Bystander or upstander? Which word best describes the donkey who guides Abraham?
You may know the Biblical story of the Akedah (Genesis 22). God tells Abraham to offer his son Isaac on the altar. Where? Somewhere up in the hills. God will show him exactly where.
So what does Abraham do? Does he argue? No. Instead, he relies on the wisdom of his donkey. He saddles up, and then heads out with Isaac and two teenage servants.
Of course Abraham trusts his donkey. Often in the Tanakh, people aren’t sure where they are going, or what they will do when they get there. But they saddle up the donkey and ride. And then they find their way.
But, this time, something goes wrong. Because the donkey guides the family right to the edge of danger. And then an angel has to intervene. The angel calls out from heaven, “Abraham, don’t raise your hand against the boy!”
If the donkey is such a great guide, why doesn’t it stop Abraham from binding Isaac and putting him on the altar? How can the wise animal simply be a bystander?To answer, I draw on a beautiful midrash written by Aharon Varady. (You can read it here, in Hebrew.) What, Varady asks, were the donkey and the teens doing while Abraham and Isaac walked and talked? Did they go on their own spiritual journeys? Can we find clues about them in other Torah stories? Yes, Varady says, we can gather the clues, and imagine the inner lives of these characters.
I’d like to retell—and slightly adapt—a snippet of Varady’s midrash to answer MY question. Was the donkey merely a bystander? Or did the donkey find a way to offer his usual spiritual guidance?
The group travelled for two days. The old man, his son, two teens, and a donkey. On the second night, the people went to sleep. But the donkey was troubled. Something seemed amiss. He couldn’t sleep. So the donkey looked up at the stars and composed Psalm 19:
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky proclaims God’s handiwork. Day to day makes utterance; night to night speaks out. There is no utterance, there are no words, whose sound goes unheard. Their voice carries throughout the earth, their words to the end of the world.” (Psalm 19:2-5)
On the third night, the donkey dreamed that he became the wind. He flew over the world, light as air. Below him, he saw Isaac tied on the altar. He saw Abraham holding a kitchen knife. The donkey tried to speak, but his voice was subtle as a breeze. Still, he whispered, “Don’t raise your hand against the boy!”
Morning came. The donkey woke. Only the teens were with him. Abraham and Isaac had moved on. But, somehow, the donkey’s dreamtime words still flew with the wind. And they were carried on the wind. And they landed in Abraham’s ear, just as he raised the knife. Abraham thought it was the voice of an angel, and he put the knife down.
Turns out, this donkey is no bystander. He finds comfort outdoors under a healing sky. Then he prays and makes art and quietly speaks his heart. And thus he saves one boy, and changes a whole world.
***Originally offered as a dvar Torah (sermon) at Or Shalom Synagogue. To learn more about Aharon Varady’s work on Open Source Judaism, visit his website, The Open Siddur Project. To learn more about animals in the Bible, check out my book Mouth of the Donkey: Re-imagining Biblical Animals.