The Suffering of Sons and Fathers

What do the stories of Isaac and Ishmael have in common, both from the point of view of their ancient written source, and in the wonderful Rosh Hashanah liturgy?

The ancient Greeks liked tales about murder that involved children and parents. Agamemnon slaughtered Iphigenia and kept all the great tragedy writers in business, and Medea murdered her children to get back at her husband, who married another woman. Above all this, of course, towers Chronus - Zeus' father - who with a sharp scythe cut off the testicles of his father, Uranus, at the behest of the wife-mother, Gaia, whose other sons were imprisoned by their father in the belly of the earth.


In short, the Greeks wrote their tragedies based on stories of murderous fathers and sons, daughters and mothers, on the hatred of children and parents. No wonder that secular Hebrew culture, in its complicated efforts to become part of Western culture, has adopted with great affection the Binding of Isaac, an incident of near-infanticide - the most overt Oedipal myth in Hebrew. The near-murder of Abraham's other son, Ishmael, also played a role in the contemporary revival of biblical myths: The name Hagar became very common, only among secular girls, although the name Ishmael did not benefit from such liberal compassion. (One of the more important Tanna'im - the sages whose views appear in the Mishnah - was Rabbi Ishmael, whose good looks were praised extensively in the Talmud, in Tractate Nedarim; when Rabbi Ishmael died, the daughters of Israel lamented his death .)

Regardless of all this, every day, after reciting the morning prayers, repeating the Lord's attributes, and reiterating over and over his lofty paternal status, Jews read verses devoted to the Binding of Isaac, the same story every day. Furthermore, they repeat the cruel commandment: "Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of."

Why start the day off like this? The answer is provided in the portion of the service that follows, in which worshipers say: "Master of the Universe, just as Abraham our father suppressed his compassion to do your will wholeheartedly, so may your compassion suppress your anger from us and may your compassion prevail over your other attributes. Deal with us, Lord our God, with the attributes of loving-kindness and compassion."

In a rather convoluted move, the person who wrote this prayer and the worshipers ask that God allow his compassion to overcome his anger, just as Abraham did the opposite: overcame his compassion.

The ambivalence toward the patriarch accompanies him throughout the Book of Genesis: when he gave the Egyptians free access to his wife, and thereby saved his own life; later on, when he acquiesced to Sarah's demand and cast Hagar and Ishmael into the desert; and of course in the Binding of Isaac, which is intoned every morning, as mentioned. And as if that were not enough, come Rosh Hashanah, Jews again spend a great deal of time in the synagogue, and though there's little bible in the service, we again encounter the Binding of Isaac.

Therefore, I wish to say something about this story according to the anachronistic expression "from a literary standpoint." The text is short, practically bursting from so much "restraint," and its high point is the brief dialogue between son and father as they leave home: "And Isaac spoke unto Abraham his father, and said: 'My father.' And he said: 'Here am I, my son.' And he said: 'Behold the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?' And Abraham said: 'God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son'" (Gen. 22:7-8 ).

I wish to emphasize an element that finds its way into the words of the narrator: the voices of the two participants. The father is verbally deceiving his son.

Incidentally, the midrash Bereshit Raba, as usual, is more chatty in this context, and therefore expands upon Abraham's painful brevity, with a little humor from the sages: "In any event God will show him the lamb, my son, and if not you are the lamb for the burnt offering."

Very funny, and even if the irony here is merely a possible reading of my own, there immediately thereafter appears the Brechtian-rabbinical irony, whose meaning cannot be doubted: "And the two of them walked together, this one to bind, and that one to be bound; this one to slaughter, and that one to be slaughtered."

But I wish to ignore the irony and return to the painful dialogue between the father and his son. Listen to Abraham: Twice he says "my son" within this brief exchange - briefer than the story of Esau and the stolen birthright, which also includes the words "my son" several times. Was this how people spoke, at the time these stories were committed to writing? They added "my son" at the end of every speech? We do not know. Is this a reflection of Abraham's gentleness? Was Abraham a gentle father, too gentle to protect his son, perhaps guilt-ridden - perhaps luring and leading his son like a sheep to the slaughter?

