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The Akeida: Questions of Sacrifice

Each year, on the second day of Rosh Hashana we discuss the Akeida – the story for the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac. Each year we, collectively, struggle with the psychological impact and the personal ethics of the story. How could a father do such a thing? What did Isaac feel? What did Abraham feel? What did Sarah feel? What did God feel? What did the ram feel? We discuss these issues as if synagogue were a family therapy workshop. We take up the story as if it were a vignette in a modern novel, and that its point is to give us insight into the human psyche. We are revolted by the thought of a father who even contemplates sacrificing his son. In our struggles with the text, we turn the plain meaning of the story on its head. We claim that Abraham in fact failed the test, or that it was Abraham who was testing God, and that God only barely passes when he finally sends an angel to stay Abraham’s hand.

All over the world, liberal congregations take a similar approach. And indeed critical approaches to this story have been in vogue since at least the middle of the 19th century. But the story of the Akeida is not part of a modern novel concerned primarily with individual characters. And though it has strong psychological motifs, this story is not primarily a psychodrama. Rather it is a mythic morality tale, designed by its authors to instruct future generations.

So let us look, for a few minutes, at the plain message of the story. The one that has been the normative interpretation of this text for most of Jewish history. And let us see if these classic interpretations can still have any meaning and lessons for us today.

Let me quote from the Torah portion that we read today. This section, comes at the conclusion of the story of the Akeida, after Isaac has been spared and the ram has been sacrificed in his place.

“Now God’s messenger called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said: ‘By myself I swear, says the Lord, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and will make your seed many, like the stars of the heavens and like the sands on the shore of the sea, your seed shall inherit the gate of their enemy; and all the nations of the earth shall enjoy blessing, because you have hearkened to my voice.” (Genesis 22, verses 15-19)

The moral of the story, as conceived by the authors, and by the majority of Jewish commentators throughout history is clear. Abraham did a very good thing. No! He did an amazingly and uniquely good thing! It is his obedience and loyalty to higher values – as personified by God – and his willingness to sacrifice his only son for the sake of those values, that is being rewarded. It is this act of loyalty that proves his worthiness as the Father of the Jewish People.

“But how could he be so cruel?” we ask. “How could he put aside his fatherly love and parental obligations?” Classic Jewish commentators were not oblivious to these questions. But for them, it was precisely this “putting aside of fatherly love” that proved Abraham’s greatness in this, his most difficult of tests. Abraham, who, in the Rabbinical imagination, is quintessentially identified with the virtue of Hesed – kindness – is asked to put aside his kind nature and to do what is required of him. And he succeeds!

In the Chassidic tradition, the daily Shaharit prayers are prefaced with this meditation:

“Master of the Universe! Just as Abraham, our father, suppressed his compassion for his son, to do your will. may your compassion suppress your wrath against us, and may your mercy prevail over your attributes of strict justice.”

In other words, Abraham suppressed his natural compassion, his natural love, for the sake of some greater purpose, and this is right and good, and he is to be praised for it.

And not only is he praised for it, but this singular act became the very symbol of Jewish faith and loyalty. It is not co-incidence that this is the story we read on Rosh Hashana, when according to tradition, God begins his period of annual judgment. We remind God of Abraham’s act of loyalty in order to win for ourselves some merit on account of our ancestors. And we remind ourselves of the kind of devotion to principles that is required of a committed Jew. The medieval Spanish Jewish philosopher Arbabanel writes in his commentary of Genesis:

“The Binding of Isaac is forever on our lips and in our prayers. For in it lies the entire strength of Israel and their merit before their Heavenly Father.”

The traditional message is crystal clear. That there are, indeed, values worth sacrificing for. And some values are worth dying for. And some values are worth even more than that: they are worth endangering and even sacrificing our children for. And it is precisely our ability to sacrifice for higher values that makes us worthy, and allows us to survive as a people.

Whether we are comfortable with this message or not, it is clearly how a great many traditional Jewish authorities viewed the matter.

To sharpen the matter, let us look at the story of Hannah and her seven sons, as told in the Second Book of Maccabees. Hannah martyrs all seven of her sons rather than have them compromise their faith. As her last son is about to die she tells him: “Go now, to Abraham your father, and tell him that I have bettered his instruction. He offered one child to God; I have offered seven.”

