In Midrash Genesis Rabbah, we read of a discussion that seems to relate to where we are today. The conversation entails the two sons of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael, discussing who would be more worthy of carrying on the Abrahamic legacy. Ishmael tells Isaac, “I should be the one to truly carry on the covenant! I received the circumcision when I was thirteen years old. I felt the pain. I remember it! But you, you were only eight days old. You remember nothing.”
Isaac then replies to Ishmael, “Yes, it is true. I don’t remember what it was like. But I would be willing to die for it.” After this incident, G-d came to Abraham and told him to take Isaac and sacrifice him. (For those who may not know the story, it can be found in Genesis Chapter 22)
While this Midrash honestly tempts me to open up a discussion of the interaction between the Islamic Middle East and the People of Israel (The descendants of Ishmael and the descendants of Isaac), I want to focus a little bit more on the idea of Isaac’s statement, and the act that he committed in letting his father tie him up on the alter to be sacrificed.
While the act of sacrificing one’s life for a cause is extremely noble, anyone who studies human history understands that there are countless martyrs from all cultures and all religions. Evil people as well as good people have died for their causes, whether those causes were for bad or for good. Soldiers have died in battle, heroes have died rescuing others from danger. Thus for us, the question is, when we look at Isaac, what is it about him that truly makes his willing to sacrifice himself unique? OK, so he is “one of ours,” but anyone who knows their Jewish history knows that there are nearly countless Jews who have died for being Jewish.
What is it about Isaac that makes his willing to die so central to the Jewish faith that Halachically speaking, as opposed to Jacob wrestling with the angel–an alternative story that often symbolizes to many of how we Jews constantly “wrestle” with G-d and the world on so many levels, we are to recite the Akedah every day in our prayer books? What makes this such a signature story for us?
In my opinion, the answer ultimately lies in who Isaac truly is. In my previous blog, I had mentioned that Isaac brought on an exclusivity to the Abrahamic covenant and legacy. He was the one who was chosen to carry on the future of the nation of Israel, the “light to the nations,” planet earth’s very connection to G-d. Thus for him to say, “I would die for it” is not just the idea of simple martyrdom, but something far deeper. All martyrs die for a cause. But in the case with Isaac, he embodies the cause. If he dies, the cause dies with him. Indeed, he is the cause. Thus, for Isaac to be willing to die means an extremely deep and complete submission to G-d’s will.
As far as I can tell, most martyrs who choose to give their life, give their life so that their cause may carry on into the future. To my personal knowledge, I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of a martyr being willing to make the sacrifice of the cause itself. Something very different is going on when we read the passage of the Akedah. Logically, it doesn’t make sense. When we look at the issue with our “left brain,” it seems that Isaac is letting everything be thrown away.
Yet, if we take a moment to think about this with our “right brain,” we might just find that Isaac is submitting himself to the ominous unknown that is G-d’s will. That if G-d wants my life and the entire cause that goes with it, then so be it. It is His. Isaac lets himself fall completely into the hands of G-d. He relinquishes all control and gives it to G-d. Again, martyrs choose to die for their causes. Isaac relinquishes himself and the cause itself completely. In his submission to be sacrificed, he charges into the dark unknown and says “If G-d wants the cause back, then it is His.” All is His. A complete and total trust and submission to G-d’s will. (Once again, while this particular article is not about Ishmael, note that in what I will call Ishmael’s unconscious imitation and attempt to replace Isaac, his religion that brought on the rise of his descendants’ empires is Islam–which ironically means “submission,” and that in Islam, it is Ishmael who is sacrificed, and not Isaac.)
When we approach the Akedah from this perspective, we can see why the Oral Torah depicts the angels crying and begging G-d not to let Abraham kill his son–if Isaac would have died, all would have been lost.
Once again, we can see a very strong element of gevurah, “self restraint” involved in the actions of Isaac. So much so that in the darkest moment, when he doesn’t know the purpose of the command, the logic or reason behind it, he nevertheless bows his head and says “As You wish.” Much like the quote from Pirke Avot, “Do His will like it is your will, so that He will do your will like it is His.” Essentially, Isaac brings and channels His desires into what G-d wants in one of the most powerful ways we could comprehend. In a way, we might think of gevurah as something stiff and painful. But in a way, to channel our will to G-d’s is one of the most powerful acts of love that we could possibly commit for Him. This is what Isaac does.
What does this say to us as the People of Israel? What are we to take away from this?
For us the People of Israel, if we are to take this example of our Father Isaac, it should tell us to hold on to G-d and Torah in our darkest times. For us these days, what exactly is a dark time?
For my part, I would answer that often times, that when materialism in a society increases, a people’s identity, tradition, and spirituality recedes. In our pursuit of material gain above anything else for the sake of feeling good, we’re essentially not much better than drug addicts–materialist junkies who have malnourished and anorexic souls. Sometimes the darkest times in our lives are not when we are impoverished and persecuted, but when we dwell in complete comfort and convenience in our surroundings. This is when it is hardest to take on the yoke of Torah. Indeed, often we look at the yoke of Torah as something too inconvenient–something that keeps “our hands tied” from being, well, “normal.”
The saying goes that “there is no atheist in a foxhole,” but most often these days we live under the silent threat that there potentially is no believer who lives in a mansion (Please note, I am not advocating a life of asceticism, but attempting to point out our situation). When the veil of physical ease, comfort, and convenience come over my eyes, why should I live a Torah/Halacha-based life that is so often hard, uncomfortable, and inconvenient? What need do I have to cry out to G-d? Why should I be Israeli, when it is so much easier to live elsewhere (Despite the fact that after two thousand years of exile we finally have a country again)?
In his book, Who Is Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes,
“Man is inescapably, essentially challenged on all levels of his existence. It is in his being challenged that he discovers himself as a human being. Do I exist as a human being? My answer is: I am commanded–therefore I am. There is a built-in sense of indebtedness in the consciousness of man, an awareness of owing gratitude, of being called upon at certain moments to reciprocate, to answer, to live in a way which is compatible with the grandeur an mystery of living…If care, reciprocity, and the quest of man are self-induced or mere functions of the social organism, then being human must be regarded as an experiment–that failed. The reality of being human depends on man’s sense of indebtedness being a response to transcendent requiredness.
“Without such awareness man is spiritually inane, neither creative nor responsible. Man is a commanded being, coming into meaning in sensing the demand.
“Failure to understand what is demanded of us is the source of anxiety. The acceptance of our existential debt is the prerequisite to sanity.
“The world was not made by man. ‘The earth is the Lord’s, not a derelict. What we own, we owe. ‘How shall I ever repay to the Lord for all his bounties to me!’ (Psalm 116:12).”
To commit to the will of the Creator–whatever that mission might be–is the greatest endeavor we could ever take on. It gives us our true purpose. It brings us back to the source. The more we commit to this, the more light we bring into ourselves and into the world.
In contrast, the greatest darkness is the darkness that we don’t even know that we are in.
Isaac shows us that in our darkest times as Jews, sometimes the best route to take is the illogical one–the route that says, I am dedicating myself to G-d’s will and the yoke of true, un-watered down Torah passed down through the generations… Even though I don’t have all the answers.