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Drash The Binding of Isaac

The Binding of Isaac

Drash, by Pierre Dugan, Rosh Hashanah, September 2001

Good Morning.

I had planned to start off my talk with a lengthy introduction, saying how honored I was to speak on Rosh Hashanah. Of course, I wanted to thank Madeline, and everyone else who has worked so hard to put these services together. But I also wanted to speak about how, for me, being a convert, this is a bigger honor than I could imagine, similar to one given a priest to speak on Christmas or Easter. But as always, I ran these ideas by my wife.

Deena, as some of you may know, is a master of brevity; and after several editing sessions, I was able to get my introduction down to just two words, which I will say to you now:

L'Shana Tova.

Receiving this honor actually took some significant conniving on my part. It started almost one year ago last October, when I asked Rabbi Seidel if I could speak about the story of Abraham. "Well, we don't have any openings right now, " he said, "but why don't you try Madeline, she may still need a speaker for next year's Rosh Hashanah service downstairs." I was reluctant to approach Madeline so far in advance, but I pressed on, and she was gracious enough to say yes. After the events of this past week; however, I am reminded of an old saying: "Be careful what you wish for; it might come true."

Deena mentioned something else to me in one of our editing sessions. She said, "On Rosh Hashanah you need to get people to focus on something big, something with an expansive, global reach." After last Tuesday, I don't think that will be a problem.

In her recent book on religious fundamentalism, Karen Armstrong observes that in the human mind, there are two separate, but very distinct, spheres of thought and perception. The first is the one that concerns itself with the physical world, the world of natural forces, science, rationality and logic. It is through our knowledge of this world that we have learned to address our material needs, to construct farms and cities, invent useful technologies and explore the universe. This point of view and approach is what Armstrong calls "Logos."

The second, and equally important, sphere of thought is what she calls "Mythos." Mythos addresses our interior lives, the emotional, subconscious and intuitive aspects of our nature that seek to understand the meaning of life. Mythos concerns itself not with physics or math, but with symbols and stories that provide us with an explanation of why we exist. It gives us a candle with which we can venture into the dark caves of ourselves and helps us to see how we fit into the scheme of things.

Armstrong proposes that religious fundamentalism can sometimes allow the worlds of Mythos and Logos to become dangerously intertwined. Fundamentalism, according to Armstrong, is a phenomenon of the Modern Age, beginning in the Renaissance and gaining strength up to the present time. Before this Modern Age, and particularly in the Axial Age (700-200 BCE), people clearly understood the difference between these two points of view.

In the ancient world, as agriculture replaced hunting, people began to live in cities instead of in nomadic tribes. Cultures evolved, along with their mythologies. As a greater sense of stability and order characterized societies, so was their view of an ordered and purposeful cosmos. Soon the deity itself was no longer considered as a group of diverse and often contradictory forces, but as one, unified Godhead.

As Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam were born, the stories they adopted and revised as their sacred scripture were written and clearly understood as Mythos. There was no attempt in these writings to recount factually accurate events, because they were seen as unimportant. The sacred scriptures were designed to communicate eternal truth, which, to the ancient mind, could only be found in Mythos.

In the Modern Age, however, fundamentalist Christians, as well as Jews and Muslims, began to understand their scriptures as literal representations of factual events, as opposed to figurative descriptions of a spiritual existence. In doing so, says Armstrong, they not only misunderstand the teachings of their religion, but sometimes justify actions that, to our civilized world, can only be seen as senseless and barbaric. There is no clearer example than the events of this past week.

It seems to me that the Akedah, the story of the binding of Isaac, may have something to tell us about the dangers of confusing logos for mythos. Before I converted to Judaism, I had always looked at the Akedah as the story of Abraham's unfaltering faith in God. It seemed to tell us that Abraham believed so completely in God, that he would even sacrifice his son, the very heart of God's promise to him.

As I began to go to synagogue, however, I was amazed to hear alternative interpretations of this troubling passage of our scripture. Both Rabbi's and lay persons would stand up and question what it was that drove Abraham to the brink of such an act. Some would say that it was not God at all who gave the command, but some other voice disguised as God. Others proposed that God did not actually tell Abraham to sacrifice his son, but just to bring him to a certain place, and that Abraham was simply not given all the information. Another view suggested that Abraham was attempting to conform to the society's common practice of child sacrifice, and that the purported command was no more than Abraham's own rationalization.

