1st Day Rosh Hashana 5778 – Rabbi Tony Bayfield





“You really can’t be serious.”

“But I am”

“Please, please, don’t do it.”

“I have to.”

“But why?”

“Because He told me to.”

“He can’t have.”

“He did.”

“Look, you know I’ve supported you since we met.  I gave up everything – my family, my home – for you.  So how can you do this to me.  How can you do this to him – he worships you, trusts you, will do anything you ask. Look, I’ve never once questioned your vision.  You’re a great man.  Your understanding of what life is about – and of God – will change the world, I promise you.  But this is wrong.  For once you’ve got God wrong.”

“I haven’t.  He spoke to me as clearly as He always has.  ‘Take your son and sacrifice him.’  That’s what He said.   You think I want to – my son, my only son.  But that’s what He said and He’s never let me down before.”

“Oh my God, you’re impossible.  You’re an obstinate old fool.  Either you’re wrong or God’s wrong and I’ll tell you why.  First, the God who spoke to you before, the God who spoke to me, Isaac’s mother – is a God of justice and compassion.  Remember – you argued with Him over Sodom and Gomorrah.  If there are 50, 40, 30, 20, 10 righteous men in Sodom and Gomorrah, how – you challenged Him – how can You destroy the cities: HaShofet col ha’aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat:  Must not the Judge of all the earth act justly?  Always.  You said it and He agreed.  So how can it be just to kill our son, our only son – Isaac.  You can’t answer that can you and I’ll give you another reason.  I once did something you thought was wrong:  I sent Hagar and Ishmael away.  Why?  Because Isaac is your heir.  Isaac is the future.  Isaac will carry forward what you and I have started.  You questioned what I was doing and God told you to listen to me.[1]  So listen to me now: if you sacrifice Isaac, you sacrifice not just your fundamental values, everything you and I stand for; you betray us, our identity and our future.  So please, please, please, don’t do it.”

The following morning Abraham got up early, saddled his donkey, chopped wood for the burnt offering, took Isaac his son and two lads and set out for the place that God had spoken about to him.

* * * *

You know just as well as me what happened next.  And after it was all over – or rather, thankfully, not all over – Abraham, Isaac and the two lads returned to Be’ersheva.  However, the Rabbis noticed that Isaac isn’t mentioned by name in that, the last verse of the story – just Abraham and the two lads.  So they added the devastating gloss that Sarah saw them coming home without Isaac and died of a broken heart.

The Akedah is not a story of faith and obedience; it’s a story of betrayal – of a man willing to betray his son, his wife, his deepest values and his family’s future.

* * * *

Having told you rather theatrically how I read Genesis 21 and 22, let me make two observations:

First, when Rosh Hashanah is well into its second day and the second Torah Reading ends, you realise that you’ve fallen for a sucker punch.  You were tempted in by promises of honey and apple, new clothes, new fruit, new hope – lai, lai, lai, lai – and then mugged by two scarifying passages of Torah about Judaism’s founding trinity Abraham, Sarah and Isaac: the scandalous expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael and the near-fatal binding of Isaac.

Second, in Abraham’s stubborn, hard-nosed flirting with the end before we’d begun there are unmistakable echoes of the world out there today in which the credulous young are sacrificed on the altar of their elders’ stubbornly held but terribly mistaken beliefs and no messenger from God stops them.  Or, rather, they don’t listen even to messengers from God.

You’ll by now have gathered that this sermon isn’t going to be a barrel of laughs.  But then there’s not much to laugh about in today’s world of seemingly unending delusion, bad-faith (both meanings) and disaster.

