This week we read Parashat Vayera, which begins with the mitzvah of hospitality and almost, but not quite, ends with murder, the rudest gesture of all. But God and the angel intervene, Abraham passes the test of faith, and many blessings are bestowed. If you didn't already know the end of the story, you might assume they all lived happily ever after. Nope, those blessings are just a tease. At yesterday's meditation class, we read (in between the silence) Yehuda Amichai's version, which finds the darker, selfish places that are obscured by the light of Abraham's triumph of trust:
The Real Hero
The real hero of the Isaac story was the ram,
who didn't know about the conspiracy between the others.
As if he had volunteered to die instead of Isaac.
I want to sing a song in his memory--
about his curly wool and his human eyes,
about the horns that were 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 manicured in his jazzy suit
and beside him the angel, dressed for a party
in a long silk gown,
both of them empty-eyed, looking
at two empty places,
and behind them, like a colored backdrop, the ram,
caught in the thicket before the slaughter.
The thicket was his last friend.
The angel went home.
Isaac went home.
Abraham and God had gone long before.
But the real hero of the Isaac story
was the ram.
--Yehuda Amichai, "The Real Hero"
The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, trans. Chana Bloch & Stephen Mitchell
(Berkeley: Univ. California Press, 1996)
This poem is like a pinch of salt that completely changes the flavor of the soup. We talked about the ram as a metaphor for Israel, the thicket as our personal place of denial, and the garish magazine tableau as representing our lack of respect for the nature that shelters so many rams and other innocents in its (non-metaphorical) thickets. But what struck me most were the pairings: Isaac and the angel on one side, God and Abraham on the other, like equals. Why did such a powerful couple abandon their children at the end of the poem? Why were their children's eyes so vacant?
We think of ourselves as God's partners, but that doesn't mean we're equals. Yet we aspire to God-like power and control, believing these are the best tools to shape our destinies. We spend our lives wrestling with states of indecision, like Abraham when ordered to kill Isaac, sure that one choice over another will gain us favor in God's eyes. But maybe the answer isn't so important. Maybe we're simply meant to stumble blindly through the journey, a mindful kind of stumbling just like meditation, acquiring no particular measure of strength or wisdom in the process but making sure to observe as we go along. And if we watch, really watch, as it unfolds, then we'll notice when our attention wanders, see when the emptiness begins to creep in, and it might not be too late to fill ourselves up again with the real substance of life. We'll know better than to go home in the middle of the story, abandoning our children and ourselves in the process. Maybe we'll learn to be like the lamb, the thicket connecting us to rather than hiding us from the rest of the world.