This month’s parashot, starting as they do at the very beginning of Torah, offer some of the most famous stories in the Biblical canon, including the Aqedah, the story of the sacrifice (or near-sacrifice) of Isaac. But we often forget that this Torah portion contains no less than three separate instances of a father’s sacrifice, or near sacrifice, of his children, each incident horrifying in its own way.
The first instance is not an offer of sacrifice to appease a demanding God, but rather to pacify the most violent and base instincts of men. Lot, surrounded by an angry mob demanding he produce his guests for the mob to kill, responds with an offer to sacrifice his virgin daughters to satisfy their blood lust. Only the intervention of his guests prevented the fulfillment of this sacrifice.
The second instance is Abraham’s sacrifice of his first-born son, Ishmael. While not a literal sacrifice, it still ends any further involvement of Abraham in Ishmael’s life. To protect Isaac’s inheritance, Sarah tells Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael, and God instructs Abraham to comply. Abraham sacrifices his relationship with Ishmael or any further knowledge of what will become of his first-born, in deference to the primacy of Isaac and out of obedience to his God.
Finally, we get to the most famous sacrifice, or near-sacrifice, the Aqedah. In this instance, Abraham hastens to obey God’s quixotic and arbitrary demand, this ultimate test of faith and loyalty.
Neither the Biblical text nor much of rabbinic commentary offers any opprobrium toward either Lot or Abraham for their willingness to sacrifice the well-being, if not the very lives, of their children, for their own safety or ideology. Lot is neither scolded, nor punished, nor censured in any way. Abraham is held up as a model of faith for his attempted sacrifice of Isaac, and little is said of his exile of Ishmael.
For readers of the Bible today, it can be very difficult to understand how a parent, or any adult, can put their own needs and personal ideologies ahead of the needs of their children. And yet, there are some adults today who also seem willing to sacrifice the well-being of all our children, in service to their own needs and ideologies.
These adults, in the guise of protecting our children, or at least white children, from feeling bad about the United States, about their own ancestors, or about themselves, are sacrificing all our children’s education and honest understanding of who we are as a nation and how we got here. These adults are appearing before our school boards to rail against any attempts to bring equity and inclusion into our schools.
Lawmakers across the country, including in Wisconsin, are introducing bills to ban schools from teaching about racism, sexism, or issues of social justice. The fear inherent in these bills is that teaching our students the truth of our history of genocide against the indigenous population, racism, and slavery, will make white children feel bad about the actions of their ancestors, guilty by association, and ultimately less patriotic. The underlying ideological motivation for these bills is the perpetuation of white privilege and white supremacy.
Wisconsin residents, children and adults, CAN handle the truth about our history of discrimination against people of color, racism, and slavery.
Moreover, it is necessary to teach that history in order to understand and address the ongoing impact it continues to have on the systemic inequalities in our society.
The protests after the killing of George Floyd, and the health and economic impact of the pandemic, have thrown into stark relief the reality of racial inequality in our country. We have seen how the unequal access to health care has led to greater rates of infection, hospitalization, and death in communities of color. The economic fallout of the pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on communities of color. The harsh reality of police violence against people of color confronts us on the news almost daily. None of us can escape awareness of these injustices.
Our children see what is happening, and they ask questions. Our schools must address these questions honestly and openly. By teaching our children the truth of our history and how it still affects us today, we build trust between our students and their teachers.
Further, our students need to be equipped to live in a multicultural society, to think critically about what they read and hear on the news and on social media, and to analyze and understand the systems and policies that underpin our society.
We cannot build a more equitable society for future generations without understanding our past. Let us not sacrifice our children’s futures for the ideologies of today’s adults.
This is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.