All this is not more important than the brief dialogue itself, however. Was this also how they wrote, so laconically, in ancient texts with which we are not familiar? And why did the brevity characterizing the writers not lead them to cut the twice-repeated "my son"? We do not know.

A missing offering

My questions threaten to overshadow the wise voice in the story, that of Isaac. His naivete is depicted through laconically expressed logic: "'My father ... Behold the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?" He knows the order of the ritual, and in his formulation, the offering is missing. The youth's voice plays a key role. That is the point I wish to make about this story: about making Isaac, not Abraham, an ally of those who pray to God, the merciful father.

Abraham and his great faith in God were also awarded exalted sublimity in the Koran, where he is the most venerated figure. However, in the biblical story and in the Talmud, as well as in the context of the siddur (daily prayer book ) and the mahzor prayer book for the High Holy Days, as a consequence of our concerted effort to draw closer to God through prayer, the patriarch nearly loses his value, to the point where he reaches that odd equation I cited earlier: Abraham conquers his compassion, because God does not conquer his.

And like the voice of Isaac on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, there is the voice of Ishmael, whose story is read on the first day of the holiday. Abraham, the weak one, does not like Sarah's demand that Hagar and her son be kicked out into the desert ("And the thing was very grievous in Abraham's sight on account of his son"; Gen. 21:11 ), yet despite this, not only is God stronger than he, as we have already seen, but his wife is as well, and he capitulates. Here as well, in the following verse, the writers soothe the faithful reader's doubts: "And God said unto Abraham: 'Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman."

The children's suffering

What do these two stories have in common, both in terms of what links them together in their ancient written source, and subsequently in the wonderful Rosh Hashanah liturgy? What led the two to reside in such proximity, precisely these two, in the mahzor? The children's suffering. "And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bow-shot; for she said: 'Let me not look upon the death of the child.' And she sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept. And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her: 'What aileth thee, Hagar? fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is'" (Gen. 21:16-17 ).

We do not know what Ishmael said. He likely groaned, or wept, for had he not done so, the angel would not have promised Hagar that "God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is." But in both stories, the voice of the suffering boy is the soft core inside the bitter nut. In one, the boy does not understand that he is being led to his death; he relies on his father; in the other, he makes his voice heard, when on the brink of death, and his mother is incapable of helping him. The victim's voice is heard in both stories, and in both the parent cannot help, but God can and indeed comes to the rescue. Therefore, these stories cannot be read outside their religious context. Whether in those days or in these times.

In this context, the "father of the nation" is an obedient man. Obedient people are not strong. But he is also a son, Abraham the patriarch - the son of a truly powerful father, which is to say God himself, who promises aid at the right moment and even manages to deliver on it - in complete contrast to the story of Jesus, who solicits his father's help and is denied it.

In any case, this is just a slight clue as to how Greek tragedy succeeded in finding continuity in the realm of Christianity (Shakespeare or Racine, for example ). Neither the biblical stories, nor, certainly, the commentaries on them, were written out of a doubt in God's ability to forsake his son. This is not the crux of the matter, from the standpoint of a non-believer. What is important, rather, is Hebrew culture, and its love for the theme of the Binding of Isaac, with which we began.

Everywhere that Abraham the patriarch has been endowed with the literary image of a father, one who sacrifices his son and who has above him not a god but, rather, nationalism instead (as in Igal Mossinsohn's play "In the Negev Plains," or Hanoch Levin's skit on the Binding of Isaac ) his figure turns into something completely different from that of the biblical father. Because it really is impossible to portray Abraham as a father who is not also a son. Sure, there are other places where the talk of God's absence from the story reverberates explicitly. "Where is the lamb?" asks Meir Wieseltier, the boy, in the poem "Man Will Not Be an Angel," and the adult poet replies: "Keep quiet, shut your mouth. The angel has fallen asleep / behind the bush."

Shall we say that the defense against cruelty is belief in God? No. Suffice it to read "The King's Torah," written by Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur, and to recall Orthodoxy's silence about it, to see just how far the Jewish religion has strayed within "the Return to Zion." What does the filth written by this pair have to do with the spirit of the ancient prayer, recited on Rosh Hashanah: "Our Father, our King, answer us as though we have no deed to plead our cause, save us with mercy and loving-kindness."