Vayeira (Genesis 22)–The Story of Isaac

Rosh HaShanah, 5772 (2011)

It had been a beautiful service, highlighted by the opportunity to make musical prayers with Rabbi Jim. Now it was time for the Torah reading, so I made my way to the back of the sanctuary. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to this part of the service. The Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah is the binding of Isaac. And with that reading comes the inevitable painful questions: how could a father be willing to kill the son he loves? How could God ask this of anybody?

Jim chanted the Torah as he often does, punctuating the Hebrew with translated English phrases that are also chanted. He read the entire story with an energy that took up the sweep of the tale, that forestalled questions of meaning and motivation in favor of the simple question, “what happens next?” I had never been so aware of this story as a story.

Afterwards, I told Jim how much I appreciated the narrative quality of his reading.  He told me that he was mindful of having read it as a story, something that, as he put it, “has a beginning, a middle, and an end.”

Does the end satisfy?  Does it justify what has come before?  One can imagine this experience as a trauma from which the family never recovers, and this has been done from the midrash to Kierkegaard.  But that morning, I was, unaccountably, content with the simple happy ending of the narrative’s surface.  There was nothing profound about it.  But sometimes the fact that things have worked out is the only explanation you have.

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