I would venture to say that most of the men in this room between the ages of 30 and 60 have something in common beyond being men between the ages of 30 and 60. It is this: we each had a collection of baseball cards or bottle caps or cigar bands or some such thing that we painstakingly and lovingly preserved in the nether recesses of our bedroom closets when we were kids. Each summer the collection would emerge, and each year around Thanksgiving it would find its way back into the nether recesses of the closet.
One summer, the collection never made it out of the closet. Each of us has his own reason for that change of circumstance. Mine was named “Leslie.” But the shoe box or cigar box or metal strong box that held those treasures spent the second half of our teenaged years gathering dust beneath the shoes we never wore again and the Qiana shirt that was pushed to the very end of the closet rod.
And then, one day, for reasons that have to do with the life cycle of the adult Jewish female, Mom decided it was finally time to clean out that closet and change the cowboy bedspread and the cartoon sheets. And out went eight million dollars worth of rookie cards, Pepsi-Cola caps with cork inserts or authentic Davidoff Havana rings. And every one of us between the ages of 30 and 60 who recognizes that story is thinking the same thing: if my mother hadn’t cleaned out that closet, I would be set for life.
Of course, one of the reasons that the Sandy Koufax rookie card is selling for $800 on the Internet is because the one guy whose mother was busy digging a bomb shelter in her back yard in 1961 managed to move back into his room before she could clean it out. If we had all saved our 1955 Topps collections, Koufax would be worth $1.25. And that guy is still living in his boyhood room, so the $800 isn’t going to do him any good. He’s still waiting for Leslie.
Something similar happens with our bodies, only it happens over a much longer period of time. We no longer have tails, though we have a little bone in our backs where they used to be. We seem to have lost the webbing between our toes and fingers, though if you look at the back of your hand you can still see what you have in common with the ducks of the world. And we are all born with a completely useless little piece of flesh called the appendix. The appendix serves no function for 21st-century human beings other than to occasionally become infected and even less occasionally burst and pour the poison of that infection into our systems. Ask Steve Stone about the weight loss program his appendix put him on when it performed its own little act of terrorism on his belly.
Sometimes, holding onto the past has a value. Sometimes, holding onto the past does not have a value. But whether there is only a memory of the past or an actual vestige of what once there was, it is useless to pretend that it never was there to begin with. Sooner of later – surfing the ‘net, taking your kids to the zoo or wondering about that pain in your side – the past comes back to remind you.
So it is with some trepidation that I tell you I think I have found the fountain of youth. It is not, as Ponce de Leon believed, in south Florida, or the Auto Train would be filled with Porsches instead of minivans and sedan Deville’s. I have found the inspiration for Stephen King’s chilling novel Pet Semetery, though it is not on a hilltop in a sleepy, creepy New England town.
I found the vestige of that life-giving spring in our Torah reading for today and tomorrow. And along with it, I found a tale of hope and inspiration about how those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it, but those who confront the past need not be imprisoned by it.
What is the most unthinkable crime in our tradition? It is not eating pork, breaking shabbes or worshipping idols. It is not buying retail or moving to Utah. It is child sacrifice. Nothing else gets to the very core of our antipathies as Jews than the notion of intentionally offering up the life of a child in the service of God. No less a scholar than Judah Goldin, one of the great lights of our tradition in the last 100 years, wrote, “As everyone knows, nothing could be more repugnant to the God if Israel than human sacrifice.”
But is it true? Or, let me ask the question this way: Was it always true? And today I want to suggest that the answer is: I don’t think so. I think that our tradition emerged from the experiences of the ancestors of our ancestors, and that we learned the hard way some of the most important lessons of our heritage. And I am going to illustrate it to you, but not before I revisit a controversial theological question.
Who wrote the Torah? I don’t know, and neither do you. Some of you believe that it was recited to Moses atop Sinai. Some of you believe it was inspired by God and transcribed by Moses. Some of you believe it to be an oral tradition that began even before Moses and that was not finalized until Ezra. Still others believe it to have been a series of human documents edited to a single text with divine aspirations. All of those beliefs have two things in common: first, they raise more questions than they answer and second, they cannot be proved to the satisfaction of someone who holds to a different belief.
