There was a video game released in 2011 that mainly consists of a young boy named Isaac battling monsters in his basement, a premise similar in many ways to other previous games. However, what sets this game apart is its introduction. How did the boy end up in his basement? According to the introductory cut scene, Isaac jumped into to his haunted basement to escape an even more terrifying threat. His mother, a simple and devoutly religious woman, hears a voice demanding that she sacrifice her son, Isaac. From the crack through his door, Isaac sees his mother grab a kitchen knife and head toward his room. Somehow knowing what she was planning to do, he searched for a way out of his room and discovered a trap door in his floor that led to the monster-filled dungeons below his home. If this backstory sounds familiar, you won’t be surprised to learn that the name of the video game was: the Binding of Isaac.
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we will read about עקידת יצחק, the original Biblical account of the Binding of Isaac on an altar on top of a mountain and his father’s ready willingness to sacrifice him to fulfill G-d’s will. When we read this story every year on Rosh Hashanah and again when we read פרשת וירא on שבת, when we mention the עקידה during שמונה עשרה on Rosh Hashanah, we always focus on the test for אברהם, the fact that he showed such incredible faith in being willing to sacrifice his most beloved son. We discuss what he did as if it was an incredible act of courage and devotion. We specifically praise אברהם’s ability to overcome his love for his son and put the will of G-d first:
“Let there appear before You the binding with which our father Avraham bound his son Yitzchak upon the altar, and how he suppressed his compassion to do Your will with a whole heart; so may Your compassion suppress Your anger against us.”
But perhaps, this year, we should take a step back and question this line of thinking. First of all, is it really impressive that אברהם was prepared to offer his son to G-d in this way? And even if it is impressive in the sense that it is unique, should we really consider the Binding of Isaac something worthy of praise and imitation? The video game version of the story helps us imagine how we would react if someone would attempt to sacrifice their child to G-d today – we would look at it as a horror story, as the story of a parent that is not only unfit but an attempted murderer and child abuser.
In fact, in 2009, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Irvine, CA actually held a mock trial in which Abraham was tried for attempted murder. There was a professional judge, there was a professional prosecutor and a defense attorney, and a jury of 600 attendees, which voted, by a slim majority, to convict אברהם אבינו. Is there any defense of Abraham’s actions, any way that we can view אברהם as someone after whom we should look model ourselves? What did he do that we should do, as well? Does he really deserve credit for almost performing child sacrifice, a practice that is otherwise banned by the Torah itself?
In his new book called Unbinding Isaac, Professor Aaron Koller traces the history of how the Jewish world grappled with this question. He points out that for much of Jewish history, the עקידה was not viewed as something that anyone would choose to do or be asked to do under normal circumstances. But it was a helpful lens for people who faced impossible situations during the Crusades and other times of persecution against the Jewish People. Jews looked to the עקידה as a model for sacrificing their children’s lives and their own rather than allowing their children to be forcibly converted to Christianity or Islam. Only under those circumstances was it possible to imagine offering up a child’s life for the sake of G-d’s will.
However, in the 19th century, Jewish thinking about the עקידה started to change, in part because of the now world-famous essay by Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard entitled, Fear and Trembling. Kierkegaard acknowledges the conflict between the ethical and religious in the עקידה. But rather than minimize it in any way, he suggests that אברהם’s willingness to carry it out is heroic; his faith was so strong that he could suspend even his commitment to morality. That was the real sacrifice; he was so committed, so trusting of G-d, that he almost sacrificed his son and thereby undermined everything he previously believed about G-d. True faith requires one to be willing to sacrifice everything, even one’s ethics, even the thing one loves most in the world – his son.
This idea influenced numerous great rabbis and Jewish thinkers of the centuries since, including Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Rav Soloveitchik. In fact, both of those thinkers took this concept so far as to place it at the center of their theology. What G-d demands of us is nothing less than full subordination of one’s personal feelings and values to Halacha, to the demands of the רבונו של עולם. Professor Koller questions this point of view and insists that the lesson of the עקידה cannot be that G-d sometimes demands that we sacrifice morality, particularly the lives and wellbeing of other people, for the sake of faith.
In the 18th century, in the town of Mezeritch in Ukraine, there was a great Chassidic leader, a student of the Baal Shem Tov, named Reb Dov Ber, also known as the Maggid of Mezeritch. Though the Maggid had many students clamoring for opportunities to learn from him, not everyone was able to get into his inner circle and join the בית מדרש. However, there was an entirely different circle of people in Mezeritch who, instead of learning with the Maggid, dedicated themselves to providing for the physical needs of the Maggid’s students and contributing to the Maggid’s Torah in that alternative way. These men came to be known as hrubnikess, meaning “fireplace kindlers.”
The founder of Chabad, Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, was one of the students who benefited from these hrubnikess. He recounted a conversation he overheard among three hrubnikess about precisely our question: what was so meritorious about אברהם’s willingness to sacrifice יצחק? However, instead of questioning the morality of the עקידה, they asked something else: What is so remarkable about אברהם performing the עקידה? Wouldn’t anyone would have done it if they received a command directly from G-d? Their assumption was that people would not think about ethics if confronted directly by the word of G-d; anyone who believed they were actually hearing G-d’s word would presumably listen. So why is the עקידה impressive?