A couple of months ago, I was sitting – smugly paternal – back at the shop during a Shabbat morning service when Miriam handed out some well-chosen, thematically-connected readings and I noticed a reference to Avishai Margalit.  The name rang a bell because quite some years ago I’d read a book which Professor Margalit had co-authored, a book on idolatry.   That afternoon – with nothing else to do, it was just before the transfer window opened – I Amazoned Avishai Margalit and discovered that a few months earlier he’d published a new book called, “On Betrayal”.  I bought it there and then – yes, I do believe that buying books of Jewish significance is permitted on Shabbat – and when it arrived, I discovered that Professor Margalit is a secular Israeli, a distinguished professor of philosophy, as at home in English at Princeton as in Hebrew at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  It’s not a book I’d recommend, amongst other reasons because his philosophical method can be extremely tiresome as well as challenging.  But it’s taken me in a direction I find interesting and hope you will as well.

* * * *

You may well have noticed that Sarah accuses Abraham – rightly, in my view – of three acts of betrayal: betrayal of family – Isaac and herself, betrayal of himself and his values, and betrayal of this future.

Margalit distinguishes between ‘thick’ relationships and ‘thin’ relationships. It’s ‘thick’ relationships that are open to betrayal.  These are our intimate relationships – relationships with a shared history, filled with memories, and mutual dependence.

Sarah again: “Remember how it all started – the earthquake you caused by rejecting the idols of Haran and leading us off into the unknown; the events and people of our journey – your circumcision, our name change, going off with Lot.  You relied on me and I relied on you.  And then came Isaac.  He respects you.  He loves you.  He trusts you.  ‘Where’s the lamb for the sacrifice?  God will provide, my son.’  He trusts you and you’re prepared to betray that trust.”

‘Thick’ relations are built on shared personal history, mutuality, reliance.  They make people special for each other.  And the blow we deliver if we reveal that someone or something is more important than them – is savage and shattering.  Betrayal.

Sarah’s second accusation is that Abraham is not only thinking of betraying the two people closest to him – his wife and his son – but he’s also intent on betraying himself.  Central to Abraham’s understanding of what matters most to him and to God is justice or, rather, that ineradicable tension between justice and compassion on which the world stands.  You heard Sarah paraphrase Abraham’s challenge to God over Sodom and Gomorrah:

“You, God, are the embodiment of justice; is it even conceivable that You would act unjustly?  If there are ten righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah doesn’t justice, fairness, compassion dictate that You spare the city?”

Time and time again, Abraham has refused to take the apparent dictates of God at face value.  Always he argues, always he challenges and justice with compassion lies at the heart of the encounter.  Only on this one occasion, this total m’shugas, this one horrifying madness does Abraham limply, unquestioningly acquiesce.  And, in so doing, he betrays himself.

The third dimension to Abraham’s betrayal is the equal of the other two if not even greater.  For if Abraham had sacrificed Isaac, it would indeed have all been over before it began.  The journey that started in Haran would have ended on Mount Moriah.  It would have been snuffed out before the experience of God Who is the embodiment of justice and compassion had been shared with the world; expunged long before we were suckered into coming to shul and then mugged with two paradigmatic accounts of seduction and betrayal.

Sarah ends: “Without Isaac – and his children, please God, and his children’s children – there is no people, no future for this journey.  Please, Abraham, please”

* * * *

Avishai Margalit is an Israeli academic, a professional philosopher.  What I found so ‘smile of recognition’ about his book was that it’s so Jewish.  What does that mean?  It means that most of the examples he uses are the ones that spring naturally to mind if you’re an educated Jew.  Yes, he uses lots of secular material – and, of course, he uses passages from the New Testament about Judas and his betrayal of Jesus – but texts from the Tanakh flow naturally from his computer.  His historical examples include Dreyfus and Brother Daniel – a Polish Jew by the name of Oswald Rufeisen who, during the Second World War, posed as a Pole of German extraction, smuggled arms to the Jewish underground, was imprisoned, escaped, took refuge with nuns, converted to Catholicism, left the convent to join the Jewish partisans – and, after the War, became a Carmelite Brother.  Not long after, Brother Daniel – as he was now known – petitioned for the right to exercise the Law of Return as a committed Zionist and loyal Jew and settle in Israel.  It was so refreshing to read modern philosophy in ‘Jewish’ rather than have to translate it from the tropes of modern western thought!

