It is the tradition on Rosh Hashanah to hear the chanting of the Torah portion from Genesis which is that terrifying moment when Abraham takes Isaac up the mountain and lays him on an altar to sacrifice him only to have the intervention from an angel of The Lord to stop him from plunging a knife into his only son. I knew this was the reading we'd hear. I've been hearing it every year that I have attended this service with my partner. So, it should be no surprise that when I woke up this morning, I was thinking about this very complex and troubling story. And I was thinking about this world, the events happening at a global and local level with politics, wars, sports. A responsive prayer at the beginning of the service summed up my thinking:
When will redemption come?
When we master the violence that fills our world.
When we look upon others as we would have them look upon us.
When we grant to every person the rights we claim for ourselves.
Which brings me back to seeing the story of Abraham and Isaac in light of today's world. It's not uncommon for the generation that comes before to look at the ones coming up behind them with a bit of disdain and dismissiveness. Even as the older grumbles that the younger is lazy or immature or reckless, they also look to the younger to fix the problems the older generation is currently immersed in creating. I thought it was rich when I was a senior in prep school that my sociology teacher lectured us about the proliferation of nuclear weapons and that it was up to us, the ones on the cusp of gaining the right to vote, to save the country and the world from this threat. Outspoken student that I was, I approached her after class and told her that since I had no right, at that time, to vote perhaps it was really up to her generation to not saddle mine with this problem. The older generation posseses the power in the moment and has the knowledge that the younger generation does not. Why wait for the younger generation to come of age and then expect them to fix the mess?
This is where I see the intersection with the story of Abraham and Isaac. The story in Genesis begins with God putting Abraham to the test:
"He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together."
Abraham knows what has been asked of him, a terrible and terrifying reality that he's been asked to kill his son. He lays the burden of carrying the wood on Isaac. Isaac, a simple young man, asks a straight forward question, "If there's going to be a sacrifice, where's the lamb?" And Abraham, rather than giving him the hard truth, gave him an answer to hold off any further questions. And they kept walking together. The truth may have been more than Abraham could handle himself. The truth may have been so disturbing that he couldn't say anything more than what he said. And the truth is, as it will turn out later in the story, that he wasn't lying: God would eventually provide the lamb. But not before Abraham had bound poor Isaac and stood over him with a knife.
Abraham represents the older generation or, more accurately, the baby boomers and the Gen-Xers who are holding the positions of authority and are the ones "in charge" of our worldly affairs at the moment. Isaac are those who are coming up behind us from the 20-somethings all the way down to the infants and yet to be born. Like Abraham, we presently face many tests:
Are we going to get serious about climate change and our dependence on fossil fuels?
Are we going to think it is acceptable to beat women?
How about the shooting of unarmed black men and women?
Will we scream at immigrant children on buses?
Will we refuse to pay people a living wage?
Will our universities go to the highest bidder?
Or allow gangs of people to gang up on gay people walking at night?
How long can we stand politicians who refuse to fulfill their duties to lead and hold our government hostage?
Will we drop bombs on ISIS or start fighting another war?
Can there ever be peace in the Middle East?
These are just some of the questions that we Abrahams have before us in the perpetual journey of discerning how to choose life over death. Our decisions are in our hands in the same way that the knife was in Abraham's. And we, like Abraham, are standing with these questions, these important questions, that will determine the future and fate of our Isaac generations. We are holding that knife and there are some who seemingly are ready to make the sacrifice of our future generations while daring to praise God as they do it. There are also some of us who are listening for the voice of the angel to tell us to put the knife down, and find that God is providing, through the voices of scientists and climatologists and peace makers and lovers of justice and men and women of many colors, orientations, creeds, who are saying, "Don't sacrifice the future! Listen!" We have voices of angels calling to us to take on these difficult and seemingly impossible tasks of doing what is right for our world now, and not slough it off onto the next generation. Because to slough it off may be like plunging the knife into Isaac's chest.
When will redemption come?
When we listen for that voice that says, "This is the way. Walk in it."