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Posts Tagged ‘Akeida’

The Day After

This story is based on 4 quotes from Genesis and 2 midrashic references

“And Abraham returned to his young servants. They arose and went together to Be’er Sheva; and Abraham stayed in Be’er Sheva.” Genesis 22:19

It was the day after the worst day in Abraham’s life. He was thinking hard about a life’s journey that was closing in on 100 years. Leaving his family’s home in Haran – was hard. Trusting that he had properly understood God’s directive to him to travel to Canaan, thus leaving his mother and brothers – was hard; especially since Sarah questioned his motives. Dealing with Sarah’s grief over their infertility was hard. Dealing with Sarah’s jealousy of Hagar after Ishmael was born was hard. Having to expel Hagar and Ishmael from their family’s camp was unbearably hard, but God confirmed Sarah’s wish to Abraham, so he did not question it.

Now, here he was, on the day after the worst day in his life. Believing he had once again understood God’s demand, he had taken his son Isaac, to the top of Moriah. Fortunately he left his two young servants at the bottom of the mountain, as he was ashamed to have them witness what he thought God had commanded him to do – to slaughter Isaac as a sacrifice to God. But he did not slaughter Isaac. God sent a messenger at the last minute, literally as Abraham held the knife above Isaac’s neck as he laid shivering with fear on the altar, to stop him, to tell him God knew of Abraham’s loyalty and did not want him to sacrifice his son. A ram appeared and Abraham sacrificed it instead. He felt incredibly relieved. He figured since the incident was over, and Isaac was safe, all of them could go home and continue a normal life.

But that was not to be.

As they were leaving Moriah to meet up with their young servants, Isaac made it clear he could no longer bear to be with his father. “How could you possibly think that the God who cares about human life, would command you to sacrifice me?” Isaac demanded. “You taught me devotion to our God was better than how our neighbors worshipped their various idols, some of whom you told me demand child sacrifice. How can you now say God is any better than Ba’al or Ashteroth?”

“Son, you don’t understand.” Abraham replied. “There are many times we just have to trust our faith in God and not question Him. God was testing me. I don’t know why or for what purpose, but I had to follow God’s command.”

“Nonsense,” said his son. “That’s not how you reacted to God when He told you He was about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorah because of their sins. You stood up for those cities filled with awful people. Why would you not stand up for me? Am I too awful to live?”

“No,” his father replied. “You are anything but awful. God was making a demand of me, not just telling me what He was going to do. There is a difference.”

“If that is how you think, I can’t go home with you.” Isaac said in disgust.

“But what will I tell your mom if you don’t return with me?” Abraham asked his distraught son.

“Tell her I went to a school to get some training in some useful skill. I can’t believe anything you teach me. I need to be away from you. You might think all is OK just because you didn’t kill me, but I have to separate from you to try and understand your insanity.”

“Then I will tell your mom you went to study God’s word with Shem and Ever,” (1) Abraham replied.

“They’re dead Dad. Gosh, I cannot stand your inability to see and confront the truth. Damn, I hope I don’t inherit your blindness to reality!”

So Isaac did not descend Moriah with his father. When Abraham met up with his servants at the bottom of the mountain, they asked where Isaac was. He mumbled something about going off to some school. They did not question him, but they could tell their master was disturbed. In his heart Abraham knew he should go directly home, but he just could not find the nerve to face Sarah. She was way too smart to accept any lie or story about what happened on Moriah. She would be angry that Isaac was not with him. She would be suspicious of any story Abraham told her. Even worse, Abraham knew that on most issues, God affirmed Sarah’s perspective. He did not have the strength to face her recriminations. He realized what a tremendous wrong he had committed to Isaac. Somehow he had misunderstood what God really wanted.   And he had wronged Sarah, by not even telling her that he and Isaac were leaving their camp near Hebron, let alone telling her what he had thought God was demanding. He knew the right thing to do was to return home, to Hebron, to pour his heart out in honesty to Sarah. However, he did not have the nerve. So he went to Be’er Sheva.