The men each suggested an answer. One proposed that what made the עקידה unique was that אברהם was the first of the אבות and thus the first person to show such devotion to ה׳. A second man argued that what was impressive was not אברהם’s being the first to be willing to listen to ה׳ in this way but rather the fact that he had such passion and joy for fulfilling G-d’s word. אברהם woke up early in the morning and saddled his own donkey to do something that any other person would have delayed: sacrificing his son.
The third man based his opinion on the text of the תורה. The תורה says that הקדוש ברוך הוא, the Holy One Blessed Be He, gave credit to אברהם because he didn’t hold back יצחק “from Me”:
G-d praises Abraham, not for not withholding from sacrificing his son, but rather for not withholding his son “ממני,” from G-d. Said the third of the hrubnikess, ה׳ gave credit to אברהם for offering up יצחק in a way even more total than as a sacrificial offering. אברהם was able to find joy in fulfilling G-d’s word, in making יצחק’s existence totally dependent on G-d, even if that meant abandoning an a great sign of faith at the last moment. He was happy to offer יצחק in whatever way G-d wanted in the moment, whether by putting him on the altar or by taking him off it.
Rabbi Norman Lamm quotes the Kotzker Rebbe as highlighting a different anomaly in this פסוק. Why does the פסוק say “עתה ידעתי כי ירא אלקים אתה”, that only now, after אברהם is stopped from completing the עקידה, does G-d know Abraham fears Him. Why did ה׳ not come to this conclusion earlier, before אברהם untied יצחק, before אברהם stopped. Even before that point, while אברהם was holding the knife over יצחק, it was clear that אברהם was willing to sacrifice his son’s life for G-d.
Answered the Kotzker, what is impressive about אברהם is not that he was willing and even enthusiastic about sacrificing יצחק. What was meritorious about the עקידה was that אברהם was able to stop himself from going through with it once he was told to change course, that he listened to “the second voice.” Only then, only ״עתה״, after אברהם was able to stop himself from doing what he must have believed to be the greatest showing of his faith, only after אברהם was able to adapt and recognize that he needed to change course, was he deserving of G-d’s praise and promises. Despite the fact that the second voice was only a מלאך ה׳, an angel, telling him not to harm or do anything to יצחק, countermanding G-d’s direct initial instruction to offer up יצחק, still, אברהם was able to listen to the second voice and stop himself just in time.
Says Rabbi Lamm, perhaps the reason we read about the עקידה on Rosh Hashanah is so we can learn to imitate this quality of being willing to stop and change. Sometimes we are so committed to a path, to a course of action, to an investment, to a group, a party, an identity, a behavior, an ideology, that we refuse to allow new information to affect what we do. We create alternative realities in our minds to shelter us, to protect us from needing to make a change. תשובה, repentance, is not just something we do to make up for the mistakes we already recognize are wrong. It is not restricted to atoning for sins that are obviously wrong and that require no personal sacrifice to admit are wrong. תשובה is also about realizing when the actions we are taking and the ideals to which we are committed, even when based on the best of intentions, turn out to be wrong and we need to stop.
There has been no time in my life that has made the ability to change course more important than the last seven months. In February, we learned from a top scientist at the CDC that we might have to close schools, businesses, houses of worship to prevent a deadly virus from spreading too quickly through our communities. But every level of government, and all of us, continued to act as if that wasn’t happening; we still operated with the assumption it was fine. It wasn’t until the middle of March, when the virus was already widespread, that we took it more seriously. It took all of us a long time to listen to that second voice.
Then we were informed that masks were harmful or unnecessary unless you worked in a hospital – until we were finally told the opposite, that masks are an essential means of protection against COVID-19. We initially thought that the virus was mainly spread by contact but now it seems to be mostly spread through breathing in respiratory droplets the air. Again and again, as new, updated information has become available, we have needed to be able to shift our mentalities and embrace new strategies, new plans. Sometimes it has taken us too long to do so and that can cost lives.
This Rosh Hashanah, as we hear the שופר, the ram’s horn that reminds us of the עקידה, we need to think of the sounds of the שופר as representing the second voice. The שופר is the wake up call that it’s time to accept that our previous investments may now be sunk costs and that we need to change before we lose even more. We need to consider – where have we been stuck in a mindset that is wrongheaded? Where have we been stubborn to change? Where have we been unable to adapt to the fast changing realities around me? Is there a voice that has been calling on us to stop what we’re doing that we haven’t been listening to? And then, when we’ve come to an answer, we need to be willing to commit and actually shift course. That is what תשובה is all about – making better decisions, adapting to new realizations and being better for it in the future.
This past year has been full of unpredictable events that have required us to adjust the way we daven, the way we socialize, the way we learn Torah, the way we perform מצוות, the way we relate to each other, the way we relate to to the רבונו של עולם, the Master of the Universe. During that time, our shul has done the best we can to meet the diverse needs of our community, both in terms of religious needs and in terms of social and physical needs. I want to thank all of you, every member of our beautiful, kind, generous, and devoted community for all you have done to hold us together, to step up when we needed you, and to keep in touch even while we have been apart. I am sure there are ways that we can and should improve, people whose needs we may have unintentionally not been able to serve. But you all deserve credit for keeping yourselves, your families, and your friends, and your community both safe and religiously engaged under the circumstances, to adapt to reality and not pretend nothing has changed. May we continue to listen to to the second voice, to the angels calling out to us to stop and respond as אברהם once did – with an enthusiastic הנני.