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Alone Together*

*This is also the title of a poem written by my teacher, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis z"l. This post is shared in his honor.

Can we fully share our personal spiritual drama with others? Or is our experience of transcendence a solitary journey in which our loved ones and fellows at best are passive participants? In Abraham’s journey up the mountain to offer his son Isaac, God tests this balance between the reality of other human beings in the quest for divine connection.

Abraham’s quest is toward the altar. What is Isaac’s quest here?

Isaac’s question to his father is remarkably simple. He asks, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” If the journey is to connect with God, what is required to fulfill such a task? In those days, an animal to kill seemed logical for offering a sacrifice to God. The pause between the question and response here fosters a chasm of interpretation. Whether or not Isaac inferred that he would be the sacrifice to God, the inquiry is presented to us as a dramatic unfolding of the relationship between parent and child. Where Abraham reveals and withholds information is among the most dramatic elements of this narrative (presumably with God as well). We assume Abraham doesn’t want to disclose the nature of their hike prematurely and knows that his task is fraught with uncertainty. Abraham’s response also confirms the vague sense of purpose he is to share with his son, as if to say that the goal is to follow God’s instructions as they are given even if Isaac did not hear them being commanded.

To read this question as a deep exploration of Abraham’s individual spiritual quest is to recognize that there is also a limit to his shared experience. Building a religious doctrine upon collective understanding, by contrast, requires an openness to share intention and purpose even when those goals are not yet completely formed. When collective understanding and openness are absent, we walk toward the altar uncertain we possess all the necessary gifts to make offerings to God. Isaac may be asking about a sheep, or Isaac may even be asking about himself. Or Isaac is seeking the most essential element of the religious experience, that of authentic connection. His father provides an extraordinary answer here: “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering, my son.” The next line is poignant: “And the two of them walked on together.”

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