Reimagining the Binding of Isaac by Jonah Harris
Please enjoy a D’var Torah this week from Jonah Harris, Rosh Solelim 2017. Jonah spent six years as a camper at Ramah and worked on staff for six summers, including three summers as Rosh Nagarut (woodworking). After graduating from Tufts in 2015, he worked in Chicago as a structural engineer for two years. He recently moved to New York to begin his master’s in structural engineering at Columbia University.
Reimagining the Binding of Isaac: What would the story look like at Ramah?
by Jonah Harris
In this week’s parashah, Vayera, God provides Abraham with the most iconic and controversial test we can imagine, the binding of Isaac, known in Hebrew as the Akeidah. In a scene many modern-day readers view as appalling, Abraham does not question God’s request to sacrifice Isaac on the altar. After God sends an angel to intervene, saving Isaac’s life, God blesses Abraham for his obedience and reveals that his descendants will be numerous and powerful. Most people read this passage and assume its main purpose is to test Abraham’s trust in God.
I want to reimagine this troubling story of complete faith and place it in the context of Ramah – a place built on the power of relationships, trust, and supported exploration. Through this lens, which I’ll admit I have never found anywhere in the Torah or Rabbinic commentaries, it is Isaac who grows the most in this story, and his growth is one of the reasons that Abraham’s descendants will succeed.
At camp, the beginning of the story is closely related to conversations we have quite regularly, about prioritizing different values we hold dear when they are in conflict with each other. Do we skip class to help make a minyan? Do we leave the comfort of our American life and volunteer for the Israeli army? What sacrifices are we willing to make for the values that are important to us?
The narrative itself, through this Ramah lens, is not one of near silence between a father and the son he is prepared to sacrifice. It is rather a story of an older mentor (counselor) and a young child (camper) on a journey of self-discovery. Though neither knows exactly where they are traveling, they do so together, bolstered by their trust in each other and the power of their relationship. Instead of coming this close to death at the end of the story, the entire plot has been reshaped so that Isaac’s growth as a Jew and as a human being are the central lasting message, and it is Isaac’s maturation that merits the intervention of the angel and the blessing of Abraham’s descendants.
Parents who choose to send their children to Camp Ramah are entrusting us with their care and sacrificing time with their children and the real dollars it takes to get children to camp. They send their children to a temporary home, living communally in a unique environment. While at camp, children flourish as they explore their own Jewish and personal identity, within the cocoons of trust and deep relationships Ramah provides. Each summer campers take risks. They volunteer to read Torah, learn to use power tools (after training and under supervision, of course), sing and act in Hebrew in front of hundreds of people, try a new sport. All of these risks lead to more independence and a greater sense of self, and none of this would be possible if they stayed at home each summer.
Choosing to reimagine the akeidah this way also allows us to make sense of a phrase that, in its original context, drips with foreboding and puts a palpable chill in the air. The story (Genesis 22:8) describes Isaac and Abraham, ascending the mountain together – וילכו שניהם יחדו / vayeil’chu sh’neihem yachdav / and they walked, the two of them, together. To anyone who has spent any time at Ramah, this is one of the most regular of sights: two people walking together. In the akeidah it feels like an opening scene in a psychological thriller or slasher movie. In our reimagined version, what the akeidah would be like in the world we create at Ramah, that phrase, and that scene, makes us feel very much at ease.