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Akeidat Yitzchak/Akeidat Uri


Hand-made midrash by Micha Desman
Parashat Vayera includes what for me is one of the most disturbing stories in the Torah - Akeidat Yitzhak - the binding of Isaac.

The parasha closes with God presenting Avraham with a test. God calls out Avraham's name one time and Avraham answers immediately "hineni" - Here I am. God's directive is laid out in chilling detail in the text:
Take, now, your child, your only child, your beloved Yitzhak, and go forth to the land of Moriah, and offer him up there as a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains I shall indicate to you.
We do not find any mention of hesitation or questioning on the part of Avraham. Instead we read that Avraham wasted no time, that he "arose early the next morning" and set off with Yitzhak and some servants to the land of Moriah.

Some have held Avraham's obedience to the call of God as worthy of high esteem. I prefer to see his unquestioning following of such a barbaric edict as an act of conformity and as a failure to demonstrate any courage to challenge God's will and the cultural norms of his time, in which human sacrifice was an accepted sign of religious devotion.

Yet as we sit here today in the 21st century, I want to suggest to you that it is hard to make the case that we as a culture no longer value human sacrifice. What is the respect and honor that all modern societies pay to their soldiers who were killed in battle other than the showing of respect and honor for their human sacrifice in the course of the fill in the blank war?

This past July, after Hezbollah fighters kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, killed seven more and fired rocket barrages into several Israeli northern towns, the State of Israel launched an all-out war against Lebanon. The call to war was heard by all Israelis and virtually all followed it without hesitation, without evidence of internal struggle. Amongst those Israelis responding to the call was famed novelist David Grossman, who, together with Israeli writers Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua, are perhaps Israel's most prominent peace activists. Writing in the Los Angeles Times six days after the war started, Grossman explained his lack of hesitation for following the call to war:
There is no justification for the large-scale violence that Hezbollah has unleashed from Lebanese territory on dozens of peaceful Israeli villages, town and cities. Israel has counterattacked, and it has every right to do so. No country in the world would remain silent and abandon its citizens when its neighbor strikes without any provocation.
What David Grossman chose not to reveal in his public comments was something quite personal, that his son Uri was a staff sergeant in an armoured unit with the Israel Defense Forces who was due to be released from his basic IDF service this coming November. By endorsing this call to war while his son was on active duty, David was in effect expressing his willingness to sacrifice his son's life.

Returning back to the text of the Torah, we read that just as Avraham raises the knife to slay his son, an Angel of God calls out twice to him "Avraham, Avraham!" and he responds "Hineini". The Angel instructs Avraham "Do not put forth your hand upon the boy, and do not cause him any harm!"

For me the intriguing question here is why the Angel had to call out to Avraham two times before he listened to this second voice and retreated from his solemn pledge to kill his son. Consider this midrash, which explains how hard it was for Avraham to abandon the call of the first voice:
And the Angel said, Do not harm the boy, etc. Where was the knife? Three tears had fallen from the ministering angels upon it and dissolved it. "Then I will strangle him", Avraham said to the Angel. "Do not harm the boy," was the reply, "I will bring forth a drop of blood from him," Avraham pleaded. "Do not do anything to him," the Angel answered, "do not inflict any blemish on him." (Genesis Rabbah 56:7)
According to Rabbi Shalom Bahbut (Rabbi Shalom Bahbut, "Parashat Vayera: Transforming the Burning Voice", translated by Evelyn Ophir, Oz Veshalom, published online), Avraham's greatness is not that he willingly offered to sacrifice his son out of his faith and obedience to God, but that he was open to listen and to respond to the second voice of the Angel; a voice that called on him to disobey what he believed to be God's will and to place himself in conflict with the prevailing mores of his time.

Rabbi Bahbut calls this second voice, the voice which calls for compassionate understanding.

David Grossman also heard this second voice for compassionate understanding. He wrote about it in his book Be My Knife( David Grossman, Be My Knife, translated by Vered Almog and Maya Gurantz, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2001, pp 9-10.):
I once thought of teaching my son a private language, isolating him from the speaking world on purpose, lying to him from the moment of his birth so he would believe only in the language I gave him. And it would be a compassionate language. What I mean is, I wanted to take him by the hand and name everything he saw with words that would save him from the inevitable heartaches so that he wouldn't be able to comprehend the existence of, for instance, war. Or that people kill, or that this red here is blood. It's a kind of used-up idea, I know, but I love to imagine him crossing through life with an innocent trusting smile - the first truly enlightened child.
On Thursday August 10, after the Israeli cabinet voted the night before to expand the war with a massive ground invasion, David Grossman held a news conference with Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, in which they announced that they were no longer supporting the war. According to the account in Ha'aretz (Shiri Lev-Ari, "Prominent Israeli authors Oppose Expansion of IDF Assault", Ha'aretz, August 10, 2006):
Grossman sounded much less at peace with the Israeli leadership than Oz and Yehoshua ... According to him, Israel's leaders' believe that "what doesn't work with force will work with even more force. If the prime minister of Lebanon had suggested this plan the day before the war broke out, we would have accepted it. The leaders of an army and a state must recognize moments in which they can achieve the best results for their people. I believe we have already passed that moment by, and are now sliding down a slope, but even a slope has certain points at which you can stop before falling into an abyss.
The second voice of compassionate understanding was gaining the upper hand. After a flurry of diplomatic activity, the United Nations Security Council finally brokered a ceasefire in Lebanon that would take effect two days later. Uri and David shared their happiness over the UN ceasefire during his last phone conversation home.

Three days later, on Sunday August 13, 2006, the Government of Israel ordered Uri's unit to make one final push deeper into Lebanon, with the aim of maximizing its gains before the cease-fire came into force the next day. Staff Sergeant Uri Grossman, age 20, was killed in his tank when it was hit by an anti-tank missile, one of 24 Israeli soldiers to die in the deadliest day of fighting in the war, less than 24 hours before the cease-fire would take hold.

Our sages have taught us that Avraham's greatness was that he was able to listen and heed the call