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Monday, October 4, 2010


Dvar Torah And Torah Intro For Rosh Hashanah Day 2, 5771.

I have never been a big fan of Bob Dylan’s music and mystique, not because I do not like what he sings and stands for, but because I kind of missed the Dylan moment in American pop culture. Though Dylan continues to be an important force in American music, his greatest influence over the ears and hearts of America was likely in the 60’s and early 70’s, when I was a little kid. Nonetheless, when his music and lyrics speak to me, I know it.

In anticipation of the reading of the painful and complex story of the Binding of Isaac, I have been thinking of the opening stanza of Dylan’s song, Highway 61 Revisited, found on the 1965 album by the same name. The words sound better when sung, but no such luck today: I am going to read them to you.

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son.”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on.”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run.”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61.”

Dylan’s words at first strike us as pretty simplistic poetry. The rhyme scheme doesn’t appear to be very creative, and God’s dialogue with Abraham –who Dylan refers to as Abe in an overly folksy way- feels somewhat forced. Moreover, we have seen this midrash, this interpretation, before: the seemingly compliant Abraham of the Torah is turned into the protesting Abraham of later rabbinic legends, the one who opposes the awful divine decree that he murder his own son. But note how, at the end of the stanza, Dylan turns the biblical story- and its back story- of Abraham’s dialogue with God into something entirely unique, and actually quite sinister. Minnesota State Highway 61, which originates in Dylan’s hometown of Duluth, runs for 151 miles along the shores of Lake Superior until it reaches the border with Canada. Legend has it that the great Blues musician Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads of Highway 61 and highway 49, in return for professional and artistic success. The Abraham of the Torah –a courageous yet enigmatic man of faith- is turned by Dylan into an abused man who would contemplate killing his own son for the sake of protection from the demonic, abusive God demanding such a horrible thing from him. That is why God tells him to kill Isaac, not on Mount Moriah, but out on the notorious Highway 61.

On one level, Dylan’s reading of God’s demonic cruelty that he draws from the Binding of Isaac is an overstatement. As bizarre and terrifying as God’s demand is, we the readers already know that God has no intention of allowing Abraham to kill Isaac. Our Torah portion makes clear: “V’Ha Elohim Nisah Et Avraham,” God puts Abraham’s faith and loyalty to the test only. Further, this is the same God who earlier in Genesis accedes to Abraham’s demand that God behave justly by not killing the righteous people along with the evil doers in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Knowing the context of Abraham’s encounter with God in this terrible story, we are perhaps more inclined to see God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in less extreme terms.

And yet, Abraham himself does not know these things. When we try to imagine Abraham’s experience as our own, to place ourselves in his shoes, we recognize that perhaps Bob Dylan’s take on our story is not so far off the mark emotionally. Can we not safely assume that, when confronted with God’s wildly cruel and capricious demands on the life of his son, Abraham feels like any other parent or in fact any other person who has feelings and a conscience? Literary theorist, Erich Auerbach, points out that the Binding of Isaac is a classic mimetic story: like a mime performing silently, it uses mostly action, no interior monologue and almost no dialogue to convey brilliantly the tensions and deep dilemmas posed by God’s and Abraham’s actions. It never tells us what Abraham is thinking or feeling. However, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence: just because we have no direct idea about how Abraham feels in the story, does not mean that he has no feelings. We just need to imagine them and tease them out of the text with creative interpretation.

So, let me suggest the following as we read this awesome and terrible story. We Jews read it as a faith community on Rosh Hashanah because of its themes of self sacrifice and of hope despite despair, which are the perennial signatures of Jewish faith throughout the ages. We Jews also read it as critically thinking people of conscience who have no problem taking issue loudly with God when we perceive God not living up to the ethical standards that God demands of us. Yet we Jews can and should also look at this and our other great stories as rich works of art that force us to think about the fearful, stormy and often conflicting emotions standing behind our heroes’, God’s, and our own actions. They stir up in us the deep feelings of love, outrage, despair, desire and hope that make us fully human and engaged in dynamic relationships. These emotions are ultimately some of the enduring bases for Jewish religion: a jealous God Who makes impossible demands upon our loyalty, a people torn between loving God in return and wanting to be left alone, and the promise of a relationship between us that transforms us and the world.

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