Abraham and his young servants found an inn in Be’er Sheva. The 2 young men with him, who worked mostly as shepards, loved the opportunities there. It was a town filled with entertainment, places to drink and eat, and best of all, gorgeous women, who made themselves readily available. So they enjoyed city life. Abraham, however, barely left his room at the inn except to eat. He sat brooding, trying to figure out how to handle things when he eventually headed home. How could he get Isaac to return. How to make peace with Sarah. Unsurprisingly, each day that Abraham avoided going home to Hebron increased his anxiety. In his heart he knew he was failing by not returning to Sarah, by not talking to her honestly about his mistakes, about his now broken relationship with their son. He confronted the truth that it would be Sarah, not himself, who would be able to sit and speak sense to Isaac. But Abraham was a broken man. For the first time he actually felt the weight of his years, the weight of all he had forced Sarah to experience because of his relationship with this invisible God. Yet, if he would be completely honest with himself, God was telling him to go home, to repair his relationship with Sarah. He just could not.

However, Abraham also realized he could not let Sarah sit and wait without hearing from him. So he sent his two young servants. “Go home to Hebron,” he told them. “Tell Sarah I am in Be’er Sheva conducting business, getting some things we need for our herds and household. Assure her all is OK and do not mention that Isaac is not with me.” The two lads then left for Hebron, sad to be leaving the night life of Be’er Sheva, but knowing they had to carry out their master’s demands.

Now Abraham was truly alone. He felt agitated. He could not sleep. His mind was tortured by his torn relationship with Isaac. He kept trying to figure out what he would say to Sarah.

It was late at night. Abraham could no longer stand the mental torture of being alone in his room, so he began wandering in the streets of Be’er Sheva. This was before the Israelite presence of later years dominated the town, so there were a number of cultic temples throughout the city. Some employed prostitutes. Abraham walked in the night without any awareness of where he was going. He did not know he had strayed into an area of prostitution. A very young woman approached him. “You look lost and lonely sir.” She said. “I can help you feel better. Come with me. You look like you are suffering. Let me ease your pain.” It took a minute or so until Abraham realized she was speaking to him. When he finally looked at her, he saw her as an alluring, beautiful woman, who was beckoning him, inviting him. In his state of mental confusion, Abraham followed her, wordlessly, into the side room of a small cultic temple. There he lay with her and fell asleep.

He awoke hours later, his head in her arms. He sat up sharply. “What have I done!?” he thought disturbingly. He turned and saw the beautiful young woman and the worst of his fears overcame him. “What have I done!?” he now said aloud. “You have spent the night with me, my lord,” she replied. The disaster of his time in Be’er Sheva now came sharply into focus. He had betrayed Sarah in the worst possible way. Yes, technically Abraham could be with any woman he desired, and marry as many as he wished, but in his heart he knew his treatment of Sarah had fallen to the lowest of the low. He then had a second revelation. If he was truly taking the teachings of his God seriously, then he had also done this young woman wrong.

“What is your name?” he asked her. “Keturah,” she replied. “Keturah, a beautiful name. Keturah, please forgive me but I have committed a terrible sin with you. I must and will make this right with you.” “Whatever you pay me will be enough,” Keturah replied. “No,” said Abraham. “That is not how my God says I am to treat a woman that I have been with. I am sorry, I must return to my home near Hebron to be with my family, but I promise this – I will return soon and take you to be my wife. You will live a life of comfort, and I will take care of you.” “As you wish my lord,” answered Keturah. She smiled to herself, knowing that if they did indeed marry, it would be a far better life than she could have ever before imagined. And if they did not, her life would be as it was, a zonah in the service of he idol she worshipped.

So finally Abraham headed home to his camp near Hebron. It did not even take him a day. As he rode home on his donkey he worked through in his mind how he would sit and speak honestly to Sarah, how he would tell her the truth about Isaac, what he thought God told him to do, and to deeply apologize for not telling Sarah and for suddenly disappearing from her with Isaac several days earlier. He looked back on his life and realized the burdens he had placed on Sarah each step of the way. He decided to begin by acknowledging to his wife that his decisions had not made her life easy. He realized how deeply he loved Sarah, how much her wisdom, her presence, completed his life. He knew he had to do repentance, to ask her forgiveness. Yes, he was old, but he felt he still had time to try to make things right with Sarah. Abraham was afraid, but now he was also determined.