But I ask you to suspend your defensiveness on this subject for the next few minutes and not worry about how we came to receive the document we call Torah. I ask you instead to think in pre-Torah terms: what happened before the stories were told. Here’s an example: before God commanded us not to steal, somebody stole something. In other words, God did not invent stealing in order to give the commandment. Stealing preceded the giving of the Torah. And frankly, even the midrash affirms that statement. When God went to give the Torah to Israel, God shopped it around a little first, asking one of the nations, “Will you accept the Torah?” “What’s in it?” they asked. “You shall not steal,” said God. “Sorry,” they responded, “We are a nation of thieves. We cannot accept the Torah.”
So what I am about to suggest is not in the Torah. But it might be the reason the Torah was written the way it was written. Because there are different ways to learn lessons, some through logic, some through directive, some through experience, and some through story. It is the story behind the story, however, which can either be as valuable as a 1955 Sandy Koufax rookie card or as dangerous as an inflamed appendix.
“Sarah saw the son whom Hagar had borne to Abraham playing. She said to Abraham, ‘Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share an inheritance with my son Isaac.’ The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned a son of his. But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be distressed over the boy or your slave; whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you. As for the son of the slave-woman, I will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed.’ Early the next morning Abraham took some bread and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar. He placed them over her shoulder, together with the child, and sent her away. And she wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheva. When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away, for she thought, ‘Let me not look on the dying of the child.’ And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears.”
We read that story just a few minutes ago, but when we studied it in a staff meeting six months ago, Benjy Cohen struggled with a huge problem in the text. In Hebrew more obviously than in English, it appears that Abraham put Ishmael over the shoulders of Hagar and sent her away.
By any reckoning, Ishmael had to be at least fourteen years old. He was thirteen when he and his father were circumcised, and Isaac was not born until after Abraham was circumcised. How, why would a teenaged boy be put across the shoulders of his mother? And why would the text say that Abraham sent her away, that she wandered in the wilderness. Why did it not say that they were sent, that they wandered?
And why, wondered Benjy, is the text so spare with the time frame. It appears that as soon as the water was gone from the skin, Hagar gave up, casting her son under a bush and sitting off at a distance. Even in the desert, they might have wandered for a day or two more before being overcome. And why would the son remain so distant from his mother – why didn’t he stand up and come to her?
Our commentators have a field day with this scenario. Ten years ago, I had a field say with it, showing the difference in the way Ishmael is treated from the way Isaac is treated in tomorrow’s reading. And I emphasize to you, this is all the text we have. We have to offer conjecture about these responses, because no one can backfill the story.
But suppose with me for a moment, as Benjy suggested, that there was a reason Ishmael was draped across Hagar’s shoulders, a reason that Abraham was so distressed, a reason that God had to reassure him. Suppose that the reason he was cast under a bush and did not get up was because he was dead, sacrificed for the cause at the hand of his father. When Hagar ran out of water, she ran out of hope. She put the corpse of her son at a distance, sat and wept.
I know, it is antithetical to what we believe about our tradition. And I say again – it is not our tradition. But perhaps it is the story behind the story, the one that might have echoed for our ancestors of 3000 years ago as they listened to the Torah, from the mouth of God through the hand of Moses.
And it most certainly helps to explain some other peculiarities in the text – similarities to earlier stories, to Cain and Abel, where the voice of blood cries out from the ground, and to Noah, where the keshet, the bow, is a symbol of rescue from death, and even to Eden, where expulsion and death seem interchangeable. And there are similarities to later stories, to Moses burying the Egyptian in the sand, and to the wailing of the Israelites after the deaths of their beloved leaders.
We certainly have other examples of child sacrifice in our tradition. Perhaps the most famous is the foolish pledge of the judge Yiftach, Jeptha, to sacrifice the first thing that comes out to greet him if he is victorious in battle. It is his daughter, and the text is pretty clear that she dies. Jeremiah decries the presence of child sacrifice in Jerusalem, almost universally understood to be a pagan practice. And the injunctions in the Torah itself about Molech worship – casting children to this bloodthirsty idol – certainly attest to the practice. None of them, however, includes any intimation of God’s compliance.
