By Howard Meyerowitz
I had been away from Jewish practice for many years, but when I began coming back to being observant I was determined to find ideas and people with whom I could connect. I have found prayers and passages in the Siddur that make Shabbat services meaningful to me, and Isaac is the person to whom I can most relate. I would like us to think of our Patriarch Isaac more favorably than he has been viewed in the past.
Isaac’s story begins when God announces to Abraham that Sarah will give birth to a son. Because of their old age both Sarah and Abraham laugh at this possibility, but God responds, “Is there anything too wondrous for God?” He even names their son Isaac, because Yitzhak means ‘he laughs’ to remind us that God’s powers transcend nature’s limitations. As laughter is associated with Isaac’s name, think of how often we seek solace in laughter even in the darkest of times.
Sarah says that Isaac’s birth will give hope to childless couples, so Isaac’s birth also represents hope and promise, and because of our faith in God we have continued to experience renewed hope and rebirth as a people when those who sought to destroy us have disappeared.
The next chapter in Isaac’s life is the story of the Akedah. The Akedah begins with God’s words to Abraham, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” Abraham accepts this command without question. This is the first time the word love is used in Torah. The first and greatest bond we all experience in life is the bond between parent and child, and when that is a loving bond, it is all the greater.
Scholars and rabbis have questioned why Abraham accepts God’s orders without question, and I believe he understands this is a test of faith for Isaac and not himself. At his advanced age Abraham knew it was time to pass on the mantle of leadership, and he had already proven himself to God time and time again. This was Isaac’s time. Remember, God promised Abraham that he would keep his covenant with Isaac and his offspring. Isaac’s death would negate that promise.
The Akedah is also referred to as the ‘Binding of Isaac.’ Rather than a physical binding, I suggest we think of it as the ‘emotional and spiritual binding’ of Isaac as the next leader of the Jewish people.
When Abraham, Isaac and the two servants reach Moriah, Abraham’s words to his servants in referring to himself and Isaac are, “We will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you.” There is never any doubt in his mind that Isaac will not be sacrificed. Abraham has total trust in God. As Abraham and Isaac begin their long walk to the place of sacrifice, Abraham places wood for the burnt offering on Isaac’s back, a large amount to be sure, that Isaac accepts without question or complaint. That moment, I believe, represents the transfer of leadership to Isaac, who proves he is strong enough to bear the burden of leadership.
The Torah then states: “They walk off together.” How beautiful and meaningful that is. Isaac isn’t being led, as you would lead an animal to slaughter, but he walks alongside his father, so lovingly bound together they don’t have to speak. In all that time together you have to also imagine that Abraham shares with his son all his dreams and hopes for the Jewish people. The only time Isaac speaks is to question Abraham about the sheep for the sacrifice, to which Abraham replies, “God will provide.” Isaac accepts that response without question.
When Abraham and Isaac reach the sacrificial site, the Torah states: “Abraham builds an altar, then binds Isaac and places him on the altar.” Considering Abraham’s advanced age and the fact that Isaac was a young man, he could have easily overpowered his father, but Isaac accepts being bound and willingly places himself on the altar.
The story of the Akedah ends when the Angel of the Lord calls to Abraham not to sacrifice Isaac and explains that, because Abraham did not withhold his favored son from sacrifice his descendants will be as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore.
I believe this was a farewell “thank you” to Abraham from God for the life he led as leader of the Jewish people. As Isaac was witness to this event, this was an indirect message to him to always have faith in God, and to follow in his father’s footsteps, which he subsequently does.
I would like to suggest that we think of Isaac as the bridge, the strong and solid connection of faith between Abraham and Jacob. Isaac safeguards Abraham’s legacy for Jacob.
And isn’t that what each of us does each day when we take the good we have learned and carry it over to our children and the people we meet to help make the world a better place? Yes, most definitely yes, Isaac is we and we are Isaac!
Howard Meyerowitz lives in Bloomfield. He is on the staff of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger.
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