Rabbi David Walk
Many people believe that the central myth of western civilization is the Oedipus story from ancient Greece. Oedipus was born to King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes. Laius heard a prophecy that his son would end up killing his father and marrying his mother, thereby bringing disaster to his city and family. He wished to thwart the prophecy, so he left Oedipus to die on a mountainside. However, the baby was found by shepherds and raised by King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth as their own. Oedipus learned from the oracle at Delphi about the prophecy that he would end up killing his father and marrying his mother but, unaware of his true parentage, believed he was fated to murder Polybus and marry Merope, so he left for Thebes. To make a long story less long, but still not exactly short, he kills a stranger on the road who turns out to be (You guessed it!) his father, Laius. When Oedipus arrives at Thebes he finds that the city recently lost its King (Duh!), and is at the mercy of a monster called the Sphinx. Oedipus solves the Sphinx' riddle about what creature goes about on four in the morning, two at noon and three in the evening (although as modern walkers replace canes, we go about on six in our twilight years). And his reward is (Surprise!), the queen's hand in marriage. When the inevitable disasters befall Thebes, Oedipus wanders the land to find the reasons for Thebes' misfortunes, and discovers himself to be the fate fulfilling culprit. Phew! So, what to do we learn from Oedipus's fascinating life? Well, that depends. If you are an ancient Greek, then you conclude that we can't escape the Fates. If you are a Freudian psychologist, then you conclude: There's a lot of money to be made listening to people describe their relationship with their mother. But what do we seekers of Torah conclude? That we can't accept this premise of Greek civilization.
The Torah seems to teach us this week that we are not victims of fate. We can control our destiny. That's because we study the akeida story, instead of the Oedipus myth. What does the Oedipus story teach the scholars who study it carefully? The world of psychology, beginning, of course, with Freud, made this story the paradigm of the generation gap. The child wants to destroy one parent and possess the other. The parent feels threatened by the children and considers banishing or killing them to remain in power.
If Freud had taken his psychology from the Torah rather than from Greek myth, he might have arrived at a more hopeful view of the human condition. The real problem, as discussed by Fustel de Colanges and Larry Siedentop, is that in ancient society children were viewed as the property of the parents (especially by the father, see my article on Breishit). As long as children were viewed as assets, there was always going to be a major generation gap. How can society develop in healthy ways if parents and offspring feel threatened by the other?
Avraham introduces a new element. His discussion with God last week about having children emphasizes a new criterion for child rearing. At the beginning of chapter 15, Avraham is concerned about having no children. That was a common concern in the ancient world. However, his concern isn't about his wealth and business interests (You know, the sheep.). It's about his heritage. The two covenants, circumcision and the brit bein habetarim (covenant between the pieces), are about the future of the Avrahamic revolution in religion. Avraham wants to know who will continue the cause for which he dedicated and sacrificed so much. God assures him that his offspring will inherit him, and continue his crusade on behalf of ethical monotheism.
This is Avraham's second revolution. His invention of ethical monotheism remains his biggest contribution to civilization, but his reform of the family is a close second. The akeida (attempted sacrifice of Yitzchak) wasn't a test as much has it was a learning experience. Oceans of ink and forests of paper have been dedicated to explaining the message of the akeida, but sadly I'm not sure everyone notices its most obvious lesson. Sure, Avraham was willing to offer up his beloved son to God. But I'm not sure that was such a big deal in a world where child sacrifice seems to have been quite prevalent, maybe even the norm. We sadly have numerous examples of parents sacrificing children in our Bible, and a number of the perpetrators are kings of Israel
Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook, first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, stressed that the climax of the story, commanding Abraham not to sacrifice Isaac, is the whole point: to put an end to the ritual of child sacrifice, which contradicts the morality of a perfect and giving (not taking) monotheistic God. The Rav, in the Emergence of Ethical Man (p. 157) emphasized that the entire request for the sacrifice was absurd because it undermined all the promises that Yitzchak would succeed Avraham. So, the point is that parent, child and God are uniting for the same undertaking. The child isn't a possession but an extension of the parent. The parents are guardians of the offspring on behalf of the One who owns us all.
I know that there are still parents who view their children as assets and the means to fulfill their own dreams, but they're off target. I know that there are still parents who fight with their children over values and principles, but that's a sad situation. After the covenants in Lech Lecha and the akeida this week, parents should view their offspring as full partners in the Divine drama. Together we strive to achieve the goals of Avraham's revolution, forging a world of kindness and spiritual growth. Life must be viewed as a journey to fulfill our dreams, not a nightmare ensnared by fate. The akeida twice states the critical words of Judaism: va'yeilchu shneihem yachdav, and they (parent and child) walked together.