Friday, September 14, 2007

All these parables really set out to say . . .

Today, I facilitated a discussion on the Torah portion for the second day of Rosh Hashanah. I began by noting that the text of Genesis 22:1 says that “God tested Abraham,” and that this text is called by some “the testing of Abraham,” while others call it “the binding of Isaac.” And I asked if the name of the story changes the way we process it.

After ten minutes or more of spirited discussion I asked what kind of a tale this is, and I suggested that even for those of us who take the words as being Torah from Sinai, it is still permissible to ask whether this story is an account of literal truth or a story that comes to teach something; concluding that what I was really asking first was, would it be fair to call it a parable? And I noted that the dictionary definition of parable is “a short allegorical story designed to convey some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson.” Finally I asked if there is anything about the nature of an allegorical story that would preclude it from being rooted in reality? Following another ten minutes of discussion, I delivered the following d’var Torah:

Kafka wrote that “Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have.” Of course, Kafka well knew that so-called daily life is NOT the only life we have. What happens in this space and this time is something else. We could create a parable about it and perhaps, as Kafka suggested, it would be no use outside this space, but we are here now, and here it would be useful. (Personally, I don’t believe that where we are is ever as important as who we are, but I also don’t believe that Kafka would disagree.)

Kafka, also wrote of parables, “All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already.” Which is certainly true of the parable of the sacrifice of Isaac: it is incomprehensible and we know that already. But there is still the question of whether it is different to know it as Abraham than to know it as Isaac.

The question itself invites yet another parable, but that one we need to create for ourselves. And perhaps we need to know first whether we stand as Abraham or Isaac, and perhaps that is the greater challenge. I would begin by pondering the relationship of parenting a people to parenting a person because Abraham, in the parable in this parshe must parent a person to parent a people. For me, it almost writes itself:

The father of our people was, of course, Abraham. His father named him Avram, but Avram took the name of Abraham when he entered a covenant with God in which he swore allegiance to the Creator in exchange for certain considerations, including a promise of a multitude of descendants, present company included.

In contrast, my father was named Abraham by his father, but changed his name to Alfred in the 1940s with the expectation that an Anglicized name would make him less identifiable as one of the people of Abraham and thus more likely to be able to make hotel and restaurant reservations in this nation, which was then racially segregated and not only unselfconsciously Christian, but also a nation that regarded Jews as a different race.

My father, no longer named Abraham, was himself fathered by a man named for Isaac. So, the beginning of our people was a man who changed his name to Abraham and had a son named Isaac. And the end might have been a man who had a father named Isaac and changed Abraham to Alfred. Thus, my Jewish people nearly undid themselves in a reversal of how our people began.

Grandfather Isaac was a mystery to me. He spoke little English and was an observant Jew. His son, my father Abraham, was a man of this world, with no patience for our tradition. As a family and a people we ravel and unravel and ravel again. It would be difficult for me to truly understand what each sacrificed and for whom, but I also do not see a great chasm between my personal history and our destiny as a people; both begin with a covenant, whatever that means to us. They begin when we discover our identity and take a new name; and they begin again when we find ourselves responsible for a new generation. Who among us has not transformed ourselves and redefined our relationship to community and the larger mystery of the unfolding world? And who among us has never been confronted with an unacceptable choice that felt at the time as if the choice was either renouncing the world or annihilating our soul?

The parable of Abraham and Isaac does indeed encourage employing it to cloak our personal experiences in an allegorical form, especially if we follow Kafka’s notion of allegory as being incomprehensible. For example, I could make this very personal and speak of how I came to sacrifice my son and how no ram emerged before the knife was raised, and I would of course be speaking in parable about a singular experience that I continue to find incomprehensible.

There are certainly people who would consider me to be pretentious for speaking in parable when I speak of a moment that was most crucial to the formation of my understanding of who I am. But I would invite these people to consider how much more satisfying it is to ponder the crises of our lives when we dare to compare them to the yardstick of a great Torah archetype than what is more common these days.

The common reaction these days to any question to someone who has endured a hardship or trauma is to reply as if the person was only a witness and not the protagonist. You ask “How did it feel?” and he replies, “Well, you know, you feel some pain.” He doesn’t say, “I was in pain.” It’s like it didn’t happen to him. The narrative is one of denial rather than owning the experience. Likewise, these days, if God called to a 21st Century Abraham, that Abraham might very well reply not “Here I am,” but “There you are.” For me, today, one of the powerful lessons I draw from the testing of Abraham is that his response to both God and Isaac when they called his name was “Here I am.”

So, there you are. And here I am. And my wish for all of us in the New Year is that we answer when we are called, and that we speak in our own voices, in the first-person, and from a place where we know who we are, whether that be Abraham, Isaac, or the ram in the thicket.