All of these ideas were intriguing, not just because they seemed reasonable, but because I had never encountered such a method of reading the scripture before. How could anyone second-guess the obvious meaning of the sacrifice of Isaac? How could there be a subtext that lived beneath the surface that completely contradicted what seemed to be the straightforward meaning?

Last week, as in countless weeks and years before in Israel and elsewhere, we witnessed an extreme sect of Muslims taking the language of their scriptures that was intended only as mythos, and interpreting it as logos. Instead of meditating on the Koran as a sacred allegory in order to enhance their interior lives, they have adopted it as an instruction manual on dealing with other people or cultures that disagree with them. If their sacred writings tell them that it is the highest honor to die for the sake of Allah, they have interpreted it to mean that acts of suicide in the destruction of their enemies will result in their instantaneous transport to paradise.

In examining the Akedah, could it be that Abraham himself was making the same mistake? Could it be true that when Abraham was told to offer up Isaac, that God had no intention for him to take the command literally? Is it possible, and indeed absolutely reasonable to conclude that in that exchange, God simply wanted Abraham to understand that even the most precious gift of his son must be secondary to his devotion to God? After the angel prevented Abraham from acting at that critical moment, Abraham names the place where he was, "the mount where the Lord is seen." At that moment, was Abraham confessing that his actions up to that point were carried out in the darkness of a nearly catastrophic misunderstanding?

The events of this past week have assaulted our very perception of the world. It is difficult to find meaning in the senseless slaughter of thousands at the altar of a god none of us would call our own. But there is yet another part of the story of Abraham that speaks to us today: the message of Lech Lecha.

When we first encounter Abraham and Sarah in the parsha, they are completely uprooted from the world they have known. They are old, barren and childless, hoping beyond hope to find a place to establish themselves and have a family. They seem to be in a constant state of longing for a life where they would have a homeland, children and grandchildren, and a legacy that would have meaning for themselves and the rest of the society. But in fact, they are in an empty, solitary and desperate state, and can only find solace by turning to God. They begin to move forward, listening to Him, because everything else they have listened to in the past no longer makes any sense.

Little by little, things start to change. The voice of God becomes more clear and palpable to them and hope begins to build. Moving further into the story we read, "And God appeared to Abraham in the plains of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day." Suddenly God is more than a voice. Here He is, three men standing next to Abraham. The creator of the universe, a Supreme Being who has no form, is suddenly sitting down, eating and drinking, and assuring him that Sarah will yet give birth to a son. "How can this be?" she laughs to herself. And the men answer: "Is anything beyond God?"

We have witnessed for ourselves this week that in the face of senselessness and destruction, there is also hope. What has happened to us? What has happened to the crusty, seemingly cold and indifferent New Yorker who is giving away sandwiches on the street, standing out in the rain to help, waiting for hours at emergency centers to give blood? What has happened to our greedy corporations and financial institutions, which are opening up hotlines and their wallets to assist in the crisis? What has happened to the political infighting and partisan positioning, and our government's inability to agree on policy? What has happened to all the concerns about international trade protests?

It seems to me today that we have been transported back to the tent of Abraham and Sarah, and we are sitting with them now in the heat of the day. Like them, we have been uprooted from our Old World and have begun a journey to an unknown place. Our symbols of power and prosperity have been reduced to rubble and ash. The concerns and worries that used to occupy our minds are becoming vanishing memories. But we have begun to hear another voice.

Suddenly there are men appearing, visiting us. Abraham recognizes them to be God and runs to prepare a savory meal. We see them now, New York fire fighters, running headlong into the face of terror to save innocent lives. We see Guilliani and Pataki, as well as thousands of volunteers, working deliberately and tirelessly to provide assistance how ever and where ever they can. We see our government, and many other governments throughout the world, pledging their full commitment to reestablish order, to find out the truth, and to protect their citizens, whatever the cost may be.

We are still inside the tent. The Holy One speaks: " I surely will return to you this time next year, and behold, Sarah, your wife, shall have a son." We look over and see that Sarah is laughing, the first time we have seen her laugh in a long time. But she is reassured, and so are we. We hear the question again: "Is anything beyond God?" and we answer, "No, there is not anything that is beyond God." We know inside ourselves that what God has promised will come to pass, no matter what, and that next year, we will all laugh again.

L'Shana Tova.