Earlier, I shared with you Genesis 22:19, the last verse of the account of Abraham and Isaac on Moriah. Here now is Genesis 23:2, six verses later at the beginning of the next weekly Torah portion. “And Sarah died in Hebron, in the land of Canaan. And Abraham came to grieve for Sarah, and to weep for her.”

When Abraham arrived at his camp, he knew immediately something was wrong. Eliezer, his most trusted and chief servant, greeted him with despair engraved on his face. “Eliezer, my friend, what is wrong?’ Abraham asked. “Master, Sarah is dead. The two lads who arrived yesterday are on their way back to Be’er Sheva to tell you. They did not tell us when you were coming home.”

Abraham ran into his wife’s tent. There she lay, motionless, with an expression of deep shock on her face. Abraham embraced her and cried. Eliezer waited patiently at the entrance to the tent. Finally Abraham looked up at him and asked, “When did this happen? How did this happen? She was not ill or feeling sick when I left here.” “Master,” replied Eliezer. “They day you left, Sarah woke up and was distressed to find you and Isaac gone. She told me to send some of our folks out to seek out where you had gone. About 3 days later, a man came here named Sama-el. He told Sarah that you had taken Isaac to Mt. Moriah to kill him, to sacrifice him to your God. Upon hearing his words, she screamed, clutched her heart and collapsed. (2) Master, why is Isaac not with you? Is he truly dead?”

His servant would never vocalize his inner thoughts, but Abraham knew from the expression on Eliezer’s face the disdain he was feeling because of the thought Isaac was dead. “No, Eliezer. Isaac is alive. He decided to attend a school to enrich some of his skills. We will send someone to bring him home to mourn for his mother. Meanwhile I will buy an appropriate place for her burial.”

Abraham was trying to be stoic, to present strength in the face of tragedy. But inside, he churned, he grieved, he tried to reconcile the loss of Sarah before having a chance to talk to her, to repent for the wrongs he had slammed upon her. He had no idea how to handle his guilt. What could he possibly do? How could he possibly repent? Sarah was gone and he had to live with that responsibility.

Abraham had no idea how to manage his guilt. Sarah was gone. There was no way to ever redeem himself with her. In his mind, life was now a failure. He could only think of two things left he could possibly do. First, he knew that Isaac would not only bear resentment towards him, but would deeply grieve over the loss of his mother. So Abraham had to find a wife for Isaac; someone who was as strong and smart as Sarah; someone who could be Isaac’s rock throughout his life, who would be a source of wisdom. So he sent Eliezer back to Nahor, where, he heard, there were some exceptional women, one of whom might be a great partner for Isaac. Isaac might never forgive Abraham for Moriah, but Abraham knew he had to do something to secure Isaac’s future.

The second thing Abraham knew he had to do was to marry Keturah. He truly had no real interest in having a young partner. She could never be what Sarah was. But she was alive and he could do what was right for her. Abraham could not let her live a life as a prostitute. He had been with her. God’s law demanded he marry her. As we learn in Genesis 25:1 “And Abraham went on and took a wife and her name was Keturah.”

I am sure that no one in this room has ever tried to sacrifice a child, at least physically, but perhaps emotionally. I am also sure that every adult in this room has faced a crisis, has had a moment when your actions have created deep pain for your loved ones. I am sure that everyone here has struggled with how to do repentance, has faced fear over having to do teshuvah. How do we handle that moment? I am sure that all of us have had that horrific “day after” our misdeed, in which we churn and grieve over our action. What did we do? Did we hide and delay? That is human nature. Were we honest with ourselves? We know that a delay in confronting the realities of our lives, as hard as that confrontation might be, will only increase and prolong the pain. Yes, we know that. Yet too often we fail to act on that – which is why we need this time of the Yamim Nora’im – the time of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

For this time of year forces us to confront the reality of who we are, of what to do. If we are serious about trying to correct our paths, to heal the wounds we have caused; we should not only engage in confession and repentance, but we try to find actions that can create a new, more positive direction. We cannot reverse the past. We cannot erase the tragedy we might have caused. All we can do is commit to what is necessary to create a new path. One that builds a better alternative to the path we have tarnished. This is Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of a new year. It is called Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment. We must judge ourselves. Honestly. We do not have to stay mired in the mud of the past.