During the crusades, and despite halakhic rulings to the contrary, many Jews killed their own children before taking their own lives, rather than undergo forced baptisms. The story of the Akeida and images of Hannah were on their lips and in their minds as they raised the knife. Their acts have become part of Jewish mythology, and are remembered and even glorified in the Yom Kippur Martyrology service.

And let us not imagine that this is all just an ancient outmoded cultic attitude. The Hertz Chumash, published in 1936, on the eve of the Holocaust, praises, at length, and without mincing words, this central message of the Akeida. In his commentary on Chapter 22 of Genesis, Rabbi Hertz writes:

“Many to-day have no understanding of martyrdom. They fail to see that it represents the highest moral triumph of humanity – unwavering steadfastness to principle, even at the cost of life.”

He goes on to quote the great 19th century Hebrew poet Yehuda Leyb Gordon:

“We have sacrificed all. We have given our wealth,
Our homes, our honours, our land our health,
Our lives – like Hannah her children seven –
For the sake of the Torah that came down from Heaven”

Martyrdom is an “ideal” inspired by the Akeida, claims Hertz later in the same commentary.

Is this madness, or is it the necessary level of commitment to a worthy cause? Is there, perhaps, a direct line from the story of the Akeida, to the Jewish settler families in Hebron who deliberately put their children in the line of fire, in order to be loyal to, what is for them, the higher principle of the sanctity of the Land of Israel? Is there a direct line from the story of the Akeida, through its retelling in the Koran, to the willingness of some Palestinian parents to have their children in the front lines of rock throwers facing armed Israeli troops? And are people who are so committed to their ideals that they would die for them, and have their children die for them too, not a just hairsbreadth away from being willing to kill others for those same ideals? Is there, perhaps, a tortuous link between our story and the World Trade Center?

Maybe there is?

Fortunately, as Reconstructionist Jews, we are not bound to accept the traditions exactly as our ancestors understood them. We are fond of quoting Mordecai Kaplan’s dictum that “The past has a vote and not a veto.” But we are obliged to study the tradition, and to glean from it what we can, before we discard it out of hand. Moreover we have the option, even the preferred option, of neither accepting the given tradition whole, nor of rejecting it whole. We are called on to examine and adapt it. To learn and to extract the essence from the traditional form.

But is there an essence worth saving here?

Again let me quote Rabbi Hertz.

“Those who are blind [to martyrdom], to unconquerable courage and endurance, naturally display hostility to the whole idea of the Akeida, and its place and associations in Jewish thought. ‘Only a Molech requires human sacrifice’ they scoff. But in all human history, there is not a single noble cause, movement, or achievement that did not call for sacrifice, and even sometimes the sacrifice of life itself. Science, Liberty, Humanity, all took their toll.”

And let me also quote from “The Akedah” by Rabbi Leyb Yanover: “What does God say to Avraham after it is all over..He says, “Because you have obeyed Me and not withheld your son, I will multiply your descendants.”

Just as circumcision – symbolically injuring the organ of generation – carries with it a promise of fertility, and just as tithing – giving away your hard-earned produce and money – brings a promise of prosperity, so risking one’s progeny (for God’s sake) brings a reward of numerous successful descendants.

The social impact of these values cannot be overestimated. This [willingness to risk and to give up what is dear] is the [highest] expression of societies’ . cultivation of care and loyalty among neighbors. It is as close as society can get to offering a guarantee of personal immortality. In every society, there are principles for which one must be prepared to make a supreme sacrifice. In such circumstances, acting… to demonstrate… that one may… [offer their life] to the future is proof that societal values matter. We are asked to affirm that it is good and right at times to give up everything precious-for the sake of the future.

The 20th century philosopher, Albert Camus, said, “Real generosity consists in giving all to the future.”

And Rabbi Yanover continues: For our generation, the most troubling feature here is that Abraham does not offer his own life… but Isaac’s. Can one make the decision to sacrifice for another?

Classical texts suggest that we do this all the time. Whether we see our decisions as little murders or not, they are profound in their impact. The binding of Isaac is every choice we make, from the decision to raise our children as Jews, to the casual words we speak about another. We may choose not to see the knife in our hands, but we know its descent in a thousand ways.”

