On the morning his father took him to Mt. Moriah to offer him as sacrifice, Isaac was thirty-seven years old. As a thirty-seven-year-old man he was too old to question his father’s motives—he must simply have been happy his father longed for a hike. They always hiked together in the summers. It was their easiest opportunity to talk.
Isaac was single at the time. He was too old to call a friend brah, too old to order a Long Island Iced Tea at a bar. Probably his IT-bands had atrophied, his knees had burned their cartilage and ached on long walks. He threw on an American Apparel hoodie, navy-blue, to wear on the long trek to Moriah. It would take three whole days just to get there. His father eyed him askance—anyone seeing a thirty-seven-year-old man in a hoodie might. Isaac was wearing a pair of Vans and a Guns N' Roses t-shirt, yellow at the armpits.
Surely he suffered some embarrassment for still living at home with his parents.
When on the third day, in the early morning, the sun rose above Mt. Moriah, its light spread one ray at a time. Isaac at thirty-seven would have grown near-sighted from all the time at home, alone, reading. In 2010, the year he and his father made their ascent (Isaac was born in the year 2047BC, the first day of Rosh Hashana), glasses had not yet been invented. Glass either. Sunrise was a resplendent blur. His father always rose before him, and on this morning, after three days of hiking, he would already have begun his ascent.
For a man in his late thirties, who had hiked with his father since before memory, following his father up a mountain would have been an unconscious act: lace up the Asolos, fill up the Camelback, throw on the Gregory backpack, don’t forget the GORP. At the mountain’s top as his father prepared an altar for the sacrifice, Isaac would be distracted. He’d been carrying the wood and the binding to build the altar as he always did. What man at the age of thirty-seven is not yet distracted from the task at hand? The pain of looking for a job, the ache of his hips (those atrophied IT-bands!), the women he’s been dating, if you could call speed-dating dating.
All of these are in mind.
He will not lie down on the altar. He will not help his father to secure his donkey, nor note the moment when a lamb comes in his place for sacrifice. Even his question as to where the lamb is when they summit Moriah is off-handed, rote.
He will not hear either side of his father’s conversation with the Lord. Maybe he’s got earbuds in, listening to the Dead or the Allmans. When his father calls for help with the lamb, he will simply slog off to help secure the animal, as he has so many times the action has grown unconscious, his mind on his aches and happinesses and other signs of failure.
On the nervous ascent of the mountain after they’ve picked up camp on the third morning of their trip, Isaac will start singing “Girl From the North Country.” It’s not clear that Nashville Skyline is defensibly the best Bob Dylan record, or even that it’s Isaac’s favorite. But it’s got Johnny Cash, and Norman Blake on guitar, and so it is the best compromise between Isaac and his 137-year-old father. His father’s hearing has been in decline, so he sings louder than he’d like.
“If you’re going,” Isaac sings, “where the snowflakes fall, where rivers freeze and summer ends.”
“No!” Abraham says sharply. Isaac doesn’t know what the problem is, so he starts to sing the verse again, a little louder even this time.
“If you’re going where the snowflakes fall…”
“No! Not snowflakes fall, son. Snowflakes storm. This lyric is all-important, beautiful in so many ways. So much more beautiful than if they were simply to fall, as if they were not guided by the storming hand of the whirlwind.”
The top of Mt. Moriah is hot, baked dry. Isaac has never seen a snowflake, let alone seen one fall, or storm.
When he is a freshman in college, Isaac will read a book called Fear and Trembling, which is nominally written by a man named Johannes de Silentio, though everyone sees the name on the spine of the book is the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard. When he first encounters this book, Isaac has only ever heard this philosopher’s name in a movie based on a Saturday Night Live skit called Wayne’s World, referenced as the most esoteric possible philosopher. But the content of the book is not esoteric or even difficult. It is three midrashic readings of the akeidah, the account of Abraham taking Isaac to sacrifice him after God commands him to, without further explanation.
Isaac suffered through plenty of Monday and Wednesday afternoons in Hebrew school. He knows from the akeidah.
Isaac imagines himself taking this book to the top of Mt. Moriah with his father. He’s got almost twenty years ahead of him before they make the trip, and he’ll know it better than he could even imagine by the time they get there. His father will get him up early on the third day of the hike. They will ascend the mountain. When they reach the top, when it is Isaac’s turn to ask, “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” instead he will know better than his father.
“Have you ever read Kierkegaard?” he’ll ask, instead of asking after the lamb. The nice thing on these hikes is that they can talk like this, just saying whatever comes to mind. That freedom is what Isaac thinks of as human closeness.
“Oh, back when I was an undergrad,” his father will say. His father could never admit to not having read a book. He’s a professor of English after all, in addition to being a farmer. “Which one?”
“Fear and Trembling,”Isaac will say.
“Oh, sure, that one,” his father will say. He’ll look off to the horizon, to the long trail dotted with cairns to mark the way. It’s black fly season and they’re biting so they can only stop for so long. “But I was always partial to Sickness Unto Death.”
And then Isaac’s father will drone on about this other book—a book he clearly knows better.
A bait-and-switch to cover up for his lack of memory of the first book.
But Isaac’s already tuned him out, looking out over the baked-hot valley. His father won’t ever even turn around to see that Isaac’s got his earbuds back in his ears, his hood popped up over his head.
Daniel Torday is the author of the novel The Last Flight of Poxl West. His novella, The Sensualist, won the 2012 National Jewish Book Award for debut fiction. Torday's stories and essays have appeared in Esquire Magazine, Glimmer Train, n+1, The New York Times and The Paris Review Daily. A former editor at Esquire, Torday serves as an editor at The Kenyon Review. He is Director of Creative Writing at Bryn Mawr College.