As a Rabbi, I often find myself in conversations about this morning’s Torah portion. It is a particularly troubling story. Surely, there are other passages in the Bible that provoke modern sensibilities as much. That our people has gone out of its way to read this one every Rosh Hashanah might explain why it tugs so much at our conscience.
Abraham is asked by God, in a test of his faith, to slaughter his son Isaac as a burnt offering. Driven by his love for God, Abraham responds to the call with unwavering determination. Without hesitation, he gathers the supplies, sets out with Isaac and two servants on their three day journey, ascends the mountain, builds an altar, binds his son to it, and brandishes the knife.
The actions in the story are quick and precise. Abraham expresses no doubts about this demand from the same God who had promised that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the earth.
Of course, we know nothing about Abraham’s inner state of mind. There are no adjectives, and no descriptions of emotion throughout the story.
Modern readers are almost universally horrified, first of all by God’s seemingly cruel request, and secondly by Abraham’s willingness to carry it out without even raising an objection.
At the end of the story, Abraham is rewarded for his demonstration of absolute commitment to God, and is blessed once again with the promise of countless descendants.
He never does have to kill his son. At the last minute, God sends the angel to stay Abraham’s hand. It was only a test, it turned out, to see just how far Abraham would be willing to go to express his love for God. Apparently, he was ready to go all the way.
Traditionally, this story is understood to be a lesson in faith. But it also has something to say to us about relationships between parents and children.
Perhaps that is why so many of us react to it so personally. In idealizing Abraham’s love for God as something we should strive for, it alienates most of the people with whom I speak, who want nothing to do with that kind of faith. Why should Isaac have to suffer this traumatic, near-death experience so that his dad can realize his dream of giving up everything for God?
Our kids are too precious. How can we even think of sacrificing our children on the altar of our dreams?
In these conversations, nobody ever comes to Abraham’s defense. But I think I understand what Abraham might have been going through: his eagerness to project his own aspirations in life on to his child, as well as his inability to deviate from the course he has set once he has embarked.
This is a pattern that is repeated in every generation, up to the present day. The truth is, parents do bind their children to what is important to them all of the time, and children never fully escape from those bonds.
One of the most well-known mitzvot in the entire Torah appears in the Ten Commandments. Honor your father and your mother. It is said that we owe a unique obligation to our parents, because it is they, along with God, who bring us into the world. That is the reason that children spend an entire year reciting the mourner’s kaddish when a parent passes away. It is our special obligation to them.
But there is another way to look at it, and it is not so explicitly stipulated in the Torah. We did not ask to be born. We have been brought into this world against our will – by our parents. It is they, therefore, who owe us. Parents, according to our tradition, are responsible for providing kids with an education, teaching them a trade, teaching them how to swim and by extension, how to be safe. Jews are also responsible for transmitting Torah to the next generation, as well as imparting compassion and morality.
And so, parents play a critical role in the dreams of children, as they should.
But sometimes, the lines between a parent’s dreams for him or herself, and a child’s dreams become blurred. Our parents expect to fulfill their dreams through us, and those of us who are parents hope to fulfill our own dream through our kids. This can sometimes result in unrealistic, and even unhealthy burdens. Children become bound to the altar of their parents’ dreams.
We can all relate to this, because all of us are children. We all have parents, in some cases parents who were not present, but we all come from somewhere. Think of the ways in which our parents’ lives, their decisions, have bound us, and continue to bind us. Think of how we measure success and failure for ourselves.
Am I struggling to live up to an impossible standard that was set, either explicitly or implicitly by a parent? An expectation to succeed financially, or intellectually, or perhaps to be the perfect mother and wife, or father and husband?
Are the standards by which each of us measures ourselves truly ours, or have we inherited them from a previous generation?
And what are we doing to the next generation? And by this we include both those who have kids of their own, as well as those who are aunts or uncles, friends, and members of a community like ours, in which we pride ourselves on caring about one another’s children.
Consider the stereotypes that we see in movies, TV, books, and maybe even in real life:
An embarrassed and reluctant son who is forced to perform a dance routine in front of adult dinner guests.
A daughter who is pushed by an overbearing parent in elementary school or even earlier to go to an Ivy League university.
A child who is expected to take over the family business, despite having other aspirations.
But really, consider the many ways in which parents place the burden of success on their children for something in which they themselves failed.
I am not saying that parents should not set any expectations for their kids. God forbid. I fear a society in which parents release themselves from the obligation to impart a sense of right and wrong, good and evil, to the next generation.