But tomorrow you will hear the next part of this story. In clear and unmistakable language, God commands Abraham to take his son, his only son, the one he loves, Isaac to a mountain vha’aleihu sham l’olah, and offer him up as a burnt offering. The traditional readers of Torah point out through their tears that God says “offer him up,” not “sacrifice him,” as if the mere offer is all God is asking. But those same commentators are ambivalent about whether Abraham meets or fails God’s test before being stopped by a heavenly voice, knife in hand, child quivering beneath.
We read the story as Isaac’s narrow escape, as Abraham’s crowning moment of faith. But in Sephardic tradition, there is a midrash much lesser known in Ashkenazic circles. Abraham completes the sacrifice, and God drops a single, precious tear on the slain child to bring him back to life. And a better-known midrash says R. Pinchas in the name of R. Benaiah taught: Abraham prayed, “Master of the universe, regard it as though I had sacrificed my son Isaac first and only afterwards sacrificed this ram.” And the best-known midrash has Abraham arguing with the angel who contravenes God’s instruction, threatening to slay Isaac until God’s own voice is introduced to prevent the sacrifice.
Is it possible that in some earlier incarnation of these stories, the father sacrifices the son to the demanding commanding god? Is it possible that any god worth worshipping would make such a demand? Is it possible that our own Jewish tradition, evolved from the Israelite tradition, evolved from the Hebrew tradition, may have held this stomach-churning ritual as part of its foundation?
Before you answer too quickly, keep that defensive attitude in check just a moment longer. The voice of our God is unmistakable in the book of Bemidbar, the book of Numbers. Tucked into the instructions regarding the sanctification of the Levites is this statement: (8:16-17) “They are wholly given to Me from among all the first-born of the Israelites; instead of all that open the womb, the very first-born of the all the Israelites, I have taken them to Me. For all the first-born among the Israelites are Mine, both man and beast; on the day that I smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt, I set them aside for Myself.”
We understand service and substitutes to take the place of the first-born, but only of the first-born of human beings. The first-born of cattle and sheep are sacrificed to God, their lives taken in acts of devotion. And we buy off our first-born sons from a local Kohein in our devotion to redeem them from a symbolic sacrifice still in place.
Buried somewhere in the dark recesses of our history, whether as Jews or as the human beings who were the ancestors of the Jews, is the notion of child sacrifice. And the echoes of that practice are still within the sacred book we unashamedly and accurately call a tree of life to those who hold fast to it. Why would the sacrifice of Ishmael, the sacrifice of Isaac, the sacrifice of the first-born male be preserved in the Torah? Why would the tactic tried by Pharaoh to eliminate our people and then visited upon him and his people in retaliation find expression in our sacred scripture?
I think the answer lies in that fountain of youth. It is – or was – in a location in the desert that is today a center of technology and research for the State of Israel. It is – or was – Beersheva.
When Hagar cast Ishmael under the bush, his life was restored when God showed her a well of water in Beersheva. She filled her water skin and hydrated the boy. And the story abruptly shifts to the future.
When Abraham completed the sacrifice on Mount Moriah, no mention is made of Isaac. Abraham and his entourage returned to Beersheva. Then the story abruptly shifts to the future.
When Isaac was older and wealthy, he set out to reopen the wells his father had dug. They had been filled by the local tribes, but Isaac discovered them all. The locals contended with Isaac over the water rights, until finally he found a well they allowed him to have. It was called – Rechovot. It should have sufficed, but Isaac was looking for something else. It was the well his servants then dug up in Beersheva. The story then abruptly shifts to the future.
When Joseph was long disappeared, famine forced his brothers to seek food in Egypt. After much contention and deception, he was reunited with his brothers. And when they returned home and told their father Jacob, who had long since grieved for his beloved son, he proclaimed, od yosef b’ni chai! He proclaimed, “Joseph my son yet lives!” or perhaps “Joseph my son lives again!” And he traveled to make a sacrifice at a place his father had described to him: the well Isaac rediscovered at Beersheva. And for the last time in his life, God spoke to Jacob.
