In the 11th century a new form of poems started emerging from the Jewish communities in Germany. They were known as the Akeidah liturgy. The Akeidah, or the Binding of Isaac, was reimagined in light of the Crusades that devastated and traumatized these Jewish communities. These poems, or piyuttim, revolved around two pressing themes. The first was reclaiming the Akeidah. Christians had appropriated the Binding of Isaac, suggesting that it was a precursor for the resurrection of Jesus. While the Jewish communities couldn’t fight back or even defend themselves against the Christians, they fought back the way we always fought back, with words. And so, these poems reclaimed the Akeidah as a distinctly Jewish story and rejected Christianity in the process.
Additionally, these poems were used to justify a shocking act performed by many Jews in those impossible times. Parents, faced with the prospect of having their children converted to Christianity by the Crusaders chose to slaughter their sons and daughters to save them from this fate. And so, Avraham’s willingness to slaughter his son was invoked as a model for these survivors who were grappling with these complicated acts of martyrdom.
These poems were so popular, they even had their own tune. In many ancient siddurim you will find an annotation stating that this piyyut should be read in the tune of the Akeidah. We have no record of the tune, but it speaks to the central role that the Akeidah played in the lives of the Ashkenazi community of the middle ages.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the Akeidah was once again invoked by Jewish writers and orators. Some went so far as suggesting that the Holocaust was the culmination of the Akeidah; that Avraham’s outstretched hand was frozen in place for thousands of years, that Yitzchak was waiting to be slaughtered for all that time. The senseless murder of six million, these rabbis suggested, was meaningful in the sense that it was Divinely ordained and part of a drama dating back to our forefathers.
In Israeli culture the Akeidah has been invoked time and time again. In the early years of the State, the notion of sacrifice, of what the early pioneers gave up was connected to Avraham’s willingness to sacrifice it all for what he believed in. During the Six Day War, first-generation Israelis watching with trepidation as their sons fought while they were too old to go out to war, gained inspiration from Yitzchak’s willingness to be slaughtered.
The biggest complaint my high school students in Beth Tfiloh have against the Torah is that it’s outdated, and I understand where they are coming from. But my personal experience, my relationship to the Torah is the exact opposite. My experience, and I think the experience of our people, is that these narratives have given us direction and inspiration in radically different times. That a single story can have so many relevant interpretations, it can comfort Jews being slaughtered in the Crusades and can give courage to Israelis in the Six-Day War, that’s remarkable. And to me, it speaks the timelessness of the Torah and its messages.
Thank G-d, we are not under threat of a Crusade, we are not healing from a Holocaust, and our children are not being sent to war. But I would like to share with you today, a continuation of this tradition, of finding modern meaning in the Akeidah, of somehow seeing in this ancient act a relevant message for our times.
Rav Yosef Albo, a great 15th century Spanish philosopher, suggests that the central message of the Akeidah is Avraham’s ability to forge forward in a state of uncertainty. Avraham was promised by G-d that his son specifically this son, Yitzchak, would be the one through which all the great promises would be fulfilled; that he would have descendants more numerous than the stars and sand, that his descendants would inherit the land of Israel. And now, being told to slaughter this son, Avraham is left with impossible questions; How will Sarah take the news? How will I physically do this to my son? How will G-d’s promises come to fruition? Most specifically, Rav Albo suggests that Avraham wondered if maybe, just maybe he misunderstood G-d’s message. After all, a critical read of the text shows that it was not so clear.
So many unanswered questions, so much uncertainty, so much angst, and yet, Avraham carries forward.
The Torah is silent on what was going through Avraham’s mind, but the Medrashim paint a vivid picture of a raging inner battle where Avraham grappled with these questions, and numerous times, almost turned around.
But ultimately, he does not.
We are living in uncertain times, in an uncertain year, in a very uncertain week, and we are all feeling anxious. Before the pandemic, 18% of the country was affected by anxiety. I could only imagine what the rates are now. I recently heard from a pharmacist that Celexa, one of the most common medications used to treat anxiety was on back-order across the country. This angst is a terrible curse. In the tochacha, the curses that will befall the Jewish people if they disobey G-d’s commands, we are told that, “In the morning you will ask when is it evening. In the evening, you will ask when is it morning?” Pizur hanefesh, feeling torn, uncertain, and all over the place, is truly a terrible curse.
At the core of this anxiety, of those racing thoughts of what will be, of how will I do, of what if this goes wrong, is the very normal human desire to know things definitively. To know how I will do at work, how my children will manage, or – who will win this election. How many times have you checked the news since Tuesday night? Because maybe, just maybe there’s an update?
Avraham traveled for three days, not knowing what will be. It wasn’t that he believed that Yitzchak would be saved, as some scholars suggest, or that it would be okay. He was uncertain and he was scared. But the opposite of uncertainty is not certainty. The resolution to not knowing is not knowing. The opposite of uncertainty is the calm acceptance that we do not know.