Abraham could not correct all that happened on Moriah. But he tried to create a new path. The Torah states the following upon Abraham’s death, and I believe it is connected to the path of repentance Abraham chose, “and God blessed, Isaac, his son.” – Genesis 25:11.

May we commit to honest self assessment. May we commit to repentance that begins a new, more righteous path. May this bring God’s blessing upon you and yours as well.

  1.  Genesis Rabbah 56:11
  2. Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer chapter 32
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Mark Twain disdained moralizers. He criticized preachers who exhorted people on proper morals; exhibiting what Twain considered to be obnoxious behavior.   He dismissed the threats of eternal reward or punishment by asserting most of the people he would prefer to spend eternity with were not in heaven, concluding, “Heaven for climate, hell for society.” Yes, Twain was a cynic, especially when it came to faith in human behavior. “Always do what is right,” he once wrote. “It will gratify half of mankind and astound the other.” Twain wrote and spoke a lot about morality. He grappled with understanding it, where it came from, how humans so often failed at it. He reveled in picking apart humanity’s moral contradictions. I love this analysis of our moral sense. “There is a moral sense and an immoral sense. History shows that the moral sense enables us to see morality and how to avoid it, and the immoral sense enables us to perceive immorality and how to enjoy it.”

I will admit to often sharing Twain’s cynicism about human nature. Much more than that, however, I share his curiosity as to how we make moral judgments. What is it that drives our moral thinking, our moral choices? On what is morality based? How much of it is instinct and how much is driven by rational thought? Why do we often disagree so profoundly on what constitutes moral actions? Religious people typically see the basis of morality in Biblical teachings. We regard the Torah (or the Bible) as a book if not given by God, then at least divinely inspired. Ergo the moral imperatives outlined in it are seen as basic, as foundational. To follow that morality is a rational choice each of us makes. Indeed, the traditional mitzvah system in Judaism, our ability to choose or not to choose to do mitzvoth is based on faith in our rational selves – the ability to think and reason.

Biblical morality is also a source of great conflict. Fundamental readers of the text see it as immutable, unchangeable. More liberal readers of Bible see it as a guideline that shifts and changes with each new human era. The current discussions over the Supreme Court’s decision in June, supporting the right of same sex couples to marry, typify this debate. Religious opponents of the decision say the Bible mandates that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. They point to numerous Biblical passages for support. They use these passages to indicate the sanctity of the male/female relationship for procreation. They find passages that show same sex relationships as unholy. Supporters of the decision read the Bible differently. They accuse their opponents of being fundamentalists who try to live in an all or nothing Biblical world. Why, they ask, do opponents of same sex marriage insist on following the sexual rules in Leviticus 18 and 20 but shun the food restrictions in Leviticus 11. They say the Torah teaches fair treatment of all humans. Christian supporters of same sex marriage talk about Jesus’s love for all people. They say that if God created the world, then homosexuality is part of the world and we must accept it.

Opponents to same sex marriage base their moral stand on the values of purity/sanctity and respect for divine authority. Proponents base their stand on the values of fairness and caring. Each camp can make a strong case for their position through Biblical citations. Charges are thrown back and forth. Those we call liberal accuse opponents of same sex marriage as being “intolerant.” Those we call conservative accuse supporters of same sex marriage as being moral relativists. This is a useless argument. Each side is actually speaking a different moral language. Each side is holding up a different value as the key moral foundation for making ethical decisions. I will also point out that contrary to the typical modern Jewish perspective that logic and intellect drive our moral decisions, these stances are gut and instinctive. Neither side is prepared to accept the logic underlying their opponent’s view. Now I would wager there are already some of you who are experiencing the stirrings of an instinctive angry reaction to my words, because you perceive I am giving credence to the side of the same sex marriage issue with which you disagree.

So, it is time to conduct a little survey. I will describe a value and ask if you consider it a primary value for making moral decisions or a secondary value, or not relevant at all to moral decision making.

