Karate and teshuvah
More on the Akedah

Torah prep

This morning I met again with Jeff to talk about Rosh Hashanah. He had mentioned offhand in a religion committee meeting that we didn't need to find congregational Torah readers for the second day of the holiday, because he does that Torah reading himself. A few minutes later, it occurred to me that if I'm preparing to (potentially) stand in for him, perhaps I should chat with him about that.

See, when I've read Torah before, I only did one aliyah (portion of the weekly reading -- think paragraph) each time. But if Jeff reads the whole Akedah story (that's Genesis 22:1-19), does that mean I should be preparing the entire thing?

When I asked him that, he laughed. He pointed out that since his wife's due date is almost a week before Rosh Hashanah, his missing the second day of the holiday is unlikely. But he conceded that, yes, we do need a Plan B for the second day's Torah reading. So I've been charged with devising a Plan B.

The second day nets a smaller crowd; we'll probably be forty rather than 120, and those who come on the second day tend to be pretty involved and invested. Ergo, Jeff noted, it's a good time to try something a little different if we want to. Maybe we could divide the reading into single verses, and print them on little cards, and ask nineteen congregants to each come up and read one verse? It would be a neat way to involve a lot of people, and reading from Torah during the Days of Awe is a pretty inspiring opportunity. But would that work? In our shul we sometimes speak the words, and sometimes chant, depending on who's reading from Torah, so finding people who know the special trop (cantillation) for the Days of Awe isn't critical. Our slate of usual Torah-capable volunteers will be tapped for the first day, and for Yom Kippur, so outside-the-box thinking is required here. If anyone reading this has an idea for a creative way to get this Torah portion read, please speak up.

Meanwhile, I figure I should familiarize myself with it, just in case Plan B winds up being "Rachel reads the whole thing." So I sat down just now and read through it, haltingly but not too bad for a first try. (That's with vowels. I'll work my way up to Torah script when I can read the easy print fluidly.) Fortunately for me, it's a portion which uses a lot of familiar words, and reading it slowly in Hebrew is giving me an opportunity to think more about how to approach it in my sermon.

The more I read this portion, the more questions I have. Near as I can tell, they're the same questions traditional commentators have been asking for centuries: Why does God ask this thing? Does God ask it, or is Abraham hearing the wrong voices? Why doesn't Abraham talk back, as he does when God wants to do away with Sodom and Gemorrah? Why doesn't Abraham explain anything to Isaac? Why doesn't Isaac cry out when he's bound to the altar? What does it mean that the angel of God calls Abraham's name twice to stay his hand? What goes through Abraham and Isaac's heads during this macabre scene? Why is Sarah absent?

Is the lesson of this portion that we should submit to the will of God? (In that case, why does Abraham do just the opposite elsewhere in Torah?) Is the lesson of this portion that people sometimes do terrible things to their children in the name of faith? Is the lesson of this portion that sometimes there are no easy answers, and sometimes our narratives just don't make sense? That the absurd can't be understood with the intellect, can only be adequately answered with faith?

It looks like Jeff is also going to ask me to read a little Torah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, too. On that day we read Genesis 21:1-21, in which Isaac is born, Sarah becomes jealous, Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away, and God saves them in the desert. How does that first day's rich and problematic text inform our reading of the second day's rich and problematic text? In both cases, God allows (or instructs) Abraham to do something destructive to his family, and then God steps in and fixes things. How can I relate these stories to the theme of teshuvah; how can I make them relevant to us?

I'm starting to collect commentaries; yesterday I began rereading Kiergegaard's Fear and Trembling. If anyone reading this has a favorite commentary or midrash on the Akedah, please recommend. Meanwhile, I'll be over here, working my way through Genesis 22 syllable by syllable again...