Carry Our Traumas (Parashat Vayera)

Carry Our Traumas (Parashat Vayera)

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayera, speaks about one of the primordial traumas of the Jewish people, that of the Akedah. In short, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac atop Mount Moriah. With faith and diligence, Abraham wakes up early the next morning, saddles his donkey and travels the three days to the site. Leaving his servants below, Abraham walks up the mountain with Isaac. He binds him to an altar of wood and lifts the knife, only to be stopped at the 11th hour by an angel of God who blesses him. The story closes as Abraham sacrifices a ram in his son’s stead.

It’s difficult to imagine a scene with more tension than the moment right before the angel appears. Yet, though the trauma would reach a crescendo at that moment, the echo of the Akedah would not cease.

As children we are often taught to see plot through the lens of Freytag's pyramid. Great literature, we learn, is split into five sections: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. In most works, these last two sections are much shorter than the preceding three. We reach our climactic moment and soon-after the book or story ends. Even if that end is tragic (like in the case of Hamlet), it is still definitive. A good book will tie up loose ends. The struggle of the characters will conclude when their tale finsh.

Yet, life is not lived so neatly. After a climactic moment the repercussions can live on. Though the story of the Akedah definitively ends- God saves Isaac, and Abraham is rewarded for his faithfulness - the two emerge from their trial with deep psychological scars. Both Abraham and Isaac move through life with the burden of the Akedah on their shoulders.

For Abraham this burden is his guilt. There is a deeply profound series of midrashim that help us understand how deeply haunted Abraham feels by the ghosts of his actions:

Rabbi Levi said: On the day that Abraham weaned his son Isaac, he made a great banquet, and all the peoples of the world derided him, saying, 'Have you seen that old man and woman, who brought a foundling from the street, and now claim him as their son! And what is more, they make a great banquet to establish their claim!' What did our father Abraham do? — He went and invited all the great men of the age, and our mother Sarah invited their wives. Each one brought her child with her, but not the wet nurse, and a miracle happened unto our mother Sarah, her breasts opened like two fountains, and she suckled them all. Yet they still scoffed, saying, 'Granted that Sarah could give birth at the age of ninety, could Abraham beget a [child] at the age of a hundred?' Immediately the lineaments of Isaac's visage changed and became like Abraham's, whereupon they all cried out, Abraham begat Isaac...Until Abraham there was no old age; whoever wished to speak to Abraham would speak to Isaac, and the reverse. Thereupon he prayed, and old age came into existence, as it is written, “And Abraham was old and well-stricken in age” (Genesis 24:1) (Talmud, Bava Metzia 87a).

To summarize, Abraham’s neighbors deny that at the age of 100 he is capable of fathering a child. While Sarah fights her doubters by becoming super-fertile, Abraham asks for a different miracle. In an instant, God changes the structure of Isaac’s face to look like his father. They are twins and no one can deny that Isaac belongs to Abraham. For a while this resemblance was helpful. It put the scoffers to shame and cemented the bond between parent and child.

Yet, one must imagine that after Abraham and Isaac leave the mountain that resemblance meant something else. Every time Abraham looked into a pool of water or into a mirror he saw his son’s face staring back. Every time Abraham was in pain, he saw his son suffering. Every reflected tear belonged also to Isaac. Trauma emblazons inconvenient pictures upon our minds. One might assume that Abraham carried with him the frozen visage of Isaac, shocked at the glint of his father’s knife. That face would stare back at him for the rest of his life unless he did something.

To make matters worse, our Rabbis tell us that other people would confused Abraham with his son. It should come as no surprise that Abraham and Isaac’s relationship was strained after the Akedah. In fact, immediately following the events of Moriah we are told that Abraham walked alone from atop the mountain. Isaac is not mentioned as being with him. So, where was Isaac? Our Rabbis imagine that he went off to college, studying as far as he could get at the academy of his distant ancestor Shem (Genesis Rabbah 56:11). In fact, in the Bible, Abraham and Isaac never directly speak again after that day - though Abraham does find his son a wife by proxy. How painful it must have been to have people assume he was his son, to learn updates of his life by half uttered openings to conversations, to meet friends he didn’t know Isaac had by happenstance. At each moment confusion, Abraham was to be reminded how closely he resembled a person that he felt so far away from.

For these reasons, Abraham prayed and asked God for the gift of old-age. No longer would others confuse him with his son. No longer would he see Isaac in the mirror. In an instant, God gave him the gift of wrinkles, of liver spots and gray hairs. He was now different than his son. His constant reminder of his shame had disappeared.

Yet, if Abraham’s burden was severe, Isaac’s was all encompassing. Our rabbis imagine that at the moment when his father was to murder him, Isaac looked up to the heavens and saw the angels of God crying (Genesis Rabbah 56:5). A few of these angelic tears entered Isaac’s eyes and dulled his vision. For the rest of his life, these tears would remain as a screen upon his eyes. He would see the world through this experience on the altar. His trauma would inform every decision he would make, from how he was as a husband to which child he would bless as a father. He would never see the world again with the innocence of childhood, the openness of youth, or the optimism of adolescence. Instead, Isaac would become the paradigmatic stumbler, moving through life unable to avoid the obstacle in front of him because of the bad eyes he developed on Mount Moriah.

Abraham and Isaac teach a crucial lesson. Trauma doesn’t end. It echoes. It crouches in waiting, ready to appear at inconvenient times and places. It is found when we look in the mirror, and when we speak to a friend. It’s mediates the way we see the world and how we make decisions. The Akedah did not end on Mount Moriah. Morah was its birthplace. Knowing about the stubbornness of trauma will assure that we remain more present and open to those in our lives who are dealing with long ago traumas in theirs.