We all can learn so much revisiting the great narratives and myths of our culture, from the Greek and Roman Myths to the Bible and onward to Shakespeare and beyond. In this piece, I’ll focus on what we can learn from the story of Abraham.
We recently celebrated the Jewish New Year of 5778 and as part of the prayer service, every year, we read the haunting story of the binding of Issac. It has always seemed strange to me that we should be focusing on this portion at a time which is meant to be about the celebration and creation of the world–why, at this time of all times, would we be focusing on the possible death and sacrifice of that most sacred human life, the son Abraham had waited nearly 100 years to have?
For those who don’t remember the story, G-d decides to test Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice the child who is meant to be his heir. He doesn’t explain why or what this is about, and Abraham, the loyal servant, takes on this duty with his characteristic devotion. For many years, I wondered whether this was an act of blind faith or cruelty on Abraham’s part. How could he do this to his beloved son?
As I’ve reflected on it further, I think there is a more important psychological message for all of us to remember. Even as he walks his son up the mountain for the sacrifice, there is a side of Abraham trusting in something bigger than himself, recognizing that in order to create something, he first has to be willing to let something, even that which is most important to him, go. G-d is trying to teach Abraham this message by helping him to recognize that by facing his greatest sense of loss with courage, something new will be born.
Just as Abraham has tied Issac on to the altar and lifts up the knife, an angel saves the day and pushes it out of his hands. Abraham has passed the test–he has been willing to look at what is most special to him, and he has been able to hold on to the faith and hope that something new will arrive from being willing to let it go. If we look at this psychologically and metaphorically, we can see the powerful message of this story. Simply put, the lesson is that in order to truly develop new and creative aspects of ourselves and our relationship to the world, we need to first be willing to suffer the seeming death of transcending our ego, and trust in something bigger than ourselves.
After Issac is saved, Abraham finds a ram that he sacrifices in the place of his son. From this ram comes one of the most important symbol of the Jewish New Year–the shofar (the ram’s horn)–which is blown to awaken people to take inventory of themselves and create themselves again. The sound is a reminder that we need to be ready to hear the call of some new development, which might first appear to be a death, but actually is a sign of creative growth and of new life.
This point is driven home by the conclusion of our haunted tale. For at the end, Abraham is told by G-d that as a result of his willingness to sacrifice his greatest gift, for his trust in the process, he is going to blessed with generations that outnumber the stars of the sky and the sands of the earth. In other words, the rewards for living a creative life where one is willing to take a leap of faith, that temporarily looks like a setback or even a death, can lead to the greatest abundance and blessings imaginable!