Parashat Vayera: What About Isaac?

There are many things I love about our tradition, the idea of midrash, of study and story, is chief among them. Of digging deep into our collective imagination to fill in some of the missing pieces. Once, during a creative liturgy class, Rabbi David Zaslow said to us, “Midrash is not an answer, it’s one possible response.” And the response I have to Parashat Vayera is this: WHAT ABOUT ISAAC!? How does he feel about the banishment of Hagar and his brother, Ishmael? How might that memory impact his life? How does he feel about almost being sacrificed? Is Isaac anything more than an object, a means to cement Abraham’s legacy as a father of nations?

 

During the akedah incident, an angel of G!?d calls out to Abraham two times. The first time, the angel says, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.”[1]

 

The second time, the angel says, “By Myself I swear, the LORD declares: Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your favored one I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes.” [2]

 

But wasn’t this the deal from the very beginning? G!?d changed Abraham’s name because he was going to be a father of many nations, so why, now, is G!?d swearing an oath? There are four verses between the two angelic statements, and a midrash in Bereishit Rabbah suggests that Abraham made the angel swear not to test him or Isaac ever again.[3] Mishnah Avot goes on to say that Abraham was given ten trials, withstood them all successfully,[4] and Maimonides confirms Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah was the final test[5]. Isaac was, simultaneously, the son Abraham and Sarah wished for (more than life, more than anything), a promise from G!?d, and also a test. It seems that Isaac exists only to guarantee Abraham’s legacy as a father of many nations.

 

After Isaac’s life is spared, Abraham and his servants leave for Beersheba, but we don’t hear about Isaac again until his marriage to Rivkah at the age of 40. We don’t know exactly how old Isaac was when he was almost slain, but almost losing your life at the hands of your father is a traumatic experience, no matter the age; my midrash suggests he left. After nearly fulfilling the role of a sacrificial offering, he went off to be on his own, the idea of home was just too traumatic. The untold part of Isaac’s story, the gap, is what means so much to me. I grew up in a military family in a predominantly white suburb in the midwest; as a result of that I was keenly aware of my behaviors. I wasn’t an only child, but I was the oldest of two by ten years so I was the example. Coming out as queer at a young age, living in the bible belt in the 90s and early aughts, was not what I would consider a warmly received revelation. So in ways both literal and figurative, I left. I had to give myself space to sort myself out without the pressures, the expectations, and the potential legacies I had been born into, in order to create a usable past for myself.

 

When I returned “home”, it wasn’t a return to what I knew. I had returned to a tradition and a community that was so expansive, so agile, so fluid, that it could hold all of me without breaking or without forcing me to choose. Every year we have an opportunity to revisit our collective, storied past and interrogate it, reimagine it, and hopefully, uncover something new in it. As we begin to wrap up the very eventful year that is 2020 and look toward 2021, hopefully feeling a *little* lighter, my wish for all of us is that we take a cue from Isaac. That we walk away from the people, the places, and communities that do not value us as our whole, multidimensional selves. That sees us as tools, or as means to their own ends. And instead, that we seek out the places we belong, unquestionably. It is in those places that we can begin the necessary work of healing.

 

[1] Genesis 22:12

[2] Genesis 22:16-17

[3] Bereishit Rabbah 56:11

[4] Mishnah Avot 5:3

[5] Rambam: commentary on Mishnah Avot

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