I can’t believe this day has finally arrived. There were definitely a few moments when it was not at all certain that I would be standing here before you.
I know what you all must be wondering. What happened up there – on the mountain? It is difficult for me to talk about. Some of it I still do not understand. I keep replaying the events of those three days over and over in my mind, and different images keep flooding into my head – many of them contradictory. Looking back, I don’t quite know what was real and what might be a figment of my imagination.
Father has never talked about “the incident” since. He barely even spoke while it was going on. It all started when Father came to me, and said, his voice filled with gentleness: “My son, my favorite son whom I love, Isaac, you must come with me tomorrow. We are going to worship the Lord.”
Father had been telling me about the Lord for as long as I can remember. That this God, the only God, sent him on a journey from his native home to the land of Canaan, where we live now. Father left everything behind, and set out with Mother to come here. God had communicated with Father several times, promising that Father would be the founder of a great nation.
I was to be the one through whom this blessing, this b’rit, or covenant, as he called it, would pass. Although Father told me about the Lord often, I never heard the voice. I was never visited by angels. Father always seemed so certain, so unwavering. He knew in his heart that these promises would be fulfilled. And so I have always trusted him, even though I felt that this was too great a burden for me to bear.
When he told me to get ready for our journey, I went along.
On the morning of the third day, Father looked up and saw a mountain. He asked the two servants who were with us if they could see anything out of the ordinary, but they could not. I could see it, however. Moriah. The mountain was enveloped in clouds, with a pillar of fire flashing within.*1* He sent away the two lads with the donkey, and gave me the wood for the burnt offering to carry. Father took the flint and the knife.
Something was missing. “Father,” I asked, “Here are the flint and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering.”*2*
“God will provide, my son,” he replied. There was something in his eyes at that moment. A distant look, as if he was concentrating on a voice that was meant only for him. Then he looked at me lovingly, and without a word placed his hand on my shoulder and we walked up the mountain together.
When we reached the top, Father began collecting large stones to build an altar. It was at that moment that it became clear to me what I had known all along. There would be no sheep. I was the sheep.
But I didn’t know if I could do it.
“Father,” I said, as he put the last stone in place, “I am just a boy. I don’t know that I will be able to stay still for the sacrifice. I am worried that if I get scared, I will tremble out of fear of the knife, and you will feel sorrow, and perhaps then your sacrifice to God will become invalid. Please, Father, bind me extra tightly.”*3*
And so he did. He stacked the wood on top of the stones, and placed me, bound, on top. Then Father grasped the knife.
At the moment that he raised it high, I looked up, and beheld something wondrous. The heavens opened. I saw the Shekhinah, God’s very Presence, seated in the heavenly throne room, which was filled with angels. For the first time, I understood a little about the One who commanded Father to offer me up as a burnt offering. My soul flew out of my body.
An ethereal voice cried out, “Abraham, Abraham! Do not raise your hand against the boy.” The Holy One revived me. I came to, and all I could think to do was praise the Lord: “Blessed are you Adonai, who gives life to the dead.”*4*
I then realized that my eyesight had gone blurry. While my soul was leaving my body, Father’s eyes were dripping with tears. Apparently, he could no longer keep his emotions bottled up, even as his heart was filled with joy at fulfilling God’s command. Father’s tears poured into my eyes. I have had difficulty seeing ever since.*5*
I was in a daze. Suddenly, there was movement off to the side. It was a ram, its horns caught in a thicket. I recognized this ram, although I don’t think Father did. It was from our flock. We had named it, ironically, Isaac.
Father had come to worship the Lord, a task which he had to complete. Without betraying any emotion, he freed the other Isaac from the bush, and brought it to the altar, where he offered it up to God.
Since that day, Father and I have hardly spoken. I was sent off to the Garden of Eden to recover. Then, Father enrolled me at the Shem and Ever Day School to learn God’s Torah and the mitzvot.
But a mystery still haunts me. I was the one through whom the Covenant would be fulfilled. And yet, I was the one whom Father was asked to sacrifice. Father says that this was a test. I don’t know what exactly it was a test of. A test to see if his faith in God was greater than his love for me? A double test, to see if he would carry out the command to the very end, confident that he would be stopped at the last minute so that God’s promise of children as numerous as the starts could be fulfilled? Whatever it was, it seems that Father passed it.
Afterwards, an angel blessed him, because he did not hold back. Therefore, Father, myself, and all of our descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the shore. The nations of the world will be blessed through us, because Father obeyed the Lord’s command.
And now here I am, becoming a man.