Parents are obligated to provide a moral education for their children, as well as to encourage their children to set lofty goals which they then help them reach. But it is important for parents to consider their motivations. Are we pushing our children for their sakes, or for ours?
At first glance, it would seem that Isaac is bound to the altar for the sole purpose of his father’s religious zeal. Our tradition has been uncomfortable with Isaac’s apparent passivity. That discomfort has prompted much discussion through the millennia. A widely-accepted midrash suggests that Isaac was thirty seven years old at the time, a grown man. This means that he willingly accepted his role as the sacrifice, even encouraging his father to bind him so that he would not be able to escape if he changed his mind.
The story in the Torah begins by informing us that God put Abraham to the test. A midrash*1* suggests that it was an even greater test for Isaac, for several reasons. Abraham, until the very end, could have put down the knife. Indeed, he was stopped at the last minute. Isaac, on the other hand, in allowing himself to be bound, had no way to change his mind, thus his obedience was even more complete. Also, Abraham received his instructions directly from God. Isaac only heard it second-hand through the mouth of his extremely elderly 137 year old father, yet he did not for a moment doubt the truth of what was being demanded, or question his dad’s senility. It is surely a heroic act of bravery and trust.
Isaac is permanently affected by this experience. It seems that he never recovers. We have no record in the Torah of any later interactions between him and his father. Further, he appears as a passive figure, living a quiet life, and being duped and manipulated by his wife and children. A midrash suggests that the blindness Isaac suffers later in life is the result of angels’ tears falling into his eyes while he is bound on the altar.
Abraham, because of this story, is known as the great lover of God. Isaac, also from this story, is known as the great fearer of God. Whose is the greater legacy? Well, the story has come to be known as Akedat Yitzchak, the Binding of Isaac. The midrashim suggest that Isaac was somehow fulfilling his own dreams, expressing his own relationship to God in his way, just as his father did.
As we begin this new year, we consider our lives. God reads from the Book of Remembrance to review our deeds, while we measure ourselves against our own expectations of success. We owe it to ourselves, and our kids, to consider the legacy that our parents have imparted to us, and that we pass along.
We will close with a Jewish story about a mother bird and her young. As you listen, think about the obligations that children and parents owe one another.
Consider whether we are binding the next generation to our dreams for their sake, or for ours.
What are our dreams? What do we hope to pass down? And what dreams of our children can we step back and watch with pride as they develop them for themselves?
There once was a mother bird who knew it was time to migrate to warmer lands. In order to get to the place where she went every year, she would have to cross a great sea. She began to get ready for the long journey. Knowing that her three fledglings were too young yet to fly, especially over such a great distance, she decided to take the three little birds on her back. She loved her children, and she was willing to do anything in the world for them.
And so the little birds got on their mother’s back, and the mother bird began to fly. At first, the flight was easy enough. “Carrying my own young is never too burdensome,” thought the mother bird. But as time went by, the little birds began to feel heavier and, after the first day, then the second, and finally the third day, the mother bird was tired.
“My child, my birdling,” asked the mother bird of the little bird sitting in front, “Tell me the truth. When I get old and will have no strength to fly across such an ocean, will you take me on your back and fly me across?”
“No mama,” answered the fledgling.
‘What? You disregard the mitzva of respect for your parent?” said the mother bird. And in anger she threw the little bird into the sea.
Then she turned to the second of her young and said, “Tell me the truth, my child, my birdling. When I get old and will have no strength to fly such a great distance, will you take me on your back and fly me across?”
“No mama,” answered the second fledgling.
Again the mother bird became angry. “Indeed! You disregard the mitzva of respect for your parent.” And the mother bird threw the young one in to the sea.
With a hurt-filled heart, the mother bird turned to the third fledgling. Speaking in a guarded tone, she asked, “My child, my dear sweet fledgling, tell me the truth. When I get old and will have no strength to fly over such a big sea, will you take me on your back and fly me across?”
And the third fledgling answered, “My mother, I can’t promise to do that. I may not be able to fly you across a sea because I may be busy flying my own children on my back just as you are doing for me.”
When the mother bird heard this answer, she laughed with a joyful sound, and she and her fledgling continued on their flight.
*1*Iturei Torah, vol. 7, p. 37
*2* “An Offspring’s Answer” in Jewish Stories One Generation Tells Another, by Penina Schram, p. 454.