  • Care/Harm – this is the desire to help those who are weaker or less fortunate. It might be care for children or giving aid to a starving family.
  • Loyalty/Betrayal – this is allegiance to the group. In this value there is no tolerance for traitors to the group.
  • Liberty/Oppression – This is the desire to ensure freedom for both yourself and for others. The oppressor might be an individual, like the schoolyard bully, or a government.
  • Authority/Subversion – this is recognition of and respect for the authority of leadership and the institutions that maintain the moral exoskeleton. This includes a respect for hierarchy.
  • Fairness/Cheating – outcomes need to be fair. Games should not be rigged and honest effort should yield honest results.
  • Sanctity/Degradation – this is the need to sanctify some things as “untouchable” or inviolable; or to stay away from others as impure or polluted. This creates a sense of some things as sacred.

If care, liberty and fairness are your top 3, then you are likely a political liberal. If you see authority and sanctity as a basic value in making moral decisions, or you see all 6 as roughly equal, you are likely a political conservative.

How do I know this? Jonathan Haidt is a moral psychologist at NYU who has been doing research on the basis of morality and our moral decision making for over 25 years. His book, “The Righteous Mind” teaches two very important points. First, that moral decisions are driven primarily by our hearts, by instinct – not by our intellect. Our rational selves can sometimes modify decisions but only after something influences our hearts to be open to another possibility. He describes the heart/mind relationship as a rider on an elephant. The rider is our intellect and the elephant our intuition. One would think the rider is in control, but actually the rider serves the elephant by rationalizing the elephant’s intuitively driven moral direction. That is why those on either side of the same sex argument do not listen to the logical arguments of the other side. Their elephant is in charge and the rider just uses its logic to justify its pre-determined moral stance. We know what we want to believe so the rider re-arranges the information to arrive at the conclusions we prefer.

Second, all of the qualities I described to you have been identified by Haidt as moral foundations that serve as the basis for our moral conclusions. A combination of our genetic heritage and experiences from childhood to early adulthood determines to which of the moral foundations we connect. This is our instinct, our heart. This drives, for example, how we interpret Biblical text, ergo how we react to various moral issues when referencing the Bible. The most influential way to get our “elephants” to make a slight shift in their moral direction is through personal relationships. When we meet someone we like who thinks differently than us, our intellect is able to get our heart to consider something new. Most of us have already experienced this. We are seldom swayed by someone else’s logic. But if we get to know them, we are open to considering their perspective. Our desire to connect with others is an instinct that helps us to change.

Most of you know that I participate in a monthly program called “Faith, Food, and Friday” along with 4 other local clergy. My stance on same sex marriage is rather different that 3 of the other 4 panelists. However, because of the personal friendship – the love and respect I have for each of my colleagues – I accept that they cannot believe what I believe. The moral foundations guiding their positions are different than mine. I will defend their right to set policies for their churches. I also very much believe that they respect my position as well.

Most of the time, however, we cling to our predisposed moral foundations. Often we see these in opposition to other’s moral foundations. This is the basis for a lot of political disagreement. For example, liberals often express caring for downtrodden people outside of America. Sometimes conservatives see this in light of the moral foundation of loyalty. Conflict ensues with each side claiming a moral high ground. In truth, there is no high ground. Rather, it is a difference in the perceived importance of a moral foundation. Liberals do not place the same importance on loyalty as conservatives – if they see any importance in it at all.

While all of this is interesting, I think the most interesting aspect is how this knowledge about moral foundations affects the way we interpret Torah. Jewish tradition, certainly the rabbinic tradition of the past 2,000 years, is not satisfied with the plain sense meaning of the text. Our tradition delves for lessons beyond the simple words. It is appropriate to ask about any passage in the Torah – what is this really teaching us? Why is this part of the text? I would suggest that the Torah’s commentary on morality goes far beyond the obvious meaning of the various moral directives. Rather the Torah challenges us, as it has challenged every generation of Jews for over 2,500 years, to look deeper at any passage to see what it teaches us about ourselves and how we should live. There is no better example of this than the Torah portion we read on Rosh Hashanah – that we read this morning – the story of the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac.

