By Mark Gerson
One of the most enjoyable aspects of hosting the podcast, “The Rabbi’s Husband,” is learning why my guest chose the passage we are discussing. There are thousands of biblical passages to choose from, and a guest—by virtue of having selected the one under discussion—invariably has derived original, fascinating, and sometimes moving insights from it that have profoundly impacted his or her life. I am fortunate to be able to learn, discuss, and share these insights.
One example is an episode I released last week with Rabbi Ari Berman. Rabbi Ari is the President of Yeshiva University in New York, which is the premier institution of Modern Orthodox Judaism. The passage he chose was perhaps the most interpreted, debated, and haunting passage in the Bible: the Akeidah (the binding of Isaac) from Genesis 22. Every biblical student, from the most renowned ancient Rabbis to kids in Sunday school today, have encountered, pondered, and commented on this awesome passage.
Who could say anything original about it? Well—Rabbi Berman.
At the beginning of the passage, God appears and says one word: “Abraham.”
Abraham responds to God with equal conciseness: “Hineni” (“Here I am”). This is not a declaration of location. It is a statement of existential presence. Here I am: completely, wholly for you.
God tells Abraham—at least, Abraham interprets God this way—to take “your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac” to the mountain to sacrifice him. This is the first mention of love in the Bible.
Several verses later, Isaac indicates he realizes something is odd. They are going up the mountain for a sacrifice, but there is no lamb.
Isaac asks: “Avi”? This is often translated as “Father.” But it is the most personal way to express that relationship. It is more like “Daddy.”
Abraham responds: “Hineni.”
Just as Abraham was present for God, he is now present for Isaac. But there is a problem. How can he be present for both God and Isaac, given that God has (according to Abraham’s understanding) instructed him to slaughter his son?
With this question unresolved, Abraham and Isaac proceed up the mountain. Abraham binds Isaac, lays Isaac on the altar, and takes out the knife. The Bible makes the purpose very clear. Abraham is holding the knife to “slay his son.”
At this moment, with Abraham’s arm presumably raised high to strike the fatal blow, an angel of God appears. The angel says: “Abraham, Abraham.”
Why, Rabbi Berman asks, does the angel say “Abraham” twice? The angel could presumably have said “Abraham” as loudly as necessary for the Jewish founding father to hear. And Abraham, presumably, would be ready to listen to an emissary of the God who is giving him this horrible assignment. The answer is in Abraham’s reply.
“Hineni”—the third time.
The purpose of the repetition of “Abraham” is clear. The angel, as Rabbi Berman explains, was addressing both Abrahams: Abraham the child of God and Abraham the father of Isaac. Abraham, in answering “Hineni” to the third statement, was being educated in one of God’s great truths: He could be present both as God’s child and as Isaac’s father.
This message was not primarily intended for Abraham, as he and Isaac walk down the mountain apart, live apart, and do not have another recorded conversation. It was intended for us. Our two great allegiances are to our God and to our children. What happens, the story of the Akeidah leads us to ask, when they conflict?
The answer is reminiscent of what Maimonides, perhaps the greatest rabbi of all time, said when asked what to do when the Torah and science conflict. Given, he said, that the Torah is true, and science is true—they both must be right. So, if you think that the Torah conflicts with a scientific fact, your interpretation of the Torah is wrong.
Similarly, God is telling us at the Akeidah: If you think your obligation to your son and to God conflict, your interpretation of either obligation must be wrong. In God’s world, you can be present for both the Lord and for your children.
Why is this important? It disproves a common expression: “I would do anything for my children.” Anything? Even if we are tempted, we cannot be present for our children in a way that does not also accommodate God.
If a parent wants to indulge a child with too much money or too few rules, to gain a child an advantage by cheating or to protect him from consequences by lying, the answer from Genesis 22 is clear: Your responsibility is to be present for both God and your child. And we cannot be present for God in a way that does not accommodate our children. If a parent wants to study or pray at the expense of providing sufficiently for his family economically or spiritually, the answer from Genesis 22 is equally clear: Your responsibility is to be present for both God and for your children.
What a gift from God! Given that our feelings of love for God and for our children are so powerful, they can each easily take over our entire selves. And no tension could be more painful and more difficult than the one that could be produced when our greatest passions meet our greatest ambitions. In comes God, telling Abraham—and in so doing, telling us—there is no such tension. You can always be true to God and true to your child. In fact, being present for one means being present for the other.
Mark Gerson, a devoted Jew, is an entrepreneur and philanthropist who (along with his wife, Rabbi Erica Gerson) is perhaps the world’s largest individual supporter of Christian medical missions. He is the co-founder of African Mission Healthcare (AMH) and the author of a forthcoming book on the Haggadah: The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life.