Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Sunday, November 8, 2009




Rabbi David Walk

This is embarrassing. In 1953 Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
addressed the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly of the
Conservative movement, and told these rabbis that their sermons should be
derived from classic Jewish texts and not the New York Times. How can I
disagree with this lofty sentiment? However, I get ideas for these articles
anyway I can and yesterday I was reading the Times (Please, don't suspect
me. I was reading it for free on line.), and there was this gross article
in the Science Times section
which I can't resist using. Here's the opening sentence: A new examination
of skulls from the royal cemetery at Ur, discovered in Iraq almost a century
ago, appears to support a more grisly interpretation than before of human
sacrifices associated with elite burials in ancient Mesopotamia,
archaeologists say. They got me at grisly. So, shamefacedly, I would like
to take a new look at Akeidat Yitzchak (the binding of Isaac) from a new a
new and macabre point of view. Oh, thank you, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger!

Apparently, there was a prevailing point of view that the human
sacrifices in the good old days of Ur (where, indeed Father Abraham lived)
were classy, tasteful affairs. People assumed that the ritual deaths
involved poisonings which were thought to contribute to a 'serene' death.
However, the skull fragments discovered in more than 2,000 exhumed bodies
reveal that most were smashed before death. Forensic evidence (CSI
Mesopotamia) shows that death "by blunt-force trauma was almost immediate."
Talk about cold cases finally solved! So, this brings us to the question:
Why would these people, apparently court officials of relatively high rank
allow these ritual sacrifices to be performed on them? Here's the response
of Dr. Janet Monge: "But in the culture these were positions of great
honor, and you lived well in the court, so it was a trade-off. Besides, the
movement into the next world was not for them necessarily something to
fear." Religious suicide has a long and gruesome history, and hasn't left
the area. By the way, these findings are a by product of the war in Iraq.
The dig is actually on a military base. So, it was all worth it.

This brings me to Avraham and Yitzchak. Let's deal with
Yitzchak first. We moderns often wonder at how the Sages could have called
this attempted sacrifice of Yitzchak a test for Avraham. Wasn't it harder
on Yitzchak, who was going to get slaughtered? Well, no, not really. As
Dr. Monge pointed out and daily headlines confirm, young people in these
cultures line up to sacrifice themselves. Just because we find this
abhorrent, doesn't mean that other civilizations do. In the mind of a
serious young man 4000 years ago this procedure was probably viewed as a
great honor, and not to be resisted. The pressure was on Avraham.

This brings us to Avraham. What was he thinking? The normal
approach, which I don't reject, is that this was very hard for Avraham,
because Yitzchak was the miraculous product of God's promise. In this
scenario, Avraham must have been totally perplexed by the seeming
contradiction in God's behavior. One minute Yitzchak is the great white
hope, the next instant he's toast (or BBQ). Another point of view is that
this test was so hard for Avraham because his whole being was one of chesed
(kindness). There wasn't a violent bone in his body. Killing another human
was anathema to him. How can shedding the blood of a loved one be a holy
act of worship and devotion? Both of these ideas are fine, but I'd like to
present another.

Avraham is not identified as a Jew or an Israelite; he is
classified as a Hebrew. This term, Ivri, means to cross over. The
television show called Crossing Over refers to communicating with those who
have died. Here we're describing both the physical act
of crossing over the Euphrates River from Mesopotamia and the philosophic
achievement of replacing the prevailing view of spirituality with a totally
new paradigm. Avraham's great spiritual revolution wasn't just
mathematical. He didn't just replace many gods with one
God, he scrapped a fundamentally flawed ethical system with a new and
majestic morality. Paganism was based on a quid pro quo religious
arrangement. The god wanted or needed things from the petitioner, and in
turn provided for the worshipper from his or her specialty, fertility, rain
or wealth. Avraham's omnipotent Deity requires nothing from us. We worship
because it's appropriate, and all benefit from the effort accrues to us (see
Deuteronomy 10:12 & 13).

Now here's the test for Avraham: What's the benefit to the
enterprise called Avraham and Co. in killing Yitzchak? If the deal with God
is that even the bad things which will happen to the Jewish people will have
purpose (see Genesis 15:13 & 14). We may be enslaved for 400 years but
we'll emerge stronger and better. But what's the upside of killing
Yitzchak, who will therefore not emerge
at all from that trial? This command sounds suspiciously like the system we
have rejected. How does this act fit in with the entire
carefully developed relationship with the Almighty? That's a test! Avraham
is ready to do everything necessary to further the plan, but would this
atrocity move the venture forward?

We have to view our own challenges in this same light. We must
maintain our distinctive nature to continue to inspire the world to greater
moral attainment. Our test everyday is: What do we have to do to further
Avraham's mission of developing a nation which has crossed over from the
other side to something spiritually better? The Rav (Harav Yosef Dov
Soloveitchik) said that this may mean the challenge of wearing a kipa in
public or finding time to daven Mincha in a crowded business day. But
sometimes, I think, it means rejecting the mores of the dominant culture in
morals and ethics, and sometimes that requires reading the New York Times,
but not too much.

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