But more important – much more important – was Margalit’s assumption that ‘thick’ relationships don’t just include those between two individuals, within families, amongst close friends – they also include being part of the Jewish people.

Some of you may remember the JFS case nearly a decade ago in which a woman, converted by the Reform Movement but a member of New North London Synagogue, challenged the right of JFS to exclude her child on the grounds that, because of her non-orthodox conversion, he wasn’t a proper Jew.  She won her case in the Supreme Court, though – for me uncomfortably – on the grounds of discrimination under the 1976 Race Relations Act.  In the early stages of the proceedings, I was asked for evidence by the Treasury Solicitor.  I defined Jews as a people – some born into the people, some choosing to become part, all equally bound together by ties of family and history.  I was surprised and gratified to find support for that definition from Avishai Margalit in “On Betrayal”.

You may well be able to anticipate the thrust of Margalit’s argument for including the Jewish people in his definition of ‘thick’ relations.  He cites a Shoah survivor called Julian Tuwim – the name may not be completely unfamiliar because the great anthologiser Jonathan Magonet anthologised him in the siddur!  Tuwim was born into an assimilated Jewish family from Lodz but expressed absolute solidarity with all Jews because the Nazis, he said, were emptying the blood of his fellow Jews out of our veins.  Margalit points out that blood plays a dual role in Tuwim’s expression of solidarity.  First, it’s literally the blood of murdered Jews.  But it’s also the blood relationship that Tuwim asserts with his fellow Jews.  As Margalit explains, blood relations here are not a property of blood – it’s not the blut und heimat, the blood and soil of Nazi ideology.  What Tuwim’s saying is that Jews, whatever their lineage, born Jews or Jews by choice are blood relatives, bound by the ‘thick’ relationship of family – with all the obligations that entails.

You may not like the idea of being related to me but I can’t believe you don’t like the thought of being related to Miriam and Jonni and, of course and best of all, to Ben.  But this is not mere whimsy; it’s hard-nosed philosophy.  We are a people bound together by ties of shared history, shared memory and shared kinship which makes us special to each other.  We are in ‘thick’ relationship and therefore open to the real possibility of betraying ourselves and one another, as well as of being betrayed.

And there’s a second passage which I find immensely interesting, even though I’m bothered by the tone of Margalit’s conclusion.  I mentioned a moment ago the case of Brother Daniel, the Shoah survivor who converted to Catholicism yet sought to use the Law of Return to allow him to settle in Israel.  Traditional Judaism would have granted him the right since he was a Jew by birth – but the Israel Supreme Court took the opposite view and Jews have been divided on the case ever since.

Margalit writes:

The case of Brother Daniel severs the Gordian knot between faith and community perceived as extended family.  Unlike [some] other converts he remained extremely loyal to his family, friends and people.  The problem that he poses is whether the Jews are a community of faith or whether they are a community of thick relations and shared history that happens to have a shared faith but is not constituted by the faith.

I’m not happy with the secularist “… that [just] happens to have a shared faith” (many of you will be more comfortable which is perfectly OK).  For the point is this.  Even though Margalit is a secular Israeli, the shared collective memories, the episodes from our past, the stories and metaphors which fill his book, are Jewish; the case he argues is infused with Judaism; and it’s axiomatic, a given as far as he’s concerned, that ‘thick’ relationships include not only those of family and friendships but of extended family, of our shared peoplehood.

* * * *

All of which raises for me, and I hope for you, the same questions that the twin Rosh Hashanah Torah portions of the expulsion of Hagar and the binding of Isaac raise, the same questions with which Sarah challenges Abraham.  Questions of belonging, specialness and faithfulness to each other.  And questions of betrayal:

Who am I?  Who are you to me?

What is my life?  To whom and to what should I remain faithful in these disturbing times?

Could I look Sarah in the eye?

Do I care?

Rabbi Professor Tony Bayfield CBE, DD (Cantuar)


[1]    There’s a terrible irony here because Sarah is justifying her own ethically questionable behaviour – provoked by Hagar or not – by using God in the same way as she is challenging Abraham for doing.

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