Defining Renewal
Holiday poem

Mothers and sons

Earlier today, Shira of On the Fringe posted a beautiful meditation on the Akedah, Would you take your only son...?. She explores the traditional understanding that God was testing Abraham's obedience and his faith, asking the same supreme sacrifice that the pagan gods of the day were understood to demand. And she says that though she can wrap her mind around it intellectually, when she considers it emotionally she knows she could never make that sacrifice, even if God asked it. Her post got me to thinking again about the Torah readings we're about to immerse ourselves in, and what we can learn from returning to them again this year.

The Torah readings for both days of Rosh Hashanah (and, for that matter, the Haftorah readings assigned to match them) revolve around mothers and sons. Barren women wishing for children; mothers weeping for their children; the demands we make of God and the demands (we think) God makes of us.

One of my favorite resource books for exploring these texts is Beginning Anew: A Woman's Companion to the High Holy Days, edited by Gail Twersky Reimer and Judith A. Kates. I've read and re-read this anthology every year during the Days of Awe, or the days leading up to them, for at least the last five years. And every year I find new insight in these commentaries: into Torah, into teshuvah, into how I might -- as a woman and as a Jew -- wrestle with my tradition's holy stories in order to come away blessed.

Looking at the first day's Torah reading, Rosellen Brown offers a beautiful midrash on how the story might have gone if things had been different. "Abraham favored Isaac, who was the son of Sarah's fathers and her fathers' fathers. But Sarah rebuked him, saying: 'There shall be no peace in our house if thou dividest thy love as a loaf of bread, in unequal portions...'" Sidra Dekoven Ezrahi wonders how Isaac and Ishmael can interact -- not exactly brothers, not exactly "Others" -- and what that fraught relationship might teach us in our time.

Looking at the second day's Torah reading, Tikva Frymer-Kensky observes that though the traditional reading of the Akedah celebrates Abraham's obedience to God's command, "some of us read this story quite differently now. We are not quite as ready to honor Abraham for being prepared to sacrifice the members of his family." (I drew on her essay in my sermon for the second day of Rosh Hashanah last year.) And daughter/mother duo Yael and Rebecca Goldstein unpack the text together in the traditional Jewish mode of chevruta, paired study, exploring (among many other things) the resonance between the Akedah and the shofar. The ram's horn is a visual echo of the ram which appeared in the thicket, sent by God in order that Isaac might be spared; classical Jewish tradition also sees the shofar as an audible echo of Sarah's screams of horror at the near-death of her son.

I'm fascinated by how the two days' assigned Torah readings speak to one another. On the first day, we read of Isaac's birth and Ishmael's near-death (averted by God's hand); on the second day, Isaac's near-death (again averted by God). Sarah, who plays such a major role in the reading for day one, is absent in what we read on day two. Could it be that Sarah's momentary lapse of compassion -- casting out her handmaiden, and the son she had intended to rear as her own, to die in the desert -- somehow disempowered her from making life-or-death decisions about her own child? Did her cruelty to Ishmael and Hagar karmically disqualify her from being able to protect Isaac? Could it be that the message we're meant to take from the juxtaposition of these stories is that God resists the killing of our sons?

Of course, God no longer steps in to protect our children. Neither in the desert, nor on the mountain; neither from hunger and thirst nor from knife (or its contemporary equivalents). Maybe in today's world it is our responsibility to be God's hands and voice, to rescue those in the wilderness from starvation and to stop violence before it occurs. So that someday our children, reading this text, will wonder at the old world in which such things were possible, and rest secure in the knowledge that they are beloved both by God and by humanity and will not be sent (or brought) forth to die.

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