I’ve been e-mailing with Catherine, a beloved friend and former colleague, about going back to Cambridge to give a paper at a seminar series she’s organizing on the Akedah, the near-sacrifice of Isaac. Nearly twenty ago, the Akedah was the basis of a weekly reading group that the two of us, together with Clare, of blessed memory, and Ben, ran for the Theology and Religious Studies students at our respective Cambridge colleges.
We used to meet one evening a week, over wine and snacks, in my room at Newnham College. Since I was responsible then for undergraduate admissions, my room was very grand: soaring ceilings, elegant dove grey walls, huge arched windows with a view of the glorious gardens, and a grandfather clock that someone came once a week to wind. It set the tone.
My office window at Newnham College, top right.
Every week we approached the Akedah from a different perspective. We read Kierkegaard’s anguished meditation on giving gifts in Fear and Trembling; we listened to Benjamin Britten’s sublime setting as one of his Three Canticles; we looked at heart-wrenching paintings:
Sacrifice of Isaac, Caravaggio (1571-1610)
We read poems that turned the Akedah on its head: Yehuda Amichai’s deceptively playful ‘The Real Hero of the Sacrifice of Isaac ‘:
The real hero of the sacrifice of Isaac is the ram,
Who had no idea about the conspiracy of the others.
He apparently volunteered to die in place of Isaac.
I want to sing a memorial song about the ram,
His curly wool and his human eyes,
The horns, so calm in his living head.
When he was slaughtered they made shofars of them,
To sound the blast of their war
Or the blast of their course joy.
I want to remember the last picture
Like a beautiful photo in an exquisite fashion magazine:
The tanned, spoiled youngster all spiffed up,
And beside him the angel, clad in a long silk gown
For a formal reception.
Both with hollow eyes
Observe two hollow places,
And behind them, as a colored background, the ram
Grasping the thicket before the slaughter.
The angel went home
Isaac went home
And Abraham and God left much earlier.
But the real hero of the sacrifice
Is the ram
And Wilfred Owen’s patently devastating ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ — Abraham and Isaac in World War One:
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where is the ram for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belt and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not do so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
At our final session, we performed a dramatic reading of a medieval retelling of the Akedah — one of the Dublin Mystery plays. Richard played Abraham with a Welsh accent. Clare, of blessed memory, was the angel; she wore one of Catherine’s tiaras. Lydia, with acting in her genes but aided this time mainly by her radiant pure soul, was Isaac. I don’t remember who played the ram, but he wore small horns that someone gave me for Rosh HaShanah show-and-tell at our synagogue’s Hebrew School, which I ran at the time.
Unlike the Bible, the Dublin Mystery play’s Akedah has a speaking part for Sarah; somewhat surprisingly, she’s a Jewish mother. As Abraham and his servants prepare to set out, she warns them to make sure that Isaac’s horse stays calm, and that his clothes don’t get dirty:
Then, sithe ye wol haue forthe my childe,
Goode, loke that his horse be not so wilde,
& sirs, wayte on hym, that he be not defilde
With neither cley nor fen.
And when Abraham and Isaac return home together (another departure from the biblical text) and Sarah learns what transpired (yet another), she does not mince her words:
Alas, all then had gone to wrake;
Wold ye haue slayne my sone Isaac?
Nay, than al my joy had me forsake!
Alas, where was your mynde?
Alas, where was your mind? Thinking about going back to Cambridge to speak to Catherine, now a distinguished Professor, and her colleagues and students, I wonder if by some miracle I will be able to convey even a drop of what we learned together about the Akedah nearly twenty years ago. I also wonder if I will be able to convey even a drop of what I’ve learned about it in the meantime from my students in Jerusalem.
For the past three years, I’ve given a weekly class on the Torah portion at two Jerusalem homes for the elderly. In Israel they are known as Beit Horim, parents’ homes, which is relevant to what I have to say. One of the homes is called Beit Moses. It’s on Derekh Beit Lechem, Bethlehem Road. When a place is called Moses, we often assume it’s named for Moshe Rabbenu. But Beit Moses is named for Siegfried Moses, a refugee from Germany who was Israel’s first State Comptroller.
When, many years ago, we came to Jerusalem on family vacations, we used to rent apartments near Beit Moses. I remember watching its elderly residents taking constitutional walks in the garden, and hearing the strains of German drifting out to the street.
