In Abraham’s Shoes; and Julie’s, Too

Isaac submits without struggle to the twisted leather straps that bind him. He is a helpless partner in this odd dance of death. Abraham reaches for the knife to slit his son’s throat when mercifully, an angel calls out to stop the slaughter. A ram is to die instead of the boy.

For years now, like most Jews, I have wrestled with this Torah portion about Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac. Why did the rabbis command us to hear it on Rosh Hashanah, the second holiest day of the year? Then, I came across another story that made it clear. It’s the story of Julie Maude Miller’s son Sean. She tells it this way:

“We had been living in the house we built near Idaho’s Snake River Canyon for eight years when Sean, our 14-year-old son, died of cancer on the tapestry sofa upstairs in the family room. We were granted that one small grace — to allow him to slip away from us where he always wanted to be, in the home that was his sanctuary and ours, witness to our joys and tragedy. I am proud Sean didn’t have to spend his last days in a sterile hospital room hooked up to tubes and machines. Instead, he lived on the sofa, whose fabric he wore thin while he was ill, planted in front of the VCR and television.

“At home, everything was peaceful and familiar to Sean: the window he looked out of every day, the open stairway that allowed him to hear everything going on downstairs when he was too weak to navigate the steps, the wall of windows across through which there were frequent deer sightings — usually when they were ravaging our shrubs in winter, but the deer were welcome to the shrubs because they distracted our little boy.

“I look at the kitchen table — the first time we returned from the hospital we were all traumatized by Sean’s diagnosis. His 16-year-old brother, Tyler, stayed home from school the next day to play with Sean. When Sean’s cancer metastasized for the last time, the boys played cards at the same table the day before Tyler went off to basic training at the Air Force Academy.

“Tyler carefully hid behind a mask of quiet strength the fear that he would never again see his brother alive. Sean held on, but when Tyler returned six weeks later, it was just two days before the end. Sean wasn’t strong enough to play cards downstairs, but he did manage to walk into the bedroom nearest to his tapestry sofa, to play one last card game, this time on the computer. My husband and daughter and I lay on the bunk beds and watched, all of us together in that tight space. I would never have thought that watching my boys play cards could be so inexpressibly heartwarming.

“The bunk beds are still in the boys’ room. If I concentrate I can relive climbing the ladder to the top bunk where Sean used to sleep before he got sick. After his illness, he was afraid of being alone at night and Haley, our littlest one, was suffering from this first threat to her predictable, loving world, so we clustered futons around our small double bed so the children could sleep in our room. We were grateful to be so close together. It was the only security we had left.

“The house holds so many memories. There were summers playing baseball in the meadow, endless hours of shooting baskets, sledding down steep slopes nearby and the gleefully welcomed snow days — no school because we live on an unplowed road. We filled those snowbound days with homemade cinnamon rolls and board games.

“Now, when I open the kitchen closet door, there are lines and dates marking the children’s heights: Tyler’s on the left, Haley’s on the right and Sean’s in the middle, stopping prematurely when he was 12 and radiation to his thigh bones halted his development. While recording our children’s growth, we were measuring time and imagining a future that we never suspected would fall so short of our expectations.”

Julie’s story makes us realize that we take a lot for granted. The ancient rabbis knew that about us too. They knew that we sometimes forget the importance of our children. We ignore our parents and grandparents. We allow arguments to smolder, grudges, distance between us. The rabbis knew that we need reminding year after year, because most of us never have to face what Abraham and Sean’s mother faced — the real possibility of our children dying before our eyes. So they commanded us to walk each year, if only for a few minutes , in Abraham’s shoes, and Julie’s too. They wanted us to realize that our loved ones might die, in order to understand what it means to us that they live. To be like Sean’s family on the futons packed around the small double bed — grateful to be so close together.

L’shana tova.

Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the author of “The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things,” published by Behrman House Inc.