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I am Isaac, I am the Ram

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Rosh Hashanah, 1999

 

God tested Abraham, saying "Abraham."
And Abraham replied, "Here I am"
God said, "Take your son, your only son, your beloved son, Isaac
And go forth to the land of Moriah
And offer him there as a burnt-offering to me
On the top of the mountain I shall show you."
(Genesis 22:1-2)

 

I am Isaac.
I am the sacrifice.

 

I sit in my parents' synagogue on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish holiday celebrating the birthday of the world. I listen as the readers chant from the Torah, the sacred scrolls of the Five Books of Moses. On Rosh Hashanah, the portion of the Torah read before the whole community is not the first chapter of Bereshit (the book which the Greeks translated as Genesis), the chapter that describes the creation of the world. Nor is it the story of how Abraham become the first Jew. Instead, on two of the holiest days of the year we read of the birth of Isaac, Abraham's son, and the binding of Isaac, when the father of the Jewish people took knife in hand to kill his own child at the command of his God.

Last year these were just words. Just another story. Now they burn. For this year, three times, I have been the sacrifice.

Like Isaac, I know the horror of looking at a parent and seeing murder in their eyes. My own mother lit the flames of the stake on which I was bound. Like Abraham, she was willing to offer my life in the name of her beliefs.

 

"Father," said Isaac. "Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt-offering?"
And Abraham replied, "God will provide the lamb."
And the two of them went on together.
(Genesis 22: 7-8)

 

I look at her now, listening to the ancient chant. I hope to see a flicker of memory, that the story of the akedah, the binding of Isaac, digs out the events she has so deeply repressed. I wonder whether Isaac ever heard an apology from his father. Or, like me, did he always wonder if his parent really meant it, really would do so again? Did Isaac's memory of his time on the altar always stand between himself and his father? For in the Bible, Abraham went down the mountain alone.

Before we went to synagogue, we had apples dipped in honey, the traditional food for a sweet new year. But now the taste of that honey has become bitter in my mouth.

 

I am the ram
I am the sacrifice.

 

The second sacrifice was made by my friends. When the mayor demanded the return of the box of Gavrock in exchange for my life, they hesitated. Mr. Wyndham-Pryce, Buffy's substitute watcher, was willing to sacrifice me in return for hindering the mayor's ascension. Giles and Buffy told me they never considered it, not really. But I saw them both flinch as they told me this and I know the truth. They are tacticians and had to weigh their options – one life for many. Oz told me he would not have let anyone put me at risk and I make myself believe it, but I know there would have been no need for him to unilaterally smash the pot with the potion to destroy the Gavrock if no one was tempted; nor would he have acted so swiftly if Oz did not doubt himself.

 

And an angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said,
"Abraham, Abraham, do not put forth your hand on the boy, do not cause him any harm.
For now I know you are a God-fearing man for you did not withhold your child, your own son from me."
And Abraham raised up his eyes and saw –behold—a ram caught in the thicket by his horns.
And Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt-offering instead of his son.
(Genesis 22:11-13)

 

Like Isaac, I was ransomed. Like Abraham, those I love spared me.

Did Isaac wonder if he was supposed to die on that mountain? Did he spend his whole life thinking about the life that was exchanged for his?

As we say the Mourner's Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, I remember Larry, Harmony, Principal Snyder, and the other members of my high school who gave their lives fighting the giant snake that was the ascended Mayor Wilkens. Would they have lost their lives if the mayor had not recovered the box of Gavrock? If the mayor had not eaten the spiders? Was my life traded for theirs?

As the rabbi blows the shofar, the instrument made from the ram's horn, summoning the Jews to repent of our sins, I wonder whether my friends did the right thing. Should they have listened to the angel with the ram or obeyed the command of the Lord?

 

And they came to the place which God had told him and Abraham built an altar there and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, on the wood for the burning.
And Abraham stretched forth his hand and took the knife to slay his son.
(Genesis 22: 9-10)

 

I am Isaac.
I am the ram.

 

As we drive home, I think of the third sacrifice, the one I made myself.

Growing up I had always dreamed of going away to college. I collected course catalogues and mentally weighed the merits of Harvard versus Yale, Stanford versus Oxford. But for Buffy I put all this aside. I sacrificed my dreams to fight by her side.

Yes, this was my own choice. No one demanded or even asked this of me. Yet it still was a sacrifice of my future, one I made willingly but a sacrifice nonetheless.

Each time I hear where another friend was going, each time my mother looks at me while telling someone that I was staying here for college, I feel anew the pain of the sacrificial knife.

And I wonder, did the willingness of my mother to sacrifice me to the flames make me more willing to sacrifice myself? Did my doubts about my friends and their willingness to sacrifice me to the mayor lead me to undervalue my own hopes and aspirations?

Would I have sacrificed myself quite so willingly – giving up my dreams and surrendering my future – if those I love had not sacrificed me first?

 

I am Isaac
I am the ram
And I am the sacrifice.