09/28/2011 08:43 am ET | Updated Nov 28, 2011

The Binding of Isaac and a Message of Optimism

The Jewish liturgy on Rosh Hashanah declares, hayom harat olam, "today is the birthday of the world." The phrase evokes the majesty of creation. It reminds us simultaneously that we mortals are mere specks of dust in the broader universe. At the same time, we have great significance. The overall message of the penitential period from Rosh Hahhanah through Yom Kippur is that we can change ourselves through teshuvah (lit., "return") and thereby change the world. Thus, these days of awe are meant to inspire us to engage in the ongoing creation of the world, not cower from it. The tone of the Holy Days may be solemn, but the purpose is optimistic.

Awe of creation and the Creator permeates one of the central biblical texts in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy: Akeidat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22). Throughout the ages, there has been no shortage of interpretation of this harrowing tale. In the Jewish-environmental context of this blog, one rabbinic midrash has special poignancy, what might be called an "eco-conscious" reading.

As Abraham and Isaac, along with the two unnamed lads who accompany them, near the end of their journey, the text reads: "On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar" (Genesis 22:4).

Midrash Tanchuma (Vayera 23) offers the following comment:

As they approached the place and saw it from afar, Abraham asked Isaac, "Do you see what I see?" And Isaac answered, "I see a beautiful, majestic mountain, and the cloud of glory hovers over it."

He then asked his two young servants, "Do you see anything?"

They answered, "We see nothing but a wasteland." Abraham said to them, "Remain behind here with the donkeys."

The two lads are supporting cast members who typically get lost in the psycho-drama of the narrative. Yet, the rabbis in their careful reading of the text take note that they were left behind as Abraham and Isaac ascend the mountain. The rabbis ask why that is, and their answer is that they were not filled with a sense of awe. They did not sense the presence of the divine in creation. Abraham saw the makom, the Place (which, in rabbinic Hebrew, becomes another name for God); the lads saw a wasteland. Therefore, Abraham excluded them from further participation in this momentous occasion.

Of course, we can ask numerous questions about the lads and presume our own course of action if we were in their shoes. We might gather from the text that of course Abraham excluded them. Why would he want them snooping around, given what unfolds? If we were there, would we surreptitiously follow our masters up the mountain? Would we call the police when we saw Abraham raise his knife? Would we run and tell Sarah? (Oh, yes, she does die suddenly in the next chapter, doesn't she?) This particular midrash overlooks all of these questions and directs our attention to the broader atmosphere.

Abraham and Isaac are not without their faults. Abraham follows God's instructions in an unquestioning way that is incongruent with the Abraham who argues with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Isaac, for his part, is passive. He may well be an adult already but is willing to go along with his father's plan. His willful passivity (assuming that to be the case) demonstrates his own lapse in concern of the sanctity of life in the name of serving his God. In reading the text one is left with little doubt that the main characters were deeply scarred by this episode. God never speaks to Abraham again. Abraham and Isaac never speak again. Sarah dies.

All of this is true, and still the rabbis writing the midrash above were bothered by those two anonymous youths at the bottom of the mountain whom we never hear from again. Abraham and Isaac, for all their faults, are looking for the spark of the divine in their lives. They are imperfect in their comprehension of it, and they are hurt in the process; however, they still care. The rabbis interpret the two lads as indifferent to the divine presence, and indifference is taboo in the Torah and in the annals of Jewish interpretation.

Deuteronomy commands: lo tuchal l'hita'lem, "you may not be indifferent" (22:3). In this specific context, it's ignoring someone in anguish over losing an object, but the prohibition of indifference can be interpreted more broadly.

As stated eloquently by Elie Wiesel: "The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.

As the rabbis interpret, at a momentous time in the Bible, two youths were pessimistic and indifferent and were excluded from further participation. At the dawn of the Jewish New Year, a message we can take from the Binding of Isaac is to infuse ourselves with renewed optimism that we can make the world a better place. It's in our power to work in partnership with the divine to make a difference in mankind's stewardship of the earth and in our treatment of one another.