So, it’s Genesis being read right now, the book that tells us the stories of our illustrious ancestors, and you know, sometimes, I think that the lesson I’m getting is the wrong one. When I read the words in the bible, I sometimes think to myself, “wow, doing what God tells you is a really, really bad idea.” Abraham left his land, his people – everything he had or knew – and his reward? He got to wait until he was in his 90s to have children. Lot joined him, presumably because of belief, and Lot had many people he loved destroyed. Obeying God has consequences and they’re rarely pleasant. One may end up, like Hagar, watching one’s son almost die of thirst in a desert. One could end up alone and lonely after everything one knew was wiped out in a flood. None of the Genesis heros had comfortable or particularly happy lives.
Sarah found oneself married to a random ruler because her husband claimed she was his sister. Jacob grew up with the knowledge that his father preferred his brother. Rebecca had a husband who had various issues – so that she had to run the household. Eliezer’s conversation with God was about his master’s wife – he didn’t have a chance to look for his own that way. (We won’t even touch some of the other Jewish writings – Job comes to mind.) Story after story, there is the same theme. The foremothers and forefathers would do God’s will, and then awful things would happen to them, and then they’d have to do God’s will some more. Nowhere is that more evident than the Akeda – the heart break of that sacrifice is so huge we cannot even encompass it. Can you imagine being very old when one had a child, having the child grow up, and then knowing that your husband was killing your child – because the God you gave everything up for asked him to? Can you imagine feeling you had to give up everything – both the boys you had in your old age, really – to God? Can you actually imagine your father holding a knife above you? I think that for the rest of their lives, Isaac and Abraham would never be able to look at each other without seeing that knife flashing between them. In fact, anyone looking at them would see that knife in their eyes – how could it be otherwise?
Those horrible moments – when one’s wife turns to salt at one’s side, when one is powerless to save one’s children, when one deals with betrayal after betrayal because one’s children don’t understand – those moments seem to be the fruits of doing God’s will. You know that utter horrible moment is there for each of them. Rachel at Leah’s wedding? Leah at Rachel’s? Moses looking down on Canaan? (Sometime I wish I could get into the story and say, ‘avoid the burning bush – you’d be SO much happier’…) So, why? What is God trying to tell us? Why not have a story like “After Abraham got to Canaan, he and Sarah had a bunch of children who got along. God asked them to raise the children well, and especially to prepare the oldest two boys as they were going to continue Abraham’s traditions in different ways. Meanwhile, Hagar and Eliezer got married, and they too had important wonderful children. Everyone lived well, sometimes happily, sometimes not – but pretty well. No one did anything crazy like sacrificing children.” I like that. That’s not the story, though. Our stories are awful a lot of the time. It’s not limited to the Jewish faith either – Jesus on the cross helps confirm that in the stories of our faiths that we tell, being really pious gets you in a real mess.
I was thinking to myself that the Rabbis must have had an idea better than to give us the object lesson, “Don’t do God’s will, because the results of doing it are ugly.” That can’t be what I’m supposed to take away – although I do some days. Oh, sure, I’m sure they all had good moments – there were weddings and births as well as funerals and bitter break-ups – but I can’t imagine how many happy little moments it would take to make up for that horrible time when…
So, I think of Torah Study – and I think of the Jonah story and how his big thought in the belly of the fish was not that he would die, but that he’d lose the relationship he had with God, the closeness. I think of the sacrificial system that talks about sacrifice as closeness – as relationship with God. Could it be that closeness to God is worth it? Could that God-consciousness fill one up enough to give one – if not an erasure, then at least an answer to those horrible moments? Could that be what Abraham, Isaac and Sarah, and all the other biblical characters get? If they do what God says, they are closer to God. That, plus those happy moments – that’s it.
Is it enough? I ask myself that question sometimes. Usually, I say ‘no’. I would not sacrifice my children for God. I would not sacrifice my happiness to be closer to the Ideal (because one doesn’t need to be a believer to end up here – striving for perfection can be part of the most atheist of people and often ends one up in the same messy place.) Sometimes, I acknowledge that actually, without making any sense whatsoever, listening to God is worth it – that the feeling of complete rightness when one knows one has heard correctly and got it right makes up for the tragedy. I am still not about to take my kids up to mount Moria; I have never been convinced Abraham heard or understood correctly – but every now and then I realize that I don’t do God’s will because it’s easy, or because it’s fun or because it’s smart or useful or leads to the outcomes I want. I do it because it gets me closer to God, closer to being who I need to be. There’s joy in that no matter what is going on in my life.