The story horrifies us. We cannot understand how a supposedly just God can order His most loyal follower to sacrifice his son – the only means through which this follower’s heritage will continue. Biblical scholars wonder why the story is part of the Torah. Is it an etiological tale about the rejection of child sacrifice? Moreover, we are so disappointed in Abraham. We cannot accept his passiveness in following God’s command, especially in light of Abraham’s objections to the destruction of Sodom and Gemorah. We want to know what Abraham feels about the suffering he is about to inflict on his son. We want – well – answers.

I have written about the Akeida, the binding of Isaac, before. Two years ago I proposed this passage was a challenge, asking how each of us would react in a situation of an impossible choice. I said this was an example of how the Torah presents us with an opportunity for meaningful conversations about our life choices by presenting an extreme. Now, I will add another dimension to what I taught 2 years ago. In the Akeida I see an example of conflict between the moral foundations upon which we make moral decisions. This conflict is meant to challenge our elephant, if you will, to point out our moral comfort zones and moral discomfort zones. We are NOT meant to resolve the conflict. Rather, we are meant to become aware of how the moral foundations can interact and conflict. We are meant to use our confrontation with the text to push ourselves to be better humans, better Jews – to clarify who we are and who we wish to be.

If we study some of the detail of the story, and rabbinic commentary on it, we can perceive some of the moral foundations in conflict and how traditional Jewish thought deals with them. The most obvious is the conflict between the values of authority and caring. Abraham respects God’s authority and quickly agrees to take Isaac to Moriah for the sacrifice. In fact, he answers hineini, “I am here,” which is a Biblical Hebrew marker for full piety and presence with God. We immediately ask, why is Abraham not objecting to the harm God demands he is to do to his son? Rabbinic commentary in the form of midrash tells us that Abraham does object. Genesis 22:2 reads, “Please take your son, your only one, whom you love – Isaac.” The sages see the Torah verse as only half the conversation based on the observation that God is being very repetitive in his request of Abraham. Midrash fills in the verse with this conversation between Abraham and God. God says, “Please take your son.” Abraham replies, “I have two sons.” God says, “Your only one.” Abraham replies, “Each is the only one of his mother.” God says, “Whom you love.” Abraham replies, “I love both of them.” So God finally says – “Isaac.”

A comment on why God had him travel 3 days for what was really a half day trip, points to the conflict between authority and fairness. Rashi says God did not show Abraham the location immediately so as not to confuse his mind. Abraham gains merit through his willing obedience. We are appalled because God has rigged this game. Or, it is an abuse of the covenant God has with Abraham, therefore an abuse of the foundation of liberty/oppression. Further, we can see the moral foundation of sanctity at play. Abraham and Isaac are going to a sacred place. The location is identified by Nachmanides as the site of Adam’s first sacrifice to God and by Rashi as the future site of Solomon’s Temple. Abraham will be doing a sacred act that abuses the foundations of caring and fairness! His internal pain is made clear by a midrash on verses 7 and 8. Isaac asks where is the lamb for the sacrifice. Abraham responds, “God will see to the lamb for the sacrifice my son.” This midrash sees the words “my son” as Abraham quietly, painfully, telling Isaac that he is to be the sacrifice.

I have come to believe that the only way to understand the Akeida is to see how it plays games with the 6 moral foundations, pushing us to explore our gut reactions to them. We experience a conflict between the dominant values expressed in the story (authority, sanctity) and most of the other moral foundations. This imbalance is meant to push us to think about the appropriate balance between all of the moral foundations. What are the roles of authority and sanctity? Judaism never eliminates them. Indeed, they play a key role in the Jewish understanding of the world.

You see, Judaism is all about trying to find balance, wholeness in the world. We do not see existence through the lens of Manichaeism – as a struggle between a good spiritual world of light and an evil one of darkness. This is a perspective developed by the 3rd century Persian prophet Mani. While its influence on Christianity is debatable (Satan is not seen as an equal god to God, rather a fallen angel), much of Christianity does see the world as a struggle between good and evil, but good ultimately triumphs with the coming of the messiah. The goal is the elimination of what we call “evil.”

