarah, he is ever aware of how small a thing is sealing his fate.

Why do we exist in the Akeda? Because, like Isaac, we’ve inherited some of Sarah’s awareness that it might all be over in a flash tempered with some of Abraham’s power to affirm the moment without resolving every contradiction it contains.

…we hope to emerge from the Days of Awe better able to cope with the contradictions in our lives.

This is how the Akeda atones for us. At one moment, it immerses us in a gathering of perspectives in much the same way that a mikvah immerses us in a gathering of waters. Aryeh Kaplan says that an individual entering the mikvah “is no longer bound by either past or future, but exists in an absolute present, which is the one instant of time over which man has control.”

As we enter the Akeda, we also ask God to remember the story with us, like friends who now and then mention a particularly harrowing shared experience because it helps define our relationship. And in God, past, present, and future are gathered together, removing the barrier between past actions and current regret, today’s hopes and our fears for tomorrow. With God in the Akeda, we enter a timeless moment of truth and return to the present–new.

Let’s return briefly to Starfleet’s Benjamin Sisko. He emerges from his worm-hole experience better able to live within the contradictions of his life. He can mourn his wife, while still affirming a career choice which contributed to her death. Similarly, we hope to emerge from the Days of Awe better able to cope with the contradictions in our lives.

Creative Commons License
Worm-Hole Aliens, the Mikveh, and the Akeda by Virginia A. Spatz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Appeared in Living Words: The Best High Holiday Sermons of 5760.

Originally delivered to Fabrangen Havurah, Rosh Hashanah 5759 (9/21/98).

(Deeply) in the Beginning

Every fall, I find myself somewhere different, “in the beginning.”

The Torah cycle carries Jews from Eden, one autumn, through to the edge of the Promised Land the next fall; then the scroll is re-rolled, and we start again. Forever rolling through that same five-book story complicates the concept of “beginning.”

And the idea of “new year” sort of rolls along for Jews:

  • One new year — once a sort of fiscal birthday for animals — begins with the eleventh month of the calendar, Elul. Elul has become a time of introspection to prepare for the much more widely heralded new year for years, Rosh Hashanah.
  • Rosh Hashanah, literally, “head of the year,” is part of a longer period of observance bringing folks from Elul, through the Day of Atonement, to Sukkot, known as “The Festival” in ancient times.
  • Sukkot, the booth-building, redemption-themed fall harvest holiday, AKA “time of our joy,” became, at some point in Jewish history, linked with renewing the Torah cycle. Where Jews once closed a harvest festival by praying for rain for the following year’s bounty, Simchat Torah (“Torah Joy”) closes and renews the reading cycle.
  • The fall holiday cycle ends with a reading of Moses’ death on the west bank of the Jordan and, immediately after, continues, “in the beginning of Elohim-God creating the heaven and the earth…”

So, last Saturday, we started the year’s reading cycle again: “…and there was evening and there was morning, a first day.”

By the end of that first reading, Eve and Adam have already been evicted from the Garden. The Eden episode, however lasting in imagination, lasts a total of 40 verses. Tomorrow, in the second reading of the year, God is already disheartened enough by the whole human experiment to consider destroying it all, finally leaving Noah and company to try again.

In our backyard the wooden skeleton of our sukkah — the fragile structure erected to help us celebrate the holiday of Sukkot — still stands. The walls are gone, packed away for next year, but no one has yet found the time or energy to completely dismantle last year’s structure.

And so it begins.
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