Yesterday, as Jews worldwide read about the Binding of Isaac in Genesis 22, 11 people were slaughtered at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. In my house, we learned about it as the Sabbath ended, bringing back the awful memories of a decade-and-a-half ago, when the Second Intifada meant a new terrorist atrocity every weekend. I offer my condolences to the families of the deceased and my prayers for a speedy recovery to the wounded, but that feels insufficient.
I’d like to consider how the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 101-102) links the Binding of Isaac, which we read in the morning, to the death of Sarah, which we read in the afternoon.
Rabbi Judah says: When the sword reached his neck, Isaac’s spirit flew away and departed. However, once he heard the Voice emerging from between the two cherubs saying “Do not send forth your hand against the boy,” his soul returned to his body and [Abraham] untied him. Isaac stood and realized that the dead are destined to live again, and he began and said: “Blessed are You Lord, who brings the dead back to life”…
When Abraham returned from Mount Moriah in peace, Samael (Satan) was enraged, as he saw his heart’s desire, to nullify Abraham’s offering, frustrated. What did he do? He went to Sarah and said: “Have you not heard what is happening in the world?” She replied: “No.” He said to her: “Abraham took Isaac your son and slaughtered him and offered him in the roaring flames.” She started to cry and wail: three cries like the three blasts of the shofar and three wails like the three staccato sounds of the shofar. Then her spirit flew away and she died.
The poetic expression of one’s spirit flying away (or blooming — the root is perach, which is also Hebrew for flower) is quite beautiful, but we have to wonder: why does God bring Isaac back to life and not Sarah? Believing in an omnipotent God means that He could have saved both, but the Midrash seems to be arguing that while Isaac’s trauma was survivable, Sarah’s was not — a counter-intuitive position, since Isaac was the one to feel the blade on his neck!
The Midrash makes Samael’s cutting words sharper than Abraham’s sword. Indeed, if we consider them, we find the four food groups of every pernicious lie: some truth, some misrepresentation, some outright fabrications and some glaring omissions. It is true that Abraham takes Isaac and binds him on the altar; the blade is placed on his neck and his heart stops, but he is not slaughtered. Throwing him into the fire is an outright lie, and then there’s the part Satan leaves out: that Isaac has been restored, that he will live many more years (ultimately living longer than any of the other patriarchs or matriarchs). Isaac sees and experiences the truth of his trauma, and this allows him to survive it. Sarah, who hears a monstrous, mangled version of the tale, is irredeemably shattered forever.
This story is, to use the parlance which has even made it into everyday Hebrew, “fake news.” Such manufactured tales lie at the heart of every conspiracy theory: facts without context, twisted and peppered with utter falsehoods. They are not new. Growing up in America in the late 80s, I could name Louis Farrakhan and David Duke before the Ninja Turtles. This phenomenon existed at the fringes of both the left and the right, and it all too often centered on the Jews. Still, I had confidence that the powers that be, the leaders of our society, would condemn that hate.
Today, as a dual citizen of Israel and the United States, I can no longer have that faith in our heads of government. The conspiracy theories do not stop at the top; on the contrary, they are shouted from a megaphone there. And in a democracy (imperfect as it may be), there is only one way to end such a nightmare, lest we all suffer the fate of Sarah.