Monday, September 18, 2006

The Akeida. An Israeli Perspective. Rav Beni Lau.

BY HaRAV Dr. Binyamin Lau.

(From the book in memory of Yitzchak Hirschberg - Akeidat Yitzchak LeZaro. This speech was given by Rav Lau at an Erev Zikaron 2 years ago in memory of Yitzchak z"l)

In order to express the unique dilemma of "The Akeida from an Israeli perspective", I shall begin with a short story. This is an episode that I was involved in regarding a High-School student. Do not be overly concerned; I am not going to tell a story that relates to a real-life Akeida. This is not a case of a human death, but the story is nonetheless, a harsh one.

We're talking about a boy, a high-school student. Like many teenagers, there are conflicts with parents, teenage stuff, some wild behavior, music that isn't exactly his parents "cup of tea," arguments and the like - in short, a normal household. But the tensions grew and intensified, and one day, as the boy sat in his room with his friends listening to music, his mother walked in and made a comment. Then the boy turned to his friends and said: "Leave! You are not welcome in my parents' home." And the next sentence was: "If you are not welcome in my parents' home then I am also not welcome in my parents' home." The boy took some things from his closet and left the house.

A kid who slams the door is not a major tragedy. Little kids do this sometimes. Somebody infuriates them, and in response they leave, slamming the door behind them, as if they are furious with the entire world, but then they hide behind the door waiting for their mother to look for them. A child slightly older "runs away" to the end of the street, and so on.

So this boy went to sleep at a friend's house, and then next day he went from his friend's home to school. No one knew anything, his parents didn't call or search for him, and that night, the boy once again slept over at a friend. The friend wasn't aware that he was hosting a child who had run away from home, and the boy's parents still failed to call. Five days went past, and the boy's teacher began to realize that something was wrong. Maybe it was because of his clothing, maybe because he didn't have his schoolbooks, whatever; he realized that something was wrong and he took the boy aside for a chat. So it emerged that the boy had run away from home, but that "home" had not run after him! The teacher asked the boy: "Do you want me to call your parents?" "No! no! no!" the boy said, " I am going back home today." So, Baruch Hashem!

Indeed, the boy returns home. He knocks on the door.
- No reply!

He knocks louder and rings the doorbell and he hears voices in the house; his father, his mother, his sister. But the door is locked. He shouts: "Mom! Dad!. Let me in, please open up!"
- Nothing!

He goes outside and sees the bathroom window on the second floor, and he remembers himself, when he was younger, climbing through the window. So he begins to climb up the drainpipe, like when he was little. He begins climbing up and a neighbor who sees him shouts, "Thief!" And so, he runs away and makes his way to a public telephone to call home.

At home they pick up the phone. "Hello! Dad! It's me!" The phone goes dead. His father has put the phone down. In the middle of the night. The boy finds himself, pathetic, humiliated, confuse, on the doorstep of his teacher.

We shall not take the story further. Let us simply say that a deep wound was forged in that boy's consciousness. Who has ever heard of such a thing? That a parent should lock his child out of the house? There is a basic social, moral, human understanding that even if a child runs away from home, when he comes and pleads, "Dad! Open the door!" that the father will come and open it for his son. They will take him in. Maybe they will be angry at him, maybe they'll punish him, but one doesn't lock the door in the face of one's own child.


And from here, I move on to the story of the Akeida. I would like to offer a small chidush, a problem for which I do not at present have a solution, but possibly the chidush itself will provoke some thoughts…

When God turns to Avraham and says to him:

"Take your son, your only son, who you love, Isaac,"

he gives a comprehensive and explicit address for the command. "Your son", "The only one," "who you love," "Isaac."

In contrast, at the end of the Akeida the Divine Messenger the angel of God, calls to Abraham and says to him:

"Now I know that you fear God as you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me."

"Your son, your only son." Here the phrase "that you love" is absent. Something in the very nature of a human soul is crying out to heaven here. When a father picks up the slaughter knife to kill his son, he assails the very essence of the love relationship. Abraham is certainly God-fearing; but it is impossible to for love to coexist with the knife. It is a contradiction in terms!

The question here is that is so frightening is - What exactly does God want from us? God tests Avraham, he elevates him. But, in the final analysis, God does not want Avraham to slaughter his son. It is God who says: "Do not set forth your hand to the lad and do not do a thing to him," because that boy is mine too! And I do not what you to offer him as a sacrifice.

On Rosh Hashanna, we do not use the slaughter knife in order to sound the Terua blast! Instead, wee sound the ram's horn, the horn that was brought as a substitute for the sacrifice of a son. God is "Melech Chafetz BaChayim" – a king who desires life.


Three times in the course of the Akeida, the leitwort, the repetitive phrase, "Hineni" appears. "Hineni" in Hebrew is not a geographic marker, as if to point and say: "I am here." It denotes a state of mind, not a place. "Hineni" is the inner mindset of the individual who stands before someone else, someone who is charging him with a mission, saying: "My entire being is with you." This is the meaning of the word "Hineni," and it is the word "Hineni" that sets the tempo for the Akeida.

God addresses Avraham: "Avraham!" And he replied 'Hineni!'" Avraham's first Hineni comes to say to God (in the language of the contemporary Israeli car bumper stickers!) "Hakadosh Baruch Hu! We love You!" "I love You!;" and the implication of that is that I will do anything that You say. And then comes the command to take the boy, and they set out on their way.

…. On the way up to the mountain, Yitzchak turns to his father: "Father!" he says - and then for the second time – Avraham says, "Hineni b'ni" – "Hineni my son!" Avraham is torn between the two Hineni's. There are two loves here, the love of a father to his son, and the love of a person to his God. "Hineni" and "Hineni b'ni." To which voice does one respond? To the divine voice that says: "Take your son, your only son, who you love, " or to the voice that says: "Father! Father!"?

