Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Monday, October 29, 2012

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


In 1935 the two most important personalities in Modern Orthodox Judaism, and perhaps the greatest Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century, met for the first and only time.  It was like the passage of two great ocean liners, one emerging on her maiden voyage into the great shipping lanes of our globe and the other slipping into her home berth for the last time.  In July of that year Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (1903-1993) during his sole trip to Eretz Yisroel paid a call on the Chief Rabbi of Ashkenazic Jewry in Palestine, Rav Avraham HaCohen Kook (1865-1935), who was in the throes of his ultimate illness.  He passed from this earth on September first.  In recalling that visit many years later, Rabbi Soloveitchik remembered Rav Kook's great love for the Jewish people and mentioned how Rav Kook's thought influenced his own thinking.   It's hard to discuss the major issues confronting the observant Jew who wants to interact positively with this world without quoting extensively from these two giants, who agreed on so many of these issues, like science, philosophy, Zionism, etc.  So, it's of interest to me that these two soaring personalities disagreed so profoundly on the extremely difficult conclusion of this week's Torah reading.     

Our parsha covers a lot of material but it climaxes with the stories about the birth and growth of Yitzchak.  The final episode is the attempted sacrifice of Yitzchak. This tale looms large in the Jewish psyche.  Besides its haunting literary power, it has attained a central place in our High Holiday liturgy.  We read this section on the second day of Rosh Hashanah and many of the penitential prayers (Selichot) recited during that season are based upon that incident.  In those prayers the emphasis is on the merit we inherit from Avraham and Yitzchak for their willingness to perform this act of devotion.  When we call attention to the credit God heaped upon our Patriarchs for their worshipful behavior, we refer to this event as the Binding of Isaac (Akeidat Yitzchak).  However, when I read this story all I can think about is the thoughts running through the mind of Avraham:  How can I do this?  Should I confer with Sarah?  Should I tell Yitzchak?  How can God's promises to me be fulfilled without my successor, Yitzchak?  For me this is the Test of Avraham, not the binding of Yitzchak.

            And that's equally true for both of these scholars, who are still called the Rav by their respective communities.  They both try to pry into the mind of our beloved ancestor, and ask the question of questions:  What was he thinking during the three day trek from the communicating of the instruction until the cathartic moment of the blade poised over the outstretched neck of the precious lad?  What I find fascinating is the fact that each uses the same metaphor, to describe Avraham's mental state, but, as we'll see, in very different ways.

            Rav Kook expresses the idea that the greatest contribution of Avraham was in his great love for God.  He attained his special status and relationship with God as a result of this profound and unshakeable love.  Therefore, it's understandable that for the former Chief Rabbi the most significant verse in the story is the fact that Avraham awoke early in the morning with the proper enthusiasm for fulfilling this Divine task.  This is how he describes Avraham's thinking:  The peace of mind of the holy soul, of our holy father did not cease. His sleep was not gone from him, because of the clear knowledge, which came to him through the word of God, and no feeling of darkness, negligence, or depression became intermixed in the longings of his purified heart. He passed the night in the restful and gaily holy sleep of the upright, and the time of rising arrived as usual. And the strength of God which turns his legs into hinds, to run as a stag and be mighty as a lion, to do the will of God supported him, for he rose early in the morning (Olat Ra'aya I, pp. 86-87).

            Rabbi Soloveitchik, on the other hand, thought of Avraham as the ultimate philosophic seeker of truth.  This cosmic game of Hide N' Seek results in Avraham discovering the God of history, covenant and commitment.  Avraham and God begin a covenantal community of two, which will come to fruition with the progeny of Avraham.  Now comes the request of the Akeida, which appears to be an absurd cruelty whose end result may make the covenant a nullity.  So, Rav Soloveitchik describes Avraham's reaction this way:  God says to Avraham: "Take now your son…" I want your son who is the one whom you love. Do not fool yourself to think that after you obey Me, I will give you another son. You will not have another child. You will live your life in incomparable solitude. Neither should you think that you will succeed to forget Yitzchak. All your life you will think about him. 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 (Divrei Hashkafa, pp. 254-255).  Well, that sounds pleasant!

            There you have it.  Rav Kook's Avraham sleeps like a baby; Rabbi Solveitchik's suffers incurable insomnia.  Whose vision is accurate?  These towering intellects present a clear choice concerning the nature of the Torah personality.  Is religious devotion full of warm fuzzies or does piety consist of the cold pricklies of solitude and anguish?  I must opt for the image of Rabbi Soloveitchik, because of his conclusion.  According to Rabbi Soloveitchik the ordeal of the Akeida changes the covenantal relationship between God and Jew forever.  Previously this attachment seemed merely utilitarian for their mutual benefit like many treaties.  But from now on, this existential community of God and man is converted into an eternal passion fraught with realities which contradict the very ideal for which the faithful suffer (The Emergence of Ethical Man, p. 157n.).  The devotion to God is hard, but worth it.

            So, how well do you sleep? 

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