I still hear German spoken at Beit Moses, as well as English and Hebrew that bear traces of the speaker’s German childhood. Last week, a woman came to my shiur who’s visiting Beit Moses for a few weeks. At the end of the class, she leaned over to Mrs F, who was sitting next to her, and said, I knew you. I was in your sister’s class. I visited your parents’ home. In Frankfurt, asked Mrs F? No, in London, the visitor replied. We’d all left Germany by then. I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it, said Mrs F.
Yesterday, my shiur was on the theme of authority and miracles. Leaders have often gained followers by performing miraculous or at least dramatic acts, I observed. And if their followers grow restless, they perform more. This is arguably what happened in Egypt. With God’s help, Moses turned a staff into a snake and parts the Red Sea, and did much else in between. By this means he convinced the Israelites that he was a leader worth following into the wilderness, and the Egyptians that he was a force to be reckoned with.
After Sinai, however, things changed. In this week’s parasha, Be-ha’alotekha, the Israelites start complaining about manna, whining for meat, and wishing they had never left Egypt. The going is getting tough for Moses; it would have been the perfect moment for a miracle.
A miracle does indeed occur, but it doesn’t bolster Moses’ authority. In fact, it undermines it. God promises to supply the people with more meat than they can eat. Moses is skeptical: Neither all the flocks and herds of the land nor all the fish of the sea could satisfy them, he says.
But, with a miracle, God proved Moses wrong. Quails fall from heaven onto the camp. They pile up all around, meters high, in obvious danger of rotting. And while the people still have meat between their teeth, God sends a plague to punish them for their lack of trust.
The miracle that could have united the people behind Moses instead discredits him in their eyes. A similar pattern occurs a few chapters later, when Moses strikes the rock. The people complain and become fractious, God sends a miracle, but it doesn’t help Moses. In fact, it’s the reason he’ll never enter the Promised Land.
What changed between Egypt and the wilderness, I think, was the Sinai revelation. Once Moses has received the Torah, he can no longer depend on miracles to reinforce his authority. There’s a direct tension, as we see in Deuteronomy 13, between authority and miracles. Prophets and dreamers of dreams who perform signs and wonders could lead people astray to worship other gods. Supernatural events, even when they happen, are neither here nor there when it comes to post-Sinai leadership. The Torah is our guide.
In my shiur, I wanted to drive home the point that the quail were an unqualified failure. It wasn’t just that that Moses was shown to be wrong, that there were too many quails to eat or store, and the people died of a plague before they could finish their mouthful. It was that seeing excessive amounts of food when you’ve been deprived of it is off-putting, and eating it can make you physically sick.
I was thinking of breaking the fast at the end of Yom Kippur, but Dorothy had something else in mind. Yes, she said. When the camps were liberated, people couldn’t just start eating again, even though they were starving. Mrs F agreed. She had known a mother and two daughters who were survivors. When their camp was liberated, other survivors ate as much as they could as fast as they could, but Mrs F’s friend and her daughters held back. They alone did not get sick.
Another woman, also new to the shiur, nodded her head. We hid in a hole during the war, she said. When they came at the end to get us, they gave us small amounts of food, a little at a time, building up each day until we could eat normally again. Where was that, asked Mrs F? Holland, the new participant replied.
As Mrs F and I walked away together at the end, we spoke about health. She lamented that our visitor to the shiur, her childhood friend, though even older than her, is much more agile. My children say that I’d be agile too if I hadn’t fallen, she said. I wanted to comfort her: It’s just luck, I said. But Mrs F is a woman of emunah extraordinaire. No, she replied, it means something. I had two sons who died, one a baby and one a rabbi in his 60s in South Africa. I used to think I wouldn’t be able to go on living, she said, but I have.
What I’ve learned about the Akedah at Beit Moses is that I don’t want to teach it there. Between them, the people — mostly women — in my shiur have experienced unimaginable pain, suffering, loss and dislocation. Surviving the Shoah in a hole… But as I’ve learned from Mrs F, from Sue, whose only son died in the Six Day War, and from Dorothy, whose daughter — by then a mother herself — died of complications from childhood surgery, none of that approaches what they’ve suffered as parents from the loss of a child. I wonder if, when I go back to Cambridge to speak about the Akedah, about the sacrifice of a beloved son that Abraham almost made, I will even begin to able to convey that.