On Rosh Hashana we read the story of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac. It is a difficult story to understand. Previously we’ve been told how wanted and loved Isaac is. A late in life baby for his parents, their only child together, he is his father’s favorite.
Then, one day, God, a relatively new figure in Abraham’s life, asks him to take his beloved son and sacrifice him. Abraham is prepared to do it until an angel of God stops him and he sacrifices a ram instead. Why? Why would Abraham be willing to sacrifice his son to a god he just met as an adult? Why would God ask that? Are we supposed to think this is a good thing? A bad thing? Are we supposed to be willing to sacrifice our children to a new God? This the last time that God speaks to Abraham, and some people say that’s because God is disgusted with Abraham. Others say that Isaac is so traumatized by this event that after this point he’s a little “tetched” (as we say in Kentucky). He certainly has his own father/son issues with his twins.
I have a theory that what really happened is Abraham decided to head to the mountains for a few days, Sara insisted he take Isaac with him. Unused to dealing with his kid, Abraham got annoyed and tied him to a tree. Later when Isaac told his mother the story, Abraham came up with the whole sacrifice/ram/God story to cover. But, for whatever reason, the story made it in to the biblical canon, and we are meant to read it and gain something from it.
Yesterday, our rabbi asked us to think about the ways in which we sacrifice our children today. Although I’m not 100% sure this is what he said (it was very cold and my teeth were chattering loudly, and my daughter was distracting me), this is what I heard and I have thought about little else.
I believe I am sacrificing my children to school. We moved to Oak Park “for the schools.” It wasn’t that we’d heard great things about them, but we knew they were safe, they were neighborhood based, and I wouldn’t have to apply to get kids in to “the right school.” That had been enough for my education in Kentucky, consistently ranked one of the worst states for education, and I assumed it would be enough for my children.
For several years it was. Our kids walk to school with friends. They have caring teachers and administrators who know them by name. But over the past eight years that my children have been in school, I have seen the schools change. At my kids’ elementary school children used to participate in a “reading buddies” program. K-2 kids were paired with 3-5 kids to read. Once, when he was in second grade a fifth grade girl came running up to us on the playground and hugged my son. “Hi, I’m Taylor, I’m your son’s reading buddy, he is the cutest!” She giggled and proceeded to involve this much younger boy in a game of tag with her friends. When he was in third grade my son came home with a unicorn and a rainbow drawn on his pitching hand. “I promised my reading buddy if she finished the book, I’d draw this for her,” he explained.
Last night he told me 5th graders no longer have reading buddies, because “there’s not time.” This is the same reason I was given when I asked why 5th graders only have one recess a day, “There’s not time, there’s too much to do.”
They have taken away recess and reading buddies and added in a class on social skills. When I asked if perhaps social skills could be taught through recess I was told “that’s not a curriculum, it can’t be quantified.”
My daughter’s school is so proud of their status as an IB (International Baccalaureate) school. They shuffle between eight classes a day, three minute breaks between classes. They must explain how their math answers show that they “take chances.” But they only have room for one elective (drama, art, or music). They too take a “social skills” class. The social skills class is quantifiable, math is quantifiable, art is not.
The most basic of student teacher interactions, asking to go to the bathroom, has been replaced by scanning a bathroom pass on the ipad. I have no idea how this generation of children will learn the difference between “may” and “can” without asking if they can go to the bathroom, but perhaps it will be covered in the social skills class.
Many people will tell you that this rush, this lack of time for recess or cross-age buddies or art is because of tests, and I think they’re right.
I am not against standardized tests, I am not against quantifying some things in education. I believe that children in Kentucky and children in Chicago and children in Oak Park all deserve the same access to quality education and yes, we are going to have to give them all the same test to make sure that they are all getting the education they deserve.
But my 10-year-old, comes home with an hour of homework every day, even on weekends. At the age of 10, he is already stressed and miserable at school. His childhood is being sacrificed to tests and numbers and like Sara I am learning about it third hand and watching it helpless.
In the bible story, God continuously calls Abraham and Abraham continuously answers “Here I am.” Isaac too uses the phrase when his father calls him to be put on the altar. Our kids use the phrase every day in school. But God does not call Sara. Nobody asks the mother, “What do you think? Do you believe in this new God? Are you willing to sacrifice your child to him?”
Perhaps we should all of us, mothers and fathers, think a little less about Abraham and what he is doing in this story and ask ourselves about Sara. Ask ourselves if we are willing to stay home while our children are sacrificed to a new god.
Marta, I am the Gattons uncle John, now in Chicago. I am the retired rabbi for a year now. This piece so far is the best Rosh Hashanah message I have read our heard yet. It is a great message raising important questions. I think about this a lot as I watch our third and kindergarten grandkids in their southside school. I wish you a wonderful New Year filled with, health, wisdom, and insight.
Thanks so much for your comments and your thoughts. We actually met once when we both lived in Cincinnati. Happy New Year to you!