There are a few people without whom I could not have made it to this day.
First of all, I would like to thank all of my teachers at the Shem and Ever Day School.*6* You taught me Torah and mitzvot with so much love and passion. I will strive to pass on that same love of Torah to my own children.
I also want to thank the angels at the Garden of Eden Convalescent Home.*7* You nursed me back to health when I needed you. You healed my neck, which was nicked by the knife. You did such a great job that I only have a tiny scar the size of a bead.*8* I literally would not be here without you.
Ishmael, my brother, you had to leave when I was really young, and I still do not quite understand why. Mom said you were a bad influence on me, but I really missed having a big brother around. We do not see eye to eye on most things, but I think we have more in common than most people assume. I hope we can find an opportunity to spend some time together so that we can really get to know each other. Maybe then, each of us might be able to hear and accept the other “where he is.”*9* We have spent way too many years apart.
Mom, I know that you are here with me in spirit. I was the son you always wanted. You had given up on ever having children, but then, miraculously, you got pregnant and had me. Sometimes I wonder if, having been born so late, you and dad might have put too many hopes in me. I know you protected me fiercely from what you saw as bad influences, and I do not blame you for that. You loved me more than anything in the world, and you put my future ahead of everything. You and dad each loved me intensely, but quite differently, and that could be confusing sometimes. Mom, I heard you died right after “the incident.” I overheard the angels at the Garden of Eden Convalescent Home whispering something about how the Adversary told you what Dad and I had been up to, and the shock was too great. I was so sad to not be able to mourn for you at your funeral. Whenever I look at your empty tent, I am painfully aware of the hole in my heart. I long for the day when my memory of you will not be so difficult.*10*
Last, Father. I don’t blame you for what you did. I know you love me as much as it is possible for a father to love a son. It’s just that your faith in God was stronger. My faith, I think, is not the same.
When I have kids one day, God willing, I plan to do things differently. I prefer a quieter life. I don’t want to travel far and wide. I don’t want to seize the gates of my foes. I want to be close with my kids.
I worry about how my descendants will understand what has happened to me. There will come a time when they will suffer persecution, when they will be oppressed and murdered for being heirs to this covenant. What, then, will they do – when their love for God is so great, matched only be their love for their children? What will they do when the bloodthirsty mobs come, demanding that they break the covenant, and turn over their sons and daughters, whom they love?
I know what they will do. They will look to me and Father as examples. And they will offer up their children to God. But there will be no angel to stay their hands. There will be no miracle to turn aside the hordes at the gates. They will accomplish that which Father only showed a willingness to complete. “Yours was a trial,” they will say “mine were the performances.”*11* They will compose elegies to glorify their martyrdom, such as this:
On the merit of the Akedah at Moriah once we could lean,
Safeguarded for the salvation of age after age-
Now one Akedah follows another, they cannot be counted.*12*
Is this what it means to be chosen? Chosen for what? For suffering. For love. For death.
No. Not for death. I refuse to believe that. For life. Maybe the test was a lesson. After all, God stopped Father at the last minute. “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him!”*13* cried out the angel. God does not want parents to offer up their children as burnt offerings. God wants parents to raise up their children with love, and learning.
Thanks to all of you for being here with me as I celebrate becoming Bar Mitzvah. If there is one lesson I take from what happened to me, it is to treat every day as a gift. Every day we are alive is a day that God has sent angels to protect us. We must strive to make the most of the blessings we have been granted.
That is the legacy I will leave to my descendants.
*1*Genesis Rabbah 56:1,2
*3*Genesis Rabbah 56:8
*4*Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 31 quoted in Shalom Spiegal’s The Last Trial, pp. 30-32
*5*Genesis Rabbah 56:8
*6*Genesis Rabbah 56:11 (4)
*7*Abravanel on Genesis 22:19 (5-6)
*8*R. Joshua ibn Shuaib, Sefer Derashot (Cracow, 1573), Hayye Sarah, 96.
*11*Shalom Spiegal’s The Last Trial, p. 16
*12*Selihah by Rabbi David bar Meshullam: “O God, do not hush up the shedding of my blood!” quoted in Shalom Spiegal’s The Last Trial, p. 21
This is a beautiful reading that makes me think about the steps I will soon take, about my commitment, our covenant. You wrote it in such a way that this Isaac of today belongs to any time and has no age, he celebrates his Bar Mitzvah on Rosh Hashanah of any year. I like it very much
Thanks Romeo for your thoughtful comments. Indeed, it is a timeless story that challenges us in every generation.