In memory of those who were killed. May their memory be for a blessing.
In the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, what I feel and what I think many of us feel, is vulnerable, insecure. We are suddenly acutely aware of what has always been true – that there are people who hate us and want to kill us, that we may at any time be killed for being Jews.
Looking at the end of last week’s parsha and this one through this prism, I am struck by the realization that Yitzhak must have had a similar feeling of vulnerability. He would have been the first martyr, the first to be sacrificed for the sanctification of God’s name. He was saved from the knife, yes, but that experience of being under the knife, of being so close to mortal danger, surely must have inscribed into his psyche the constant spectre of being killed as a child of Avraham.
But of course he doesn’t die, and nor do all of us at any time. What we are left with is, like Yitzhak, to figure out how to live with this spectre of the knife hanging over us.
When we next see Yitzhak after the akedah, he is standing in a field, “contemplating.” Perhaps he is contemplating precisely this question – how does one continue to live in such a world, where God seems to sometimes want Jewish souls as sacrifices, how does one face the constant fear of danger and annihilation?
The answer comes soon afterwards, as the camels carrying Rivka rise on the scene. The Torah tells us that Yitzhak takes her into his mother’s tent; she becomes his wife; he loves her; he is comforted over the loss of his mother.
The loss of his mother. Sarah, in some ways, ended up being the real sacrificial lamb of the akedah. Her death is told to us immediately after that story, and she dies young – almost 50 years younger than Avraham when he dies. The midrash says she dies when she hears the news that Avraham had gone to sacrifice her son, not knowing that he would be spared.
And so Yitzhak is left with a double burden post-akedah. Like us, he has on the one hand to mourn those that did die, and on the other hand, to figure out how to continue to live in the face of the knowledge of such tragedy and perpetual danger.
The answer is LOVE. I believe that this is the first time in the Torah that the root ahavah , love, is used. Through his encounter with suffering, Yitzhak discovers love. Yitzhak discovers that the only comfort in such a situation, the only way to move forward is to focus on love. He loves Rivka and that love is itself a comfort.
Love is more than a comfort. It is an anchor and a purpose in a tops- turvy, inexplicable and occasionally miserable world. Connection to others – whether in synagogue at a memorial service, in school teaching Torah to students, or at home with my family – these connections, these places of love are indeed what comforts me and gives me hope. Not hope for myself, necessarily, but hope for our people and for all of humanity. Love lifts us out of ourselves. We are attached to something beyond ourselves, to other humans and to a force that is stronger than hatred, stronger than death, stronger than any individual’s life. There is nothing that can destroy love.
Viktor Frankl famously recounts how, on one frozen miserable forced march from the concentration camp gates to the inmates’ working trenches, a fellow inmate whispers to him: “If our wives could see us now!” Frankl tells how he is reminded of his wife and completely transported by this thought and his intense love for her:
My mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise. A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.
Yitzhak knew this. The salvation of man is through love. Having seen the knife, he knew that love was the only answer.