There is something resurrecting about the water at Beersheva. It is the place in Torah in which God’s power over death is manifest. Dead sons are brought back to life, dead histories are made living again, dead traditions are restored. In the Book of Genesis, and in tantalizing hints throughout other parts of Torah, God’s ability to resurrect the dead underlies the earliest stories of our discovery of the Holy One.
What distinguished this God of Abraham from the Baals and the Molekhs and the Asheiras of the other tribes? Was not this God merely one more competitor for the allegiances of local chieftains?
Perhaps to prove the special power, the unique abilities, God had to perform a demonstration of superiority. Our God, The God, was m’chayei hameitim, the resurrector of life. Our God, The God, could demand a child as a sacrifice and return him to life, rather than consuming him.
As I said, this story is not in the Torah. And maybe I am making it up out of whole cloth, taking an intriguing linguistic insight that Benjy offered, tossing it to the roomful of monkeys and typewriters, and coming up with this wild fantasy.
I don’t think so.
The strongest evidence I can find of how powerful and defining this aspect of God’s nature is in the foundation of our religion is the religion that emerged from it. Christianity is based entirely on this story: God so loved us that he sacrificed his beloved son – and restored him to life.
And if you are reluctant to bring proof from Christianity, then look no farther than the prayer book you hold in your hand each time you enter this Cohen Sanctuary or the Flax Chapel. Just after we acknowledge the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, we repeat over and over again that God is the one who is m'chayei meitim b’rachamim rabbim--melekh meimit u’michayeh, God is the one who brings life to the dead in great compassion--the sovereign who kills and brings to life. Our sages who authored our liturgy used that phrase: melekh meimit u’michayeh--the sovereign who kills and brings to life.
But unlike the central story of Christianity and unlike the generalized attributes of the Amidah, the Torah does not contain clear evidence of child sacrifice. Unlike the unrecorded process of Jesus’s resurrection and the flat assurance of our own in our siddur, if Beersheva boasted the fountain of youth, the spring of resurrecting water, it seems to have disappeared under sand and asphalt and silicon chips. And why is that, if I am so certain I have found a hidden message of Torah?
The answer arrives later this week as we reflect on the year that has passed since September 11, 2001. The vestiges of this practice appear in the text, a faded mark under a brilliantly executed canvas. The evidence of what came before is the tailbone at the base of my spine, the soft skin where my fingers meet the back of my hand, the useless appendix hiding in the dark folds of my body.
This residue reminds us of who we were, but who we are no longer. This remnant exists to show us how far we have come, but to remind us that our point of arrival was not our point of origin. This relic teaches us that not everything that came before, however necessary at the time, was good. And not everything that came before now, however good, is still necessary.
Child sacrifice? Yes, we know about it. We know that God could demand it of us and we would have no choice but to comply. And we could comply unafraid because God has the power to return those sacrificed children to us.
As a human race, as a Jewish people, we have long since passed the need to sacrifice our beloved sons. Whatever lesson God sought to teach in that demand has been learned and integrated. We have moved on, permanently.
As a Jewish people, as members of that human race, we are neither so refined in our origins nor so innocent in our experience that we cannot judge others who have yet to learn this lesson. Whether in the name of religion people send their children to death with the promise of resurrection, or whether in the name of success people sacrifice their offspring’s childhood with the promise of later achievement, or whether in the name of professed love people place the weight of family conflict on their children with the promise of a better life, we have kept this musty collection of long-ago lessons to remind us that the well of Beersheva was closed on purpose.
God has nothing more to prove. And neither do God’s faithful.
The lesson of this atrophied practice is not just specific. It is general as well. Many notions that served us well in the past have lost their meaning. Circumstances have changed, and those practices or beliefs that were a means to an end, not an end in themselves, may need to be reimagined or retired, lovingly saved as a reminder of who we were and as evidence of who we no longer are.
We live in a global community and we must rise to the reality. As Jews, as the children of Israelites, who were the children of Hebrews, we have always taken our stand outside the accepted norms and attempted to apply eternal values. We have sought to model that we can experience the same world as our neighbors without always reaching the same conclusions.
My topic today is a little upsetting, and for that I offer apologies. I have spoken long enough today. Come back tomorrow. We’ll talk some more.