Yesterday did not go as expected. After blathering on about how bored and unimpressed I am in temple services, I found myself moved to tears repeatedly. First, there was the mention by the rabbi that Jews must stand in unity with those who are oppressed, especially Muslims in this country right now. Boom, crying. Then I’d be singing along with the prayers in Hebrew. Boom, lump in the throat. I couldn’t even speak the words during the children’s service when the rabbi told the parents to put their hand on their child’s head and say a blessing.
I think I’m losing it. The other day I was listening to NPR in the kitchen and there was an essay-like piece on parents dropping their kids off at college. There’s me sobbing into the sink. It’s not depression. I’ve been down that road before and know the terrain. It’s like a meltdown is occurring deep inside me and these geysers come spurting out at random times.
Besides my weird crying, the most interesting part of the day was the Torah reading, which included the story of God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. At the very last moment, God sends an angel to stop Abraham from killing Isaac and then rewards him with lots of ancestors and a herd of sheep or whatever the equivalent of a new car! would be back in Biblical times.
My knowledge of Biblical stories is spotty at best, but this one I know. What I realized yesterday is it’s a really fucked up story. I sat there imagining God telling me to kill one of my sons. To tie him up over a fire pit and slit his throat. And I dug down to try to understand what it would have to feel like to agree to do that. I couldn’t do it. The only thing I could possibly summon was fear. Maybe if I was so afraid, like terrified, I would do it. But really, no. No way.
People generally interpret this story to be about the strength of religious faith. But this interpretation from Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling, a book devoted to the story of the binding of Isaac, is compelling. (This courtesy of an article in the British Guardian paper back in March of this year.)
Kierkegaard’s Abraham does not just provide a paradigm of religious faith. If he is an admirable figure in spite of his murderous intentions, this is because he confronts with courage the loss of the person whom he loves most dearly. According to Kierkegaard, Abraham is a hero not by virtue of his obedience to God’s command, but because he maintains his relationship to Isaac after giving him up.
Kierkegaard argues that every relationship is haunted by the prospect of death. Love always leads to loss. Most people try to avoid thinking about death. Others acknowledge the fact and withdraw from the entanglements of human relationships, living a monastic life. Abraham shows enormous courage, Kierkegaard argues, by continuing to love his son in full awareness of the suffering that his death would bring.
Maybe that helps explain the sobbing in the sink. Knowing that one day you have to say goodbye and loving your children fully right now anyway. I falter in the face of it.