May We Be The Best Isaac We Can Be

Let's think of Abraham as a father for a moment and less as a "holy man"; the first Jew. Yes, we know that God has promised him that his descendents will be numbered as the sands by the shore of the sea and the stars in the sky. But, let's put that aside for the time being and think about this man and his son. Or, perhaps even, this man and this daughter, or this mother and this child.... A parent and a child.


The two of them have reached a transition point.


I speak about the Akeda rarely. I usually allow the story itself to express its drama. Seven years ago when we celebrated with Micha and the Ben-Aderet family as he became a bar mitzvah, I spoke about the potential tension between a father and a son as the son grows to adulthood and an independent life.


This morning I'll approach the story from a different angle.


Debbie and I recently visited the Eric Carle Museum of the Picture Book Art. There along with the Very Hungry Caterpillar were the works of a variety of artists, in particular, the work of Mordicai Gerstein who recently wrote a book "The Man Who Walked Between the Towers" about the young man Philippe Petit, who in 1974, shortly before they were finished, walked on a tightrope he strung between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The book tells a positive story related to the Towers. A story for children who, either have a frightening recollection of the buildings or know only that they were destroyed in an act of terror that has so strongly shaped our recent lives. In telling this story, Gerstein has helped us make a transition from a positive past into an unknown future.


I shot an arrow

There are many ways in which we move into our unknown futures.

I shot an arrow into the air,

It fell to earth, I know not where;

For, so swiftly it flew, the sight

Could not follow it in its flight.


I breathed a song into the air,

It fell to earth, I knew not where;

For who has sight so keen and strong,

That it can follow the flight of song?


Long, long afterward, in an oak

I found the arrow, still unbroke;

And the song, from beginning to end,

I found again in the heart of a friend.


The Longfellow poem tells us that we cannot know for certain what will be the results of our efforts. But, Philippe Petit aimed carefully, not simply into the air.


He shot an arrow

How would you get a tightrope from one of the Twin Towers to the other? The young man shot an arrow attached to the rope from one building to the other. He aimed carefully, pulled the drawstring with the correct amount of strength and loosed the arrow across the divide.


I imagine Abraham, as well as every parent as that tightrope walker. Each of us struggles to cross that same divide aiming with the utmost care and using just the right amount of strength to make sure our child arrives safely across the abyss enabling us to span from one generation to another and reach the future.


It isn't always like this. Some cultures don't shoot the arrow across the abyss to another building. Some shoot the arrow from one building... out... into the air. They know not where. They send their adolescents out into the wilderness in the hope that they have learned the skills of life their parents have struggled to teach them up to this point. If the (usually) young man returns, well, he's proven he's a man. If not, he has been sacrificed on the altar of that group's culture.


In our culture, we Jews teach our children how to learn from our ancient guidebook. Then we send them to examine it closely. We send them out to scout what they can see of the future and ask them to describe for us what they have found.


We're standing on the shoulders

A story is told of two friends, one blind and the other lame. They sat by the side of the road, one unable to see the other unable to move. They were unable to figure out where to go, or how to get there. Eventually, they realized that they could pool their strengths and overcome their weaknesses. The blind friend suggested that the other climb on his shoulders from where he could see and direct the good legs of her buddy.


We want you, "Isaac" our young to stand on our shoulders, to look beyond the horizon we can see and tell us what you perceive from the additional height. As in the words of the Doug Cotler song, we're all standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before us.


You may see things that are hard to explain using the words we already know. My father used to tell me how much he longed for the time when his children would grow up and he'd be able to have "adult" conversations with us. So the time came, we went off to college, learned fascinating things in new fields and when we were with him, he realized that he had to learn a whole new language in order to be able to communicate with us. We lead you so far, (bound on the altar?) and let go. Then, when you come back, often enough, we can't understand what you're trying to tell us. Abraham has to learn the language that his Isaac has invented. This is not an easy task for grown-ups to accomplish.


Our tradition speaks of "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob". Leaving Jacob out of this equation for a moment, the phrase has always been understood to suggest that Isaac encountered God in a different way from that of Abraham. Each generation must come to its own unique understanding.


learning the language of the next generation

Nonetheless, I think it is universal that all parents want their children to value what they value. The relationship of Abraham and Isaac was the first generational transfer of values in the Jewish people. Perhaps Abraham did not understand that, even though it was now "the God of Isaac", the core value was still there. This was only a new expression of the God that Abraham understood. Or, put another way: Was this only a new expression of the God that Abraham understood? Perhaps some of the origins of Abraham's strange desire to give up his son Isaac resulted from this kind of incomprehension and frustration.


It must be hard, if not painful, for a parent when his or her child starts speaking a language and describes a world he or she, the parent, cannot comprehend.


And, yet, we want our children to discover new things that we have not thought of... things that we will find of value.


We send our children off into a world that, with all its imperfections, we have helped create. And yet, though it is "our" world, neither do we fully understand it. Now, at the time of Bat (or Bar) Mitzvah, we open more doors, but do not send you out. In our world today, we live in strange times. We in America have lived here in relative peace for 30 years. Now, at this time of year many parents send their kids off to college where the most dangerous things they'll encounter are strange experiments in living. However, other parents now send their children off to the army and to a war where death can come from any direction.


Each child here is an Isaac in one form or another. Each of us bound and released, shot out to the future to be the connector from one generation to the next. May we be the best Isaac we can be.

©Mark Hurvitz