Avraham proceeds on his way up the mountain, and then he takes the knife. He still has not done anything to Isaac. But then, he hears a voice of an angel that calls to him: "Avraham, Avraham!" – twice! Which Avraham are you? That of "Hineni Hashem," or "Hineni B'ni?" Avraham has to make a choice. Avraham's response? – "Hineni!" This "Hineni" is directed towards the angel of God and not towards his son. And hence the angel says to him, "Do not send forth your hand against the lad and do nothing to him, for now I know etc." NOW I know, with the third Hineni, "That you fear God, as you did not withhold your son, your only son." You surrendered your love for him for your love towards Me.

Pay close attention. Avraham and Yitzchak do not return together! This is another thing that we must think about. Avraham says to his servants: "Wait here with the donkey. The boy and I will go up there; we will worship, and we will return to you." And what is written at the close of the Akeida? "And Avraham returned…" And where was Yitzchak? Yitzchak is not there! However we spin the story, Yitzchak fails to return together with Avraham. Yitzchak goes to Be'er Lachai Ro'i. The Gemara tell us that he was in Gan Eden for two years to heal from the wounds inflicted by his father. In today's age, we understand more about these types of wounds… and I ask you to recall the story that I told earlier. Even without being slaughtered in real life, just with the experience of the knife, he needed two years recovery time in Gan Eden. At any rate, that is what the Gemara says. We speak in piyutim of Yitzchak's ashes being gathered upon the altar. What ashes? Nothing happened to Yitzchak! The slaughter knife itself brought ashes into the world. The ashes of Isaac were already a reality.

Now, God does not expect us to create these ashes. He says, "Do not send forth your hand," he says "Choose life!" (Devarim 30:19) Were it not for this, God would not have commanded us with the day of Shabbat that follows the six days of activity, He would not have given us the Mitzva of "Be fruitful and multiply" and He would not have commanded us to "Love thy neighbor as yourself." Our king is a king who desires life, a Melekh Chafetz BaChayim. But we, in our love for God say that we are willing even to give up everything; we are willing to give our very lives in order to sanctify His name in the world.

Our history is filled with tests - for ourselves, our fathers and our forefathers. Situations that put people to the test as to whether they are prepared to give up their lives Al Kiddush Hashem. However, our very lives here, as a nation who are Chaftez BaChayim, in this place that is so fraught and so entwined with death is making a clear statement to God. We stand here and say to Hakdosh Baruch Hu, to the King who Desires Life, that we too are a nation who seek life, but that at the same time, we are committed to Him and that we are going to stride with this unwavering commitment in the deepest way, all the way. Even when it means sending a child to the army, we are not pacifists. We observe the Mitzva of protecting the Land, and the protection of the Nation. Our act of preserving and guarding the nation are, in some manner, an Akeida-like act. Our very willingness to go to the army and the simple fact of our living here behold certain characteristics of the Akeida.

Sometimes, I am challenged by people who live abroad, who are unaware of the dynamic life that takes place here in Israel; "Isn't it dangerous? How do you endanger your children in this way?" We answer by saying: We embrace life. We do not sacrifice our children, we do not, God forbid, send our children to blow themselves up. Those acts of sacrifice that were part of the world of Chasidei Ashkenaz (the suicides of communities in the Rhinelands during the Crusades) were rejected and negated absolutely by the world of the Halakha. There was antipathy towards these acts of suicide. We, God forbid, are not a suicidal nation. We are a nation who desire life, we are integrally connected to life, and we are commanded to embrace life. Hence, Akeidat Yitzchak is so shocking year after year!

Indeed we are the nation of the Shofar, not the nation of the Slaughter Knife. We cleave to life and we hold tightly to it and when situations become dangerous we try to avert that danger. But, we will not abandon life, because of life. Eretz Yisrael is our life, Am Yisrael is our life, and if our life is threatened then we guard our life with our very lives. This is the essence of our existence; not a nation engaged in suicide, but a nation that seeks "to work and to guard, to preserve." (Bereshit 2:13) A nation of gentle guardians, watching over the image of God, this is our nation.

The Shofar comes to tell God the story of our life and not the story of our death. When we talk about protecting and preserving Am Yisrael, we speak with the voice of the Shofar under a certain understanding: That Hakadosh Baruch Hu is a father who is Chafetz BaChayim. With an understanding that a father will not act with cruelty towards his own children. With an understanding that a father does not, God forbid, take a slaughter knife to his own son.

And so, in the final analysis, we are playing a double game. On the one hand, we are the Children of Avraham. We need to study the Akeida deeply and to learn that we are to have a life of "Hineni." And in contrast, we have a life of "Hineni B'ni." We pray to God that he not put us in that awful dilemma, that we not experience the harsh choices; the tension that lies between "Hineni," and "Hineni Bn'i."

And on the other hand, we also turn to God not as Avraham but as Yitzchak. Not as parents but in the place of the son, the child. We turn to God who is our father, a father as we read in Parashat Haazinu: "As an eagle who rouses his nest, he will hover over his young." A father who protects his children that no one should harm them, a father who does not lock the door, a father who "opens the gate at the time that the gates are about to be closed." (from Ne'ila) That is our father.

And when we stand to the sound of the Shofar, we stand there with all this important complexity, and we pray for life. We pray for an abundance of life, to create life, and we turn to God as a kind, sensitive, merciful parent, that he let us fulfill the words of the verse (Devarim 4:4,) by allowing us to "cleave to Hashem your God," but that he will also give us the end of the passuk with a Bracha for the new year: "You are all alive today!" (Chayim Kulchem Hayom.).

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