Reflecting upon the story of the binding of Isaac, traditionally read in synagogues on Rosh Hashanah, David Gottlieb considers his own relationship with his father, who in turn had been shaped by two events: the death of his brother, a naval aviator, during a training exercise in 1943 and an emergency heart surgery at the age of sixty-seven. Gottlieb writes:
[In their] commentaries on the Binding of Isaac, . . . the rabbis at once protest against and reimagine God’s most incomprehensible, even indefensible actions. But the story also helped me see my father in a new light: as a man over whom the knife of war (and, later, invasive surgery) had flashed; as someone who had lost a part of himself; and as a person determined to wrest meaning from the potentially meaningless.
Interpretations of the story of Isaac’s binding so often focus on Abraham that the miracle of Isaac’s lifelong response to it—as a loving husband, a peacemaker, and a phenomenally successful agriculturalist—is often overlooked. But Isaac is a key for our time: he epitomizes the lack of agency we hesitate to confront in our lives, and the contradiction between our helpless repetition of parental patterns and the seeming randomness of our encounters with death.
Innocence ends when we are forced to confront our vulnerability, a crisis that often occurs at the hands of those who guide us up the mountain. Then, in the flash of a knife, we understand that our time is short, and that we are on our own. Through a ritual of violent initiation—often enacted accidentally, or without our consent—we are given new vision and new scars. If we are blessed, we get to go on, but we do so shorn of the illusion that those who raised us can protect us from the terror of being an animal conscious of its own mortality. As the Israeli poet Haim Gouri wrote, Isaac’s offspring “are born with a knife in their hearts.”
More about: Binding of Isaac, Hebrew Bible, Midrash, Rosh Hashanah, World War II