Reflection for Today ▶️ ⏩ ⏹️
Yitzhak Frenkel, The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1920 | The Levin Collection
And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.
— Genesis 22:9-11
Parenting is not easy. Indeed raising a child is probably one of the most challenging endeavours a human can undertake. And most of us are ill-prepared for it. We receive no formal parenting education, and are expected to know how to do it because we ourselves have been parented. Just do what your parents did—and all the same dysfunction becomes manifest. Patterns continue. Nothing changes.
Yet we parents do our best. We learn what we can from the wisdom and writings of psychologists, philosophers and other parents, and we experiment. It's all we can do, really. Mistakes are made. When I was eleven I qualified to go to the local, well-respected, all-boys grammar school but my parents, following their liberal, egalitarian ideals chose to send me instead three miles away to a large, mixed, multi-ability comprehensive school where I was miserable, rebellious, unable/unwilling to study and dropped out at sixteen. For years I believed, with much resentment, that my parents had sacrificed me to their political ideals.
I no longer believe that. And I no longer believe that the story of Abraham and Isaac is a story of child sacrifice, either literal or metaphorical. Nor is it a story of how Abraham proves his great love and devotion to God by being willing to slaughter his son. That's too unpleasant to contemplate. No, Genesis 22 is a story of release. In ancient times (and not so ancient times!) children were hostages, like cows, asses, tents and furniture, possessions of the parents (the father, to be precise) expected to do what they were told without question. But people are not meant to be enslaved, either to parents or to anyone else.1
This tale in some ways is a prelude to the Book of Exodus. God is telling Abraham, Let my people go. You no more own this son than a king owns his subjects. You have no rights over the life of another. Let Isaac go, release him—and thus all future descendants—into my care. Man belongs to God, not to another man. Each shall be free.
If it's true my parents followed their ideals when making decisions, it is very likely they involved me in the conversation and offered a choice: a strictly academic all-boys school, or a mixed school with a more comprehensive education. I imagine I willingly chose the latter. There'd be girls.
1 Recommended reading: The Binding of Isaac by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
music The Story of Isaac, by Leonard Cohen, from the album Songs from a Room, 1969