Last week’s post held elements of lament and uncertainty that characterize much of the Western church’s current context. Other questions live on the underside of those uncertainties about naming God in the scripts of our lives. One of those questions is: How do we connect our stories and lives with the storied lives of God’s people through the ages?
Writing that last post left me hungry for examples of meaningful intersections between life and Scripture. So, when I walked past the Resource Centre, I was drawn toward Midrash: Reading the Bible with Question Marks.
Reading Midrash provided me with some historically tested tools for listening to one’s own story and reading it into the Scriptures. Rabbi Sandy asks, “What would it mean to read the Bible by allowing it to help us tell the stories of our lives? What if we read our joys, our fears, and our doubts into the biblical narrative?”
Her book builds on the wisdom and the writing of ancient Jewish Rabbis who did just that with the process and product known as midrash because they believed God intended each generation to read its story into the text and affix its names to the holy narrative. We are invited to enter this process along with Sandy and her congregants.
Midrash is an organic, imaginative way of doing Bible study, theology, and pastoral care, all wrapped up into one, and it is full of surprises. One of the biggest surprises for me was the prevalence of the story of the binding of Isaac, a biblical story that I have done my best to avoid. As a long time advocate for the meaningful inclusion of children in worship, I am revolted by the thought of a parent binding their child sacrificially onto and altar and raising a knife over them! I wondered: What could possibly be gained by trying to read my life into this story???
Astounded, I read how doing Midrash with this story enabled a woman whose husband was a quadriplegic and was undergoing serious surgery, to pour out her soul in healing ways. Listen to how she connects this story with her own.
“Each year as the Jewish New Year approaches, I wonder why it was decided by the rabbis that we should read the story from Genesis about Abraham. I believe it is to remind us that each of us climbs a mountain, as Abraham climbs Mount Moriah, but always alone. Though we never know what is at the top until we get there, I think the story is God’s way of reminding us that the ram is always there. And God is always there.
I sat in the hospital room not knowing for sure what the results of the surgery would be. I held on to that faith that Abraham had when he climbed that mountain with Isaac, not knowing what was going to happen, or how it was going to all turn out. But he had faith and that gave him strength to get past that moment, to believe in the best outcome. I wasn’t denying that things could go wrong or that the outcome might be different from my best prayers. It was just believing in the presence of that other power and gaining strength from that belief.
…I began to realize how different each person’s journey is. Isaac’s journey was not the same as Abraham’s; his was not the same as Sarah’s; and the servants who accompanied them had an even different experience. They made the journey together, yet separately.
We read the story together. All ears listen to the same words, perhaps hearing different things, but we are all together in the reading. So really we aren’t alone as we climb. I have learned that during this crisis in my life, just as Abraham had his servants waiting for him, there are many hearts waiting for us, ready to help.” (pp. 25-27, Sue Baker’s 2006 letter to Sandy).
Sandy thankfully brought some of my questions to this challenging text by quoting rabbis who have agonized through the ages over the abuse Isaac suffered in this story. In the chapter, “What if the Angels Should Come Too Late?” she shared reflections of rabbis who have identified with Isaac trembling under Abraham’s knife, and read the suffering of their people into it. They also pondered why Isaac disappeared from the story until he married Rebecca three years later. In the process, they powerfully addressed how we face our fears that no one will come to rescue us when we are at our most vulnerable.
Rabbi Sandi asks, “How could Isaac have once again taken his father’s hand, which had held the sacrificial knife, as he had done on the journey up the mountain? How could he continue to trust his father, or anyone else? Where could he find the faith to go on?… [A]ll the midrashim assume that it took him three years to repair the damage to his soul.” (p.87)
Rabbi Sandi then engages our context with these wise words: “So many times when we confront difficulties, when we are hurt in the face of hurt or face loss, people tell us we will get over it, everything will be okay. But I don’t imagine Isaac ever got over it; rather the angels taught him how to heal, how to get on with it…The angels taught him to laugh [Isaac means laughter] in the face of the unknown and wrestle joy out of despair.” (p.90) Isaac’s marriage reminds her of the importance of reaching out to others for companionship, to forget some things and forgive others as we find reasons for continued laughter, and that hope is the great gift that keeps us from giving up or giving in.
I still have many questions about this story, but I now see more reasons why this challenging episode belongs in God’s big story. Through Rabbi Sandi’s introduction to Midrash I found a group of kindred spirits that stretches across centuries as well as across the Jewish-Christian divide, who have also wrestled with this difficult text from Isaac’s perspective to find wisdom and courage for the traumas of their people.
These connections with story and the midrash process strengthened my roots as one of the People of the Book. As roots keep trees from being uprooted by the wind, such storied connections help us face the winds of uncertainty that blow around us.