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The Highest Value

Charles Gourgey, Ph.D.

“Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
Genesis 22:12

They say there is no greater pain than the loss of a child. I witnessed this grief in the hospice where I worked. It was a Russian Jewish family; the son, who must have been in his thirties, was dying, and the mother was inconsolable. She was constantly at his bedside, constantly in tears. She kept repeating that her life was over, that she had nothing left to live for, and that she might as well be dead herself.

But there was an additional problem. This woman also had a daughter, who needed her too. And now the daughter felt that in her mother’s eyes, she was worthless. Not only was she losing a brother, she was losing her mother as well - a mother who apparently felt that, unlike her son, her daughter gave her no reason to live, to keep on going.

I spoke with the mother, completely recognizing and respecting her grief, yet trying to make her aware of her daughter’s feelings. It did no good. She was unable to hear me. And so I could only listen sympathetically to her daughter’s anguish, a young woman in desperate need of consolation herself, yet who found the person closest to her completely inaccessible.

This story comes to mind as I contemplate the arrival of Rosh Ha-Shanah, the Jewish New Year. The Jewish New Year is not like the secular one, not a time for celebration but for reflection and deep soul-searching. The story traditionally associated with this day is the akedah, the Binding of Isaac, recounted in Genesis 22. It is an odd story for a New Year holiday. We are all familiar with it: God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, then stops him at the last minute.

This story has posed moral problems for many readers. It does not harmonize well with modern sensibilities. It makes God look bad, that God would ask for the murder of an innocent, and it makes Abraham look worse, that he was willing to comply with that barbaric demand. We may well understand the story in this fashion - if we do not know how to read the Bible properly.

There is a Talmudic saying (Nedarim 3a): Diberah torah kilshon benei adam, “The Torah speaks in human language.” The Bible presents God in very human terms, seeming to ascribe to God the full range of human emotions, and even some physical attributes. The reason for this is to make God accessible to ordinary people. When the Bible was written there was no field called theology, and there was no philosophical tradition such as the Greeks had. The Bible is a quest to understand God from the midst of human experience; thus it uses very human language to describe God. But this language is not to be taken literally, since unlike the idols other nations worshipped, the God of the Hebrews could not be apprehended by mortal sense. Failing to realize this, we may form a picture of God as some huge cosmic person, just as human as we are, but much bigger. And in fact many modern theologians present exactly this picture of God. The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides sought to correct the tendency to make God human and he did so brilliantly. Yet his critics attacked him for it in his own day, as some do in our day as well. The need to create God in our image seems almost insurmountable.

If we take the story literally, with a person-like God literally telling Abraham to kill his son, then the moral problems are inescapable. For how could Abraham be praised for his willingness to obey? A truly spiritual man would rebel even against a God who would ask for something so unjust. And Abraham did exactly that, when he stood up for the people of Sodom, demanding that God not punish the innocent with the guilty. But now, facing his greatest test, Abraham gives in to the request for an evil act! And he is praised for it!

These are the problems we create when we take the Bible literally and make God human. So often we make a fundamental mistake when we read the Bible. We assume that the Bible’s starting point is God. After all, the Bible is the word of God, is it not? But the Bible’s starting point is not God; it is human existence. This is why the Bible is so harsh and troublesome, so full of wars and crime and cruelty. The Bible is full of those things because human life is full of those things. The Bible does not impose God on that experience; that would be gross dishonesty, creating a false world with no relevance to anyone. Rather, the Bible records the search for God - for a higher order, for some underlying goodness - from within the worst of human experience itself.

And the worst that human experience can throw at us is the loss of that which we hold most dear. And sometimes that is even the death of a child. That does happen, and no faith can make that go away. The dearest thing in the world to Abraham, what he so fervently prayed for and doubted he would ever receive, was his son Isaac. And now he was faced with the possibility of losing him.

