The binding of Isaac

When we send our children into battle we must know that God will not save the day.

By DAVID FORMAN
September 19, 2006 21:14
4 minute read.
The binding of Isaac

dorrit forman 298.88. (photo credit: )

 
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Five years before I was born my 12-year-old sister was struck by a trolley-car and killed instantly. Growing up, I never heard my parents speak about the horrific tragedy that had befallen them. In fact, they seldom spoke about my sister; only enough for me to learn that she was an angelic child. Few pictures and memorabilia of her were displayed. There were no camcorders in those days, and rare was the family which owned an eight-millimeter movie camera, so there was nothing to record her voice, her laughter, her tears. The anniversary of her death was quietly marked. My oldest brother, who was nine when she died, has only faded memories of her. But so strong was my sister's hold on the family that my brother's daughter, the first grandchild born to my parents, was named for her. FOR MY father's 90th birthday we crafted a multi-media presentation. Seeing my sister's image portrayed on a large screen, tears welled up in his eyes. A year later, on his last visit to Israel, not long before he died, he went to the Western Wall, as was his custom. He found a seat adjacent to it, and motioned for me to sit next to him. His voice trembling, he said: "It is 55 years since Dorritt died. There is not an hour in the day that I do not think of her. I stand before these stones, imploring God to return her to me, and cry out: 'Why, God, did You not stop that streetcar?'" ON ROSH HASHANA we read the most terrifying story in the Torah - the Akeda, known as the "binding of Isaac," or the "sacrifice of Isaac." It is a haunting tale. God commands Abraham to kill his son Isaac, sacrificing him as a "burnt-offering." If we are to prove our total devotion to the Almighty, then, psychologically, there can be no more extreme way to do so than being willing to sacrifice our own child as a demonstrative act of absolute fidelity to our Creator. Perhaps that is the reason we read such a piercing story every New Year; to symbolically reenact Abraham's obedience to God. Rosh Hashana ushers in the Ten Days of Repentance, which are an expression of our complete faith in God. Every prayer we recite gives testimony to our belief in God's omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence. The Akeda narrative seems to indicate that God is intimately involved in our lives. Therefore, it is fair to posit a most troubling question, particularly at this time in the Jewish year: If God, as the object of our worship, is personally involved in our lives, how can we pray to a deity who commands us to sacrifice our own children, or, more dramatically, who allows wanton cruelty and death to be inflicted upon His people, as during the Holocaust? Yet the only answer that can really satisfy the modern Jew is that God does not exert power over our lives in such an intimate fashion. Barring circumstances beyond our control, it is we who determine the course of events that shape our destiny. For a believing Jew this is most problematic. Not to hold that God is active in our day-to-day life seems to negate the need to pray to Him, unless, of course, our prayers are for guidance on how to act - or, as in the story of Abraham and Isaac, how not to act. THE AKEDA is an emotionally gripping drama. God is the playwright, director and producer; Abraham and Isaac are the lead actors. We are the audience, sitting on the edge of our seats, led to a suspenseful brink, expecting the excruciatingly painful sacrifice of Isaac to be carried out. It is only just before the curtain falls that God stays Abraham's hand from slaying his son, dissipating our worst fears. This is theater at its illustrative and instructive best. God wants us to feel in the deepest recesses of our being the pain of sacrificing a child. And, as I learned from my father, there is nothing more painful than the death of a child. Though the years may have dulled his memory of his daughter, he continued to grieve for her until his dying breath. When a parent dies, we lose a large measure of our past; when a child dies, we lose an irreversible portion of our future. Coming so soon after the war in Lebanon, these Ten Days of Repentance must serve as our individual and collective commission of inquiry - a heshbon nefesh or soul-searching. We must probe our hearts and minds to understand that when we send our children into battle, placing them, as it were, upon a sacrificial altar, God will not save the day. And it matters little who "raises the knife," for should any of our children die or be kidnapped or go missing, the pain that ensues is unbearable. THE SORROW surrounding the loss of a child can never be erased. However, it may be faintly softened if both the cause for which we are willing to sacrifice our children is absolutely justified and the manner in which it is pursued is meticulously prepared and implemented. Less than either means that the lessons of the Akeda have fallen on deaf ears.

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