On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read the akeydah – the story of the binding of Isaac. This year I am chanting the first three verses:
After these things, G-d tested Abraham, saying to him “Abraham!” And he said “Here I am.” God said, “Take your son, your only one, the one you love, Isaac, and go forth to the land of Moriah. Offer him there as a burnt-offering, on one of the mountains that I will show you.” Abraham rose early, saddled his donkey, chopped wood for the burnt-offering, took Isaac his son and his two lads, and set out for the place that God had spoken of to him.
Bereshit Chapter 22 v 1-3
This is a deeply troubling story, this legend of the piety of Abraham and the magnanimity of God. We wonder how Isaac must have felt. We remember that the next portion of the Torah begins with the death of Sarah, and why not? Her husband was willing to sacrifice the child for whom she waited 90 years. I still wonder about all that, but I think I know, now, how Abraham feels. I know this because four years ago I had to sacrifice my son.
No, he’s not dead. I didn’t carry him up a mountain to be burned. But sacrifice him I did, give him up forever. Was he my son? As much as my daughter is my own; we brought him home from the hospital. He had abrit milah, and we named him Jesse Daniel, after my beloved great-uncle and one of Sam’s ancestors. We fed him and loved him and sang to him and told our three-year-old she was a big sister. We knew, as we had with our first adoption, that we were “at risk”, that we were not yet legally his parents, that his birth mother retained all rights to him until they were formally terminated in a court proceeding. And she chose not to terminate her rights. She chose to take him back after ten weeks, ten weeks during which we had to live as a family of four while recognizing that in truth we were not. Not yet. Not ever.
I didn’t quite realize it, but I spent that ten weeks looking for the sign – for the angels who would tell God that the sacrifice wasn’t necessary, for the ram caught in the thicket who could stand in. I do not believe that God intercedes directly in our earthly lives and yet I prayed as if I did. And I realized that I couldn’t really pray for another woman to have to make the sacrifice that I didn’t want to make. So when the call came, when the agency told us that she had decided she wanted him back, we took him – not up a mountain, but to a very prosaic office building, where we kissed him goodbye and left, sobbing.
Just as the Torah text is telegraphic, giving us small pieces of information about the figures in these archetypal stories, our knowledge of Jesse’s birth mother came in small bits. Young, not well-educated, very limited family support, two other boys; an abusive partner who didn’t want her to have another child. Just as we imagine how Sarah and Isaac must have felt, we can imagine her terror and pain, the power of the fear that drove her to sign the first papers at his birth. I don’t have to imagine the love that compelled her to take him back. So now I pray that she has found what she needs to act on that love, to raise all her boys well. Poverty makes it harder to be a good parent, but it’s not destiny. She loved him enough to send him away, and she loved him more, so she took him back.
Offer him there as a burnt-offering. I imagine Abraham was angry with God. Abraham, who argued for God to save Sodom and Gomorrah, didn’t argue to save his own son. The anger over that call to sacrifice was too deep, too fierce to be spoken. So he saddled the donkey and he climbed the mountain.
The grief and anger didn’t kill Sam, or me. They didn’t end our marriage, although there were moments when I thought they would. But we have been forever changed by our own fire in ways we could not have imagined when we set out on our journey. We think we have healed, and then something triggers the pain – an image of a small boy, a photograph we thought we’d put away, our daughter’s questions about “when I was a sister.” Or the words of the Torah, chanted the second day of Rosh Hashanah, this year by one mother who will in part be singing her own story.
This post has been reprinted, with permission, from Jay, who writes for Two Women Blogging. Jay is married and has a daughter who was adopted privately at birth.