The story of the Binding of Isaac is a story about faith. Not faith as we might often think of it, as unquestioning obedience to a religious dictate. That kind of faith is morally suspect, and the critics of the story are right to point that out. But while doing so they miss the deeper faith - the unflinching, ever-persevering confrontation with a harsh and cruel reality to the point where an even greater reality begins to appear.

We are constantly threatened with losses. As we grow older, our world may seem to diminish. We lose the friends and relatives we outlive; we see our own powers beginning to wane. We may cope with the anxiety that results by grasping onto something: this one thing I cannot live without, this one thing will preserve my existence and protect my legacy. And so the mother in the hospice grasped onto her son. But sometimes we lose even that which we grasp the hardest - and then where are we? We are left with nothing - when we could have had something.

What could we have had? That is precisely what we cannot know in advance. It therefore falls within the province of faith. What we can know is that whenever we grasp onto something that hard, we block off other sources of good. The mother in the hospice could not see the aid and comfort her daughter might have given her, could not use the opportunity to deepen their relationship, because she was grasping her son so relentlessly.

This brings us back to Abraham and Isaac. What this story tells us, once we get past the human image of God, is that faith challenges us to relax our grip even on that which we love the most. Abraham was ready to do this - to accept that some life circumstance might take his son away from him; it happens - and still continue his quest for God. And something new and unexpected appeared - the ram Abraham could sacrifice in place of his son.

This is highly symbolic language. By accepting a life even with the absence of his greatest love, Abraham opened himself to receive the unexpected good. Abraham did not lose his son; the mother in the hospice unfortunately lost hers. But life was asking them both, Can you still live even with the greatest loss you can ever imagine? And that is the example Abraham set, that he answered “yes,” even though the pain of that “yes” is excruciating.

It is perhaps impossible to answer “yes” to this demand life makes of us if we see God as human, capricious, and demanding. A God who creates us just to take from us what we need most is not a God worthy of thanks and worship, but a God whom we might very morally resist. But this literally human God is a gnostic creation, and not the true biblical God. We understand God best and the Bible most deeply if we think of God not as a person but as All and Absolute Goodness. Of course this understanding of God is not present from the beginning and evolves very slowly; it is the Bible’s honesty to record this evolution. It is important not to mistake the human beginnings of our understanding of God for the highest insights about God that these writings have to offer.

In summary what the Abraham story tells us is this: if we can loosen our grasp on that which we most love, just enough to make God, which is Absolute Goodness, our true highest value, then we open ourselves to the inflow of that good into our lives, in ways we do not expect and cannot predict. This is the meaning of faith, the awareness of the power of the eternal. A truly significant loss throws us against the boundary between the human and the eternal - a frightening place to be. I often felt myself on that boundary line when I was working in hospice - being that close to death, I sensed the moorings of this world become loose enough for me to gain a glimpse of something beyond it. Sooner or later we all will be thrust against this boundary. Are we prepared to meet it?

Life presents us with no more difficult task than this. There are moments when our treatment seems heartless, and we may even feel like cursing God. And that is OK, because the God we curse is not the real God. It is a human projection, something we end up with when we take the Bible too literally, using it to support a primitive human desire. But no one who values goodness can curse God, because goodness is what God is (Psalm 118:1). Life only demands that goodness itself become our highest value, which we realize by discovering that making goodness our highest value is the only healthy response to loss.

On Rosh Ha-Shanah, when the shofar or ram’s horn is sounded, it reminds us of the ram that represents the unexpected good that visited Abraham once he became willing to look beyond his greatest desire and towards God, who is Goodness Itself. Faith, grounded in the awareness of God’s nature, tells us that beyond loss there is this goodness. But the sound of the shofar is a fearful sound; it is a trembling sound. Finding goodness beyond loss is a terrible, fearful journey, not to be simplified or trivialized. But the fear in the cry of the shofar also comes with a deep sense of awe; thus we call these days yamim noraim, “days of awe.”

And what is awe? Awe is fear plus the presence of the eternal. We have another word for that. We call it faith.

August 2013