Shayna Abramson

How Can I Study The Binding of Isaac Today?

I am having trouble studying Parsha this week. The Parsha in question is Vayera, which contains the story of the binding of Isaac.

Sitting here with my miracle toddler and baby in the other room, looking at the photos of toddlers and babies -including a 9 month old! – who were killed or captured by Hamas, the concept of sacrifice of children seems all too real. And I take comfort from knowing that ultimately, the Torah not only forbids the sacrifice of children, but also considers it abhorrent; it is listed by Jeremiah as one of the sins that caused the people of Israel to be exiled. In some ways, Hamas’s attack was not only a physical attack on Jews, but also a moral attack that exemplified values that are the opposite of what we stand for. And the knowledge that we do stand for the opposite: protecting children and valuing life -gives me comfort.

But also: Is there a way to be Jewish people in the land of Israel without engaging in a little bit of child sacrifice?

In order to live here, we have to be willing to live with the knowledge that terrorists might come into our homes and kill our babies in order to drive us from this land.

I have asked myself many times, the widespread Feminist question about the Isaac story: Would it have happened if Sarah had been there to stop it?

In some senses now, I think the answer is no, and in some senses, I think it is yes.

The answer is no, because all the mothers I talk to are constantly worrying about their children; those with dual citizenship are constantly wondering if they should go or stay; the main topics of conversation are how we protect our children’s safety given this reality. And one theme that emerges over and over, is that men are not having these same dilemmas. Men are not leaving. Sometimes, they are risking themselves to go fight. But they are not sending their children away.

But the answer is yes, because many of us mothers do stay -whether because of our feeling we have something to contribute by being here, our understanding that the deepest answer to Hamas and our biggest victory is to live our lives as Jews in the land of Israel, or because of not wanting to tear our families apart.

But the answer is no, because those of us who stay are not sure our children would be safer abroad when we look at anti-Semitic attacks around the globe; because we believe our children’s long-term safety as Jews is contingent on the continued existence of the State of Israel.

I have always wondered why we have the Binding of Isaac story in the Torah, given that the Torah is so opposed to child sacrifice. (Spoiler Alert: Isaac is not sacrificed in the end.) 

But I wonder now if the message of the story is that there are some values that should be more important to us than life itself. For generations, being a Jew was dangerous and risked death. Being willing to raise one’s family as a Jew meant taking that risk, not just for oneself, but for one’s children as well.

But should there be any value more important than protecting the lives of our children?

I did not think that I would live to see these times, where our very existence as Jews seems like a dangerous situation that is fraught with ethical and spiritual dilemmas.

I don’t think there are any easy answers right now. Only questions.

And I imagine that is how Isaac felt, when his father Abraham dropped the dagger that had been poised above his head.

The binding of Isaac ends with a miraculous rescue -God sends an angel to stop Abraham from killing his child in that moment -and how many of us now are waiting for our moment of rescue, that moment where God tells us that our children are safe? And where was the angel to stop the hands of Hamas when they came for our babies?

I keep on thinking of the Hebrew poem “Inheritance”, by Haim Goury:

The boy, released from his bonds, saw his father’s back.

Isaac, as the story goes, was not sacrificed.  He lived for many years, saw what pleasure had to offer, until his eyesight dimmed.

But he bequeathed that hour to his offspring.  They are born with a knife in their hearts.

Isaac, the story tells us, goes on to lead a full life, but the trauma of some things cannot be forgotten. It is passed down from generation to generation.

We are still processing this trauma. It is still raw. We are still waiting for our children to come home.

Our brothers and sisters, all of the House of Israel, who are given to pain and captivity, who are standing between the ocean and between the land, may God have mercy on them, and bring them from pain to well-being, from darkness to light, from captivity to redemption, now and speedily. Amen.

As I write this, there is a siren. My children are in daycare. I pray they are safe. Dear God, please protect our children.

Israeli children held hostage by Hamas

Our Father, Our King, take mercy on us and on our children.

Erez, an Israeli child held hostage by Hamas

Our Father, Our King, be gracious to us and answer us, for we have no meritorious deeds, do with a righteousness and a kindness and rescue us.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.