Saturday, September 23, 2006
oy... that poor ram!
for your new year's pleasure - my musings on the akedah (the binding of isaac):
A familiar story is a gift, but also a burden. When we have to read the same cautionary tale each year, how do we keep it fresh?
One of my favorite cinematic scenes is from the movie, Dead Poets Society, when the teacher, Robin Williams, instructs each of his students to stand up on top of their desks, in a literal challenge to see the world from a different vantage point, from a new point of view. In a classroom, a few feet up in the air can make all the difference. With that intentionality, I share this poem by the Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai…
The real hero of the binding of Isaac was the ram,In a sense, this infamous ram is in the center of our Rosh Hashanah experience. Without him, there would be no shofar, and poor Isaac might have indeed fallen victim to a fundamentalist father and a bloodthirsty god. But then, even while we recognize his importance, the Biblical text is most definitely not told from the ram’s point of view.
who didn’t know about the collusion between the others.
He was volunteered to die instead of Isaac.
I want to sing a memorial song about him –
about his curly wool and his human eyes,
about the horns that were so silent on his living head,
and how they made those horns into shofars when he was slaughtered
to sound their battle cries
or to blare out their obscene joy.
I want to remember the last frame
like a photo in an elegant fashion magazine:
the young man tanned and pampered in his jazzy suit
and beside him the angel, dressed for a formal reception
in a long silk gown,
both of them looking with empty eyes
at two empty places,
and behind them, like a colored backdrop, the ram,
caught in the thicket before the slaughter,
the thicket his last friend.
The angel went home.
Isaac went home.
Abraham and God had gone long before.
But the real hero of the binding of Isaac
is the ram.
In fact, almost everything about this ram is a bit of a mystery. In the Hebrew verse:
וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה-אַיִל אַחַר נֶאֱחַז בַּסְּבַךְ בְּקַרְנָיו
“and Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw and right there was a ram caught in the thicket by its horns”
the word א - ח - ר pointed as either אַחַר or אַחֶר that follows the word for ram, has confounded scholars for generations, and is often just ignored and not translated at all. Some options for the phrase include “a ram behind caught the thicket” “afterwards, a ram, caught in the thicket” “another ram, caught in the thicket” “the ram – the other – caught in the thicket” or, by exchanging the resh for a dalet – forming the word echad - you get “one ram caught in the thicket.” Each potential translation, though, raises up just as many questions as answers.
When I’m in an especially contemplative mood, I like to read the phrase as - אַיִל אַחֶר – “the ram - the other” – the unknown, nameless, faceless other, who through the fate of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, falls victim.
But then, on the other hand, once Abraham saw the ram caught in the thicket, the ram possibly accepting his role and his fate, Abraham was then also able to discern the Divinity around him.
וַיִּקְרָא אַבְרָהָם שֵׁם-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא, יְהוָה יִרְאֶה, אֲשֶׁר יֵאָמֵר הַיּוֹם, בְּהַר יְהוָה יֵרָאֶה.
“and then Abraham called that place – ‘Adonai will see’ as it is said today, ‘on the mountain, Adonai will be seen’”
When we truly see another person, we see God - the image of God facing us, gazing into our eyes. In so doing, God sees us as well, looking out through the eyes of the other person.
יְהוָה יֵרָאֶה - יְהוָה יִרְאֶה - Adonai will see – Adonai will be seen.