This is not the Jewish approach. Judaism is much closer to the eastern philosophy of Yin and Yang – complementary pieces that fit together. Judaism considers a series of complimentary values and recognizes we cannot eliminate any of them for us to function. The most common example is that of yetzeir hatov, the good or merciful inclination and yetzeir hara, the bad or aggressive inclination. The Talmud teaches that once the rabbis decided to eliminate the yetzeir hara by trapping it in an oven. Immediately all births ceased and no one built or created anything. Our aggression is what pushes us to achieve and create. It must be held in check by our good inclination to prevent it from causing evil.

There are other examples of complimentary values as well. Keva refers to the fixed program, be it the sequence and content of prayer, or the explicit commands to perform certain acts. Keva is not about creativity, but about order. Its compliment is kavanah. This refers to our intention, our emotion, or the dedication we bring to an act. Keva without kavanah is just an empty act. Kavanah without keva is a lot of disorganized good intention. Both are necessary for proper balance. Then there are the qualities of justice and mercy. The rabbis teach that the two creation stories at the beginning of the Torah, represent God’s realization that both qualities are needed. The story in Genesis 1 is said to be the world created on the basis of strict justice. God realized this would be a harsh world indeed so God created the world again in chapter 2 adding the quality of mercy.   I will add that it is Elohim, the God of strict judgment, who gives the test to Abraham, while it is Adonai, the God of mercy who sends the angel to stay his hand from executing his son.

The Jewish approach to morality is not one that divides the world into opposing camps in which one side must win. Rather, Judaism embraces all six moral foundations and sees our challenge as how to create a world that reflects a proper balance between all of them. Despite the rabbinic acknowledgments of moral complexity and Abraham’s pain that I shared before, it is also clear that the sages attributed a lot of merit to Abraham for his submission to God’s authority. Hold on, you might exclaim. Why do we modern Jews not see any merit in Abraham’s submission? Why do we only react in horror to Abraham’s failure to protect Isaac, to rebel against God’s authority?

Well, it is time for another experiment. Say I showed you a cockroach and explained it was completely sterilized and germ free. Then I brewed some tea with the cockroach in it and offered you some? How many of you would drink the tea? Your aversion to drinking the tea despite it containing no germs is your elephant taking control. No amount of logic will convince you to drink the tea. It is the same with our reactions to the Akeida. We have been conditioned to focus on the foundational values of caring, fairness and liberty. As modern (mostly liberal) Americans, we do not see much merit in Abraham’s obedience, or the sanctity of a sacrificial act. Perhaps most tellingly, our instinctive reaction keeps us from really paying attention to the very first line of the story: “God TESTED Abraham.” If we actually had faith in the justice and mercy of God, we would understand from the very beginning that Isaac will not die, that there is another purpose to the story. It is because we cling to certain moral foundations that we reject the Akeida as a cup of tea with a sterile cockroach.

Why are we like this? Because our American experience has diluted the original eastern orientation of our religious thinking. This is a failure of modern American Judaism. We live in a culture that demands we choose sides, which means we gravitate to certain moral foundations. It means that we choose sides, us/them, liberal/conservative, religious/non-religious, pro gun/anti gun – you can identify the many silos our culture forces us to choose rather than be open to understanding the moral basis for the positions of those with whom we disagree. Contemporary Judaism has chosen to emphasize certain moral foundations – caring, fairness and liberty. We practice a Judaism that is less open to all six moral foundations and this is to our detriment.

Discussions of moral relativism are truly rather silly. It is obvious our moral judgments change – that is why we reject slavery, why women vote, and now we have legalized same sex marriage. What does not change is the presence of the six moral foundations. What does not change is how we become rooted in instinct and intuition as opposed to logic and reason in our moral choices. Our reading of and reaction to the Akeida illustrates this. Do not misunderstand me. I am NOT justifying either God or Abraham in this story. Rather, I am justifying the presence of the story. It is the Torah’s radical way of reminding us that morality is much more than we think it is. Its presence in our Torah is a jarring push to understand moral values beyond our comfort zone. It is a call to push intuition aside, to stretch our understanding of morality. If we can do that, we can be open to relationships with people who we initially reject as incompatible with our values. And, if we can create those relationships, if we can open our hearts and minds to our fellow human beings; we take a step towards not only enriching our lives; we live the Jewish value of trying to create balance in a world that needs it desperately. As Mark Twain put it, “I don’t like to commit myself about heaven and hell – you see, I have friends in both places.”

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