If you were a once-a-year synagogue visitor–well, make it three times a year, Rosh, Yom, and the odd bar-mitzvah–what message would the Rabbis want to send you home with? What of all the ﬁve books would they want to bring to you at this well-attended holiday? Creation? Some congregations do use that. Noah? Moses on Sinai, the curses of Deuteronomy 28, guaranteed to freeze a sweat on the devil? The Ten Commandments?
The Rabbis chose a passage in Genesis, a very human series of problems. It takes a rewind of the entire Torah to do it. Abraham has been promised that he would father a great nation. Fine. From which son, Ishmael? No, God says, it isn’t Ishmael, it’s a son not yet born. Sarah laughs. She’s ninety years old, and she bears Isaac, whom they name Isaac, Laughter. The joke was on her. Now, as a test, God asks Laughter to be sacrificed.
Test: the word God uses is nasah: to tempt, to prove, to test. God promised a son from whom a nation would spring, and then a test, a proof, a sacriﬁce. Always look out when you are reading the Tanach; it’s a very quid-pro-quo tradition. God gives, God demands. When you see a gift you will soon meet up with a sacriﬁce. The actual sacriﬁce will be dealt with in the reading tomorrow, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, and we say the sacriﬁce was aborted, the knife never fell on Isaac. Some of our sages tell us that this thwarted sacriﬁce was God’s visual aid to show people that human sacriﬁce was thereafter to be forbidden. See this: No more. I, the Creator have stopped demanding it.
Except that some special sacriﬁce will be demanded if the ritual covenant is to be made between God and Abraham. What it was, I think, was Sarah.
They split up, you know. The text says that Abraham went down the mountain afterwards, and back to Ber Sheva. Sarah died in Kiriath Arba, Hebron, and the text goes out of its way to tell us where she died. Hebron is a long, desert trip from Ber Sheva. We’re told that Abraham went there to mourn her after she died, and to bury her. So, Abraham’s sacriﬁce might not have been his literal son, but ﬁguratively, his family.
A message here might be that greatness always has a cost. We pay a price for our courage as for our cowardice. A person may be called to greatness, but his family might not be able to understand or approve of the call because the person called may not be able to enunciate his reasons or to express his need. Over it all there is the stunning humanness of the activities in this parsha. God sees; we don’t.
A Haftarah is a commentary on the Torah passage. Sometimes it’s as plain as Lady Wants a Baby sometimes as obscure as in this case. Sixteen hundred years after Abraham raised his hand with the knife in it, Moses has arisen and given us a set of laws; the Jews have chosen a king, Saul, whose sacrifice is his sanity; another king, David, and a huge sacriﬁce of family.
It’s in his reign that Israel and the Hebrews are ﬁrst mentioned by outside sources, Solomon comes, and then a series of kings often of descending merit. Assyria raises its banners and in 722 BCE Samaria falls and in 700 the Kingdom of Israel ceases to exist. Assyria provides the ﬁrst diaspora. “Seed of Abraham,” Isaiah says to us in this Haftarah, “you, who I drew from the ends of the earth.” We have the companion image with the one that God has given in the parsha: “I will make you as many as the sand on the shore, as the stars in the heaven; I will make of you a great nation.” Now, from the ends of the earth, scattered as sand by wind and as the stars by the explosion that started us, here we are, seven diasporas later, davening together.