Dan Ornstein
Featured Post

Childhood, common and terrifying

Shifting focus from the large events, whether biblical or current, to the personal experience of a single child

Richard Linklater’s recent film, Boyhood, is a fine anti-drama about the everyday yet profound realities of growing up. Filmed over twelve years’ time with the same cast, it follows a young boy, Mason, as he comes of age from six through eighteen, literally maturing on screen before our eyes. Mason deals with his parent’s divorce, his father’s abandonment and return, his mother’s love, life and parenting struggles, school, friends, sex, pot, first love, and an emergent sense of self and life’s purpose at the start of college, all in a little over two hours of screen time. Contrary to my expectations, I never got bored watching this loving, sensitive celebration of Mason’s life experiences that are similar to, yet also different from, any other boy’s life. Without predictable, melodramatic film formulas, Boyhood surprises the viewer by reminding us that just living is its own invitation to personal meaning.

Twice a year, Jews around the world read publicly the Binding of Isaac, a boyhood story which has perplexed and disturbed readers for millennia. To test Abraham the patriarch, God commands him to take his beloved son and bind him as a sacrificial offering on an altar. Without a word of protest, Abraham proceeds to prepare Isaac for death, whereupon God’s angel halts him, declaring that God is now assured of Abraham’s unconditional faith. With its emphasis on faith and hope in God in the face of adversity, the Binding of Isaac occupies a significant place in the Jewish and other religious traditions. Yet is also presents the reader with uncomfortable questions about God’s justice and about the ethics of a devotee who would carry out this kind of a divine decree.

One angle on the story that receives little attention by the Torah is what this traumatic brush with death at Abraham’s hand means to Isaac. This story is an integral aspect of his boyhood experience, yet we the readers are given almost no clues in the text (Genesis 22) about Isaac’s feelings or perceptions; the action focuses almost exclusively on Abraham and God.

If Richard Linklater were to re-film Boyhood through Isaac’s eyes, what might he show us? One brief but telling verse in Genesis opens up a film’s worth of interpretive possibility. A passive, wordless participant in his own impending death, Isaac at one point turns to Abraham and says, “My father, here are the fire and the wood, yet where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Though Abraham assures him that God will provide this, we the readers sense Isaac’s filial tenderness, terror, visions of doom and feelings of betrayal all wrapped up in his one common question to his father as they walk towards an uncommon, ghastly fate. Standing in Isaac’s shoes at this fraught scene in his life, we the readers are being asked by the Torah to walk with him to that altar, to try to understand his story, using the whole range of our emotions.

As compassionate as we try to be, we often read and listen to accounts about war, poverty and injustice with very abstract eyes and ears. Instead of focusing on the stories of those who suffer, we focus more on the statistics, the politics and the depersonalized aspects of the news. We try to learn about everything but how people’s individual lives are scarred or destroyed by the monstrous forces of nature and human evil that plague them. Perhaps we do this as a way of protecting ourselves from the unbearable truth about the depths of human suffering around us, especially the suffering of the most vulnerable humans, children. However, just as the film Boyhood asks us, through Mason’s common tale, to appreciate how beautiful childhood can be for individual children, this great biblical narrative asks us to appreciate, through Isaac’s uncommon tale, how painful and terrifying childhood can be for individual children.

In the coming year, I, like everyone who follows current events, will continue to wade through the morass of accounts about the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly of life in America, Israel and the world. I am going to try to focus less on the impersonal elements of the news and more on the life stories, especially those of the children, which stand behind and are affected by them. I will seek to know, and to be moved to compassionate action by, not only their suffering and – God forbid – their deaths, but by the common lives and joys they struggle to experience. If this helps me to take a bit more responsibility for children like Mason and Isaac, then the story of the world’s children might become a happier one.

This posting is a modified version of my article, “View of world through child’s eyes,” published in the Albany Times Union on September 23, 2014.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. Check out his website at
Related Topics
Related Posts