David Walk

The Akeida – Lessons for Life

As the war continues, it’s hard not to think of everything one encounters in the light of the continuing emergency. That is especially true of the weekly Torah readings. Usually, we rabbi types struggle mightily to find a connection between the reading and the headlines, but not this week. I remember a great rabbinic orator explaining to us students for ordination at YU that the most important text for his weekly sermons was the New York Times, you know when Orthodox Jews were still reading the Times. Well, this week the Torah reading anticipates the headlines.  

This week we read the episode of the Akeida, the aborted offering of Yitzchak on Har HaMoriah, now called the Temple Mount. There are so many questions to ask about this heart wrenching incident. How could Avraham not question God’s command, as he did with the destruction of Sodom? How could Yitzchak carry on after realizing what was going to happen? What was God’s plan? Each question, and there are more, deserves its own essay, sermon or, perhaps, mini-series. But this year I can’t deal with any of those issues. I must know how to assimilate this affair into our present pain.

Rav Soloveitchik dealt with Avraham’s pain: God says to Avraham:

“Take now your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, etc.” That is to say, I demand of you the greatest sacrifice. I want your son who is your only son, and also the one whom you love. Do not fool yourself to think that after you obey Me and offer up your son, I will give you another son in place of Yitzchak. When Yitzchak will be slaughtered on the altar – you will remain alone and childless. You will not have another child. You will live your life in solitude. I want your only son who is irreplaceable. Neither should you think that you will succeed to forget Yitzchak and remove him from your mind. All your life you will think about him. I am interested in your son whom you love and whom you will love forever. You will spend your nights awake, picking at your emotional wounds. Out of your sleep you will call for Yitzchak, and when you wake up you will find your tent desolate and forsaken. Your life will turn into a long chain of emotional suffering. And nevertheless, I demand this sacrifice.

It’s the same thing when we send a child off to war. We are sending our child, our unique child, our irreplaceable child, whom we love. We spend our nights in sleepless concern over their safety. But we know that it’s necessary; we know we must. Prof. Leon Kass explained that, ‘But a true father will devote his son to – and will self consciously initiate him into-only the righteous and godly ways…On the contrary, the true founder, like the true father, shows his love for his followers when he teaches them, often by example, that one’s life is not worth living if there is nothing worth dying and sacrificing for.’

We all are questioned by family and friends from abroad, the Diaspora, ‘How can you put your children through this?’, ‘Isn’t it dangerous?, and, my favorite, “Aren’t you afraid for your life?’ The answers: 1. We must. 2. Yes, but no more dangerous than other less important places, and 3. ‘No’! We’re not giving up on life; Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael are our life.

Indeed this week’s parsha presents us with a ‘test’. But a test of what? Some say the test was for the ISH CHESED, the man of kindness, to be willing to act ruthlessly. Others suggest that he was being tested in his faith in God’s promises, because his fulfilling this assignment would have abrogated all the promises made for Jewish destiny. Or, perhaps, the whole test was traveling for three days and living with this horrible secret. But the whole issue really is: How do we fare when (not ‘if’) tested by God? 

That’s exactly the reality that we’re living. Our loyalty and commitment to Eretz Yisrael is being tested. I think strongly that here in Eretz Yisrael we are passing the test. Just a couple of months ago we were all at each other’s throats. We had some of the largest mass rallies and protests in our young country’s history. It seemed that our nation was falling apart at the seams. Could all the king’s horses and all the king’s men ever put our broken nation together again? No, but Hamas could.

Just as Haman is credited with reuniting the fractured, assimilating nation in Persia, Hamas and their unique brand of cruelty and barbarity has united this nation in remarkable ways. Chareidim are volunteering for the army, and after all those threats of not showing up for reserve duty, many units had over 100% of soldiers answering the call up. Thousands have returned from the Diaspora to serve. So, even though we can’t say ‘thank you’ to such despicable characters, we are heartened by the response to their evil: We all have become the citizens of Shushan who fasted to a man with Esther. 

But there’s one more question, one more anomaly in our story, and it’s brought up by that expert on Jewish suffering, Elie Wiesel OB”M:

Why was the most tragic of our ancestors named Isaac, which signifies laughter? Fascinating! The most dour of Biblical characters has the most joyous name. Yitchak will laugh.

What does that mean? The great author replies: 

As the first survivor, he had to teach us, the future survivors of Jewish history (us), that it is possible to suffer and despair an entire lifetime and still not give up the art of laughter. 

Elie Wiesel is right: We are all survivors! And we will have the last laugh. May it come speedily, with minimal sacrifices! O God, we’ve sacrificed enough!

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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