It was just too gorgeous to go inside. Dinner had to be made. We’d been gone the whole day and there now were things to be done. But some wiser hand stayed my adult impulses. I grabbed a rake and began clearing the lawn. Once again. It was beautiful. Late afternoon sun shone through the maple leaves surrounding me in golden light. A woman walked by.
“Isn’t it totally glorious?” I exclaimed. She removed her earbuds and agreed. We stood for a moment rapt with delight and wonder. The door to conversation magic swung softly open. We shared a spark of connection. A few more sentences and the Jewdar clicked in. It’s like gaydar but Jewish.
She, let’s call her Z., told me the following story:
“I was at a community gathering. The crowd was breaking up. The men in the group were bidding farewell to a man in the group who, by his dress, was an Orthodox Jew. ‘See you tomorrow,” each one said to the rabbi in parting.
“I approached the rabbi, curious about the references to the next day’s gathering. ‘Excuse me,Rabbi. I am not [particularly learned] but I know that tomorrow isn’t a holiday. What’s happening tomorrow?’
“He told me about a program called Partners in Torah, told me I would love it and that he had a partner [a woman] for me to study with.” Z, recalled her resistance to the whole idea. She was busy; she wasn’t sure she could make it the next day; please don’t have the person you have in mind for me to study with commit because she might not show up. The rabbi listened and then, I imagine with a knowing smile, gave her his card.
When she got home, her older son was in the throes of a mild rebellion. “I’m not going back to Hebrew school! It’s meaningless. I have better things to do. Besides. I had my Bar Mitzvah. The Jewish community already considers me a man. Men can decide for themselves what’s important.”
Z. began to entertain the thought that something larger was at work. “It’s important to both Dad and me that you complete Hebrew school through your senior year. I’ll tell you what. You continue your schooling and I’ll let you pick a class for me to attend.” I’ll give you one guess which class her son found for his mom to attend. Z.’s study partner became a fast friend and teacher. Over the next few years, their weekly Torah study took them to places of deep intellectual and emotional engagement with the text and with one another.
One week, a challenge arose when Z.’s Torah partner said, ‘There are no superfluous words in Torah.’ The two had been studying Leviticus — lots of laws about sacrifices and other messy entanglements with bodily fluids, human and animal. “OK,” Z. said. “Let’s do an experiment. I’m going to close your book [the copy of the copy of the Torah she was reading from.] Spin it and when it stops spinning, open it and point to any three words in the text. We’ll see if the three words you point to are necessary or not.”
The book opened to the Akeida, the story of the binding of Isaac. What are the chances it would have opened to this horrifying and eternally inexplicable scene? They read the sentence, “A ram was caught in the thicket by its horns.”
“I said to her, ‘You see? Three unnecessary words. Why do we need to know the ram was caught by its horns? The text could have just as well told us the ram was caught in the thicket. Period. Done. If there are no extra words in the Torah, why the words ‘by its horns?’ She didn’t have an answer for me. I gestured toward the shelves in her husband’s book-lined study. ‘In which book does it say by its horns is a necessary description.’ “
Mind you, I am retelling this as well as I can. I was so caught up in Z.’s story, I know that I am missing some details. I don’t have Z.’s phone number nor her email. I am honoring her request to remain anonymous. Here’s what happened next:
“So we made a deal. We turn back to Leviticus. The deal was the first sentence we would come to would have to prove the necessity of the phrase we read in Genesis — ‘by its horns.’ ” I began to get the shivers as Z, continued. “We flipped back to Leviticus and read ‘an unbelmished animal.’ Sacrificial animals had to have perfect bodily intergrity. No illness, no cuts or abrasions on skin that would have bled or left the animal actively bleeding.
As Z. spoke, I experienced the electricity of their moment of study and revelation. What were the chances of these two texts being chosen at random — one a horrific enigma, the other an impeccable response. “The ram had to be caught by its horns,” she said. “If the ram was to be a sacrifice in Isaac’s place, then by virtue of Leviticus, it had to be unblemished. Had it been caught in the thicket by anything but its horns, the ram’s hide would have been gouged. It would have bled, making it unfit for sacrifice.”
We read the Akeidah each Rosh Hashanah as well as in its rotation of weekly Torah portions. Z.’s story had shone a new light upon an eternallly troubling text. There are those who say Abraham failed God’s test, that the intention was never for Isaac to be sacrificed. Others say this teaches we are to have faith in God no matter what. I’ve always gone with the explanation that God was teaching Abraham that child sacrifice, though a common practice at the time, was henceforth never to be done by Abraham and his descendents. Child sacrifice was simply wrong.
Writing these words, a new thought comes to me. Was Isaac blemished in some way? He is portrayed in Torah as a pretty passive kind of guy. Perhaps his blemish was a scarred soul. He may have physically survived the experience; we can only imagine what it did to his spirit, not to mention his relationship with his father. The text can be interpreted to tell us that father and son never spoke again.
Z’s story ended on a bittersweet note. Cancer claimed her study partner not even a decade after they met. But she lives on in my friend’s heart. Their learning and discovery forever erected a three-word bridge spanning from the Akeidah to the book of Leviticus. Every year when this Torah portion is read, Z. remembers that day of learning in the book-lined study. And now, though I was only present in the retelling of it, I shall remember it too. I’m so glad I listened to that little voice urging me to stay outside in the golden glow of the afternoon sun. What are the chances?