The White Ram: A Sto­ry of Abra­ham and Isaac

Mordi­cai Gerstein
  • Review
By – October 26, 2011

This book is so gor­geous that with­in ten min­utes of see­ing my ear­ly review copy, I con­tact­ed the artist and bought the cov­er art to have framed and placed on the wall of our tem­ple library. I hadn’t read the book yet, but it didn’t mat­ter. The cov­er illus­tra­tion depicts a plain­tive white ram in midleap, bound­ing out of par­adise on his way to his mis­sion of self-sac­ri­fice. That sad-eyed, hero­ic ram spoke to me from between the lov­ing hands” of God, who made him on the last day of the Cre­ation, in the twi­light of the first Sab­bath.” And there he is again, on the book’s open­ing page, nes­tled with­in God’s hands, float­ing above the new­ly cre­at­ed world, wait­ing for his moment.

In the peace­ful beau­ty of the Gar­den of Eden, the lone­ly ram waits. Adam and Eve and all the oth­er crea­tures have left the gar­den, and ages have passed, but still he waits for God to wake him and tell him that his time has come. When he is final­ly called upon by God, he runs from the gar­den and encoun­ters the evil one” who is depict­ed as tak­ing many clever forms in order to foil the ram’s inten­tion. These forms include a red dev­il, a field of invit­ing green grass, a cool, sparkling foun­tain, and a fierce lion. Each time the ram encoun­ters the evil one” he is not dis­suad­ed from his goal: I must save the child!” he repeats, and the sto­ry takes on a true sense of urgency. When the ram arrives at the sacred moun­tain, he sees a child tied and bound on an altar, and a weep­ing man.” Wait!” the ram cries, I am here! Take me!” Then God asks Abra­ham to remove his son from the altar, and God says, I want­ed the whole world to see your love and your trust in me, so that all peo­ple might fol­low your exam­ple.” Abra­ham then frees the strug­gling ram, who is caught in the bram­bles, and the ram leaps onto the altar and speaks. Abra­ham,” says the proud but doomed ram, On Rosh Hashanah, blow through one of my horns, and God will hear the sound and remem­ber Isaac and me, the white ram that took his place. And He will for­give the sins of Isaac, and his chil­dren, and his children’s children’s chil­dren, always, till the end of time.” We then turn to the amaz­ing two-page spread of the sac­ri­ficed ram, in shad­ow on the altar, as his soul flies into God’s hands.” 

Ger­stein has includ­ed depic­tions of God (and espe­cial­ly, God’s hands) with­in the illus­tra­tions of the sky. If this is an issue for Jew­ish read­ers, it is addressed in the author’s note as fol­lows: In the illus­tra­tions, fol­low­ing the Jew­ish tra­di­tion that God may not be pic­tured, I used the emp­ty spaces between clouds to sug­gest images of His hands, and even His face. See if you can find them.” I found this artis­tic vision to be par­tic­u­lar­ly com­fort­ing, espe­cial­ly the hands” of God cradling the lone white ram on his first day of life. 

Is this sto­ry too sad for chil­dren? I would guess that for some, the idea of the beau­ti­ful white ram sac­ri­fic­ing him­self on the altar while Abra­ham clasps his weep­ing, relieved son to his breast would cer­tain­ly be a prob­lem. But not all illus­trat­ed books for chil­dren are for all ages. Bib­li­cal sto­ries con­tain mighty themes, and many par­ents would nev­er con­sid­er the Akedah sto­ry to be suit­able for young chil­dren. But in Gerstein’s ver­sion of this midrash, the ram’s self­less act of sac­ri­fice con­tributes to sub­se­quent Jew­ish his­to­ry: his ash­es are made into the mor­tar for the altar of the Tem­ple, his innards are made into the ten strings of David’s harp, and his hide pro­vides Elijah’s cape. Last­ly, two bright­ly illus­trat­ed seraphim are depict­ed blow­ing the two sho­fars that were made from his horns. The author writes, One was blown when Moses received the Ten Com­mand­ments. And the oth­er will call the chil­dren of Israel home.” 

This book is about the act of remem­ber­ing. It is about how thank­ful we are for those who have sac­ri­ficed for us, whether they are par­ents, chil­dren, teach­ers, friends, or even beloved and devot­ed ani­mals that have served us so faith­ful­ly. It is a tru­ly ecu­meni­cal sto­ry, and would be uni­ver­sal to all belief sys­tems, even though cer­tain Chris­to­log­i­cal ref­er­ences can be gleaned from the text. The pac­ing of the text is per­fect, and the mov­ing illus­tra­tions, done in pen and ink, oils, and col­ored pen­cil, are mes­mer­iz­ing. This book has received much praise and many starred reviews in the sec­u­lar children’s press. What a plea­sure it is to see a book based on a Jew­ish midrash get that kind of recog­ni­tion! The author has mas­tered a per­fect com­bi­na­tion of sto­ry and illus­tra­tion and we are tru­ly thank­ful for his efforts. 

Lisa Sil­ver­man is direc­tor of Sinai Tem­ple’s Blu­men­thal Library in Los Ange­les and a for­mer day school librar­i­an. She is the for­mer chil­dren’s book review edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World.

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