In this context we need to see sacrifice not just as physical martyrdom, the giving of a life, but in all the little things we are urged forgo for the sake of our communal values. The parents who consciously force their child to go to Sunday School rather than play with his friends are sacrificing for these very values, and forcing their child to do so as well. The parents who forgo a new car and vacations to pay for their children’s education, whether by way of tutors, or in a private school or later at university, are sacrificing for these values, and no doubt making demands of their child as well. The adult child who spends hours caring for an aged parent, at the cost of career development and leisure time, is sacrificing for these values. The person who gives up their time and their money to help the poor is sacrificing for these values. And both these people are depriving their own children of that very time and money now diverted to these greater transcendent causes. Even the university student who misses classes to be at shul today, or any of you who gave up a day’s pay to be here, is in a small way, sacrificing for these values, giving up the obvious material advantage, for the sake of the larger communal identification. Communal identification and values which help us transcend our narrow individual lives and are therefore worth sacrificing our narrow individual interests for.

Certainly in my own life I have struggled with the question of which values are worth sacrificing for, risking ones life for, and which values are even worth endangering one’s children for. My own parents are Holocaust survivors. My father had his parents and seven brothers and sisters murdered for the crime of being Jewish. My mother had her grandparents, parents and three siblings killed because they were Jews. The rational and safe thing to do after such an experience, would be to do as Madeleine Albright’s parents did – simply raise me as a non-Jew and just not tell me about my Jewish heritage.

Instead, as still struggling immigrants to Canada, they sent me, their post holocaust child, their shining hope for the future, to Hebrew Day School. Was this craziness, or a commitment to important and transcendent values? And what of every Israeli parent who stays in Israel rather than leave before their child reaches the age of the army draft? Are they twisted, or are they taking acceptable risks for the sake of community values? And what of any society that engages in any war? To quote Phil Ochs “Its always the old that lead us to the wars, its always the young to die.” The parents decide, and the children bear the risk. Are all wars therefore immoral? Can any values be transmitted through time without coercing, to some extent, the younger generation?

These are difficult questions and I have no pat answers. I myself lived in Israel for 15 years, and I had little difficulty serving in the Israeli army. I was willing to risk my own life, if necessary, to defend what I thought was important. But I left Israel, in part, because I wasn’t willing to force my own children to risk their lives for values that I felt were less than absolutely essential. Did I do wrong? Did I shirk my responsibility to the greater good of the Jewish people? Did I sacrifice my children’s rootedness in Jewish culture and values for the sake of their physical safely? Did my compassion for my children rob them of a cultural and national identity that I myself cherish? Was this the right decision?

I began to prepare this talk [in 2001], before the September 11 terror attacks on the United States. But [at this writing, ] as the world contemplates the sacrifices that may soon come in order to fight terrorism, the questions raised by the Akeida become even more relevant. To insist that we need not sacrifice anything at all in order to pursue security and justice, and to uphold values that we hold dear, is narcissistic, unrealistic and immature. But to joyfully run forward offering our lives and those of others is a madness akin to that of the terrorists we decry.

* * *

The Akeida speaks to the necessity of being willing to sacrifice for values we hold dear. It speaks to the necessity of risking, or at least coercing our children.

The Akeida tells us that there are some values that are worth sacrificing for, but does not tell us exactly what these are. How do we know when it is God speaking to us, or when it is just our fears, insecurities, and inner demons that we hear?

The Akeida tells us that some sacrifices that are necessary, but that others are clearly inappropriate. How do we know which are which?

The Akeida suggests there is a difference between sacrificing something of yourself and sacrificing something of others. How much of our own values can we force upon our own children, and at what potential risk or cost to them?

And as the tribal war drums beat, we must always remember that the active sacrifice of human life, as the very story of the Akeida and Jewish Law explicitly reminds us, is never appropriate.

So how much sacrifice is enough? How much is necessary? How much is too much? Can anything worthwhile be accomplished without the willingness to sacrifice some or all of what is dear to us? To what extent can we coerce our children for the sake of our own values? Is the story of the Akeida the model of all subsequent religious inspired fanaticism? Or is it a model for the formation and survival of any human community that wishes to transmit its values from one generation to the next?

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