I don’t know if everything will be okay with this country. But me knowing the final count in Pennsylvania is definitely not helping. Me refreshing my news feed for the latest legal batter every ten seconds is not changing anything.
We never know what will be, with ourselves, our parents, our children, this country, the world. We never know fully if the choice we made is the right one. But that’s okay. We can live with that. Because we don’t need to know and more importantly, we cannot know. It’s a fallacy to think that we can have absolute certainty in life. But like Avraham, we can try our best and still march forward.
As I mentioned, there are scholars who suggest that Avraham believed with perfect faith that Yitzchak would be saved. The most famous scholar to present this idea was Soren Kierkegaard in his book, Faith and Trembling. But it’s important to highlight that Faith and Trembling is a book of Christian thought and this idea, that Avraham believed that the story would have a happy ending is a decidedly non-Jewish idea.
Quite often I hear people ask the following question: How could I believe in a G-d who allows this person to get ill, who allows this person to die, who allows me to suffer to this extent?
Or, I prayed every day, I gave charity, I did extra Mitzvos, and things still did not come out the way I wanted. It’s not fair. Where is G-d?
The G-d that we believe in, the G-d of the Torah, as understood by our Sages, never promised us that every story has a happy ending, that we should have faith that everything will be alright. Ultimately, we believe in justice, and that in the next world, we will receive reward for all the good we’ve performed. Ultimately, we believe there will be an End of Days, with peace and harmony and only good. But today?! Now?! G-d never promised me anything. On the contrary, whatever He gave me is a gift. We don’t come into this world with a little tag stating a guarantee that life will be good. Nor does the Torah state that if we do this or that Mitzvah, or if we pray, there is a guarantee that we’ll turn everything around.
On the contrary, Avraham prays for the people of Sedom and his prayers are rejected. He is given a son, Yishmael, and then told to send him away. He is given a son, Yitzchak, and then told to slaughter him on an altar. Faith in a happy ending in this lifetime… that is not a Jewish worldview. I am deeply disturbed by some of the stories my children come home from school with; the protagonist prays or does a Mitzvah at just the right time and everyone lives happily ever after. It conveys such a false sense of hope.
In modern Hebrew there is a term, magiah li. It means, I deserve this. And it is a philosophy that many of us have adopted. The notion that I have privileges, that I deserve certain things by dint of my existence.
But it’s not true. Lo magiah li shum davar, I am not entitled to anything. Everything I receive is a gift. Praying isn’t a magic trick where I say some words and G-d is now compelled to give me what I want. The Torah rejects this fallacy outright. To me, this is the most primary and most pressing lesson from the Akeidah. Avraham is rewarded because he recognizes that his son, his beloved, cherished precious, son does not belong to him. “Because you didn’t hold your son back from me.” Avraham knew, lo magiah li shum davar.
Rav Eliyahu Dessler suggests that the notion of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov being forefathers of our nation is a mystical one. It does not just mean that these people came first. It means that their actions created a pathway for us; that the battles, the inner battles they waged and succeeded with, make it easier for us to wage those same battles. There is, says the Sefas Emes, a little bit of Avraham that resides within each and every one of us; some residual spirit that can give us courage and direction.
The Akeidah is as relevant today as ever. We are not being persecuted, nor are we sending our children off to battle. But we have our own struggles, real struggles, of living with uncertainty in a chaotic world, of being bombarded with a worldview that states that we are entitled to all the good the world has to offer. The Akeidah grounds us and guides us to be inspired by Avraham to accept the uncertainties of life, not by lulling ourselves into a false sense of security, that all will be well, but by accepting the fact that lo magiah li shum davar, that every moment is a gift, and that G-d runs the world. There will be a happy ending. It may not be one I experience in my lifetime, but it will happen. In the meantime, we will forge forward, with prayer even though it may not be answered, with gratitude for a gift that may be fleeting, and with faith in the G-d of Avraham.
I was devastated after Shabbos to hear the news of the passing of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. I am still processing the magnitude of the loss, both for the Jewish and for the world. I hope to write and speak more about him in the days to come but one recent comment of his is worth sharing in the context of this week’s message:
In an interview with Tablet magazine in 2013, he was asked about two earlier bouts with cancer and coming face to face with death. This is how he responded: “…On both occasions I felt, if this is the time Hashem needs me up there, thank you very much indeed for my time down here; I’ve enjoyed every day and feel very blessed. And if he wants me to stay and there’s still work for me to do, then he is going to be part of the refu’ah [healing] and I put my trust in him.”
This is the faith of Avraham; not that the story will have a happy ending, but that G-d runs the world. Among so many other things, Rabbi Sacks taught us to be grateful for what G-d has given us and accept that it may be taken at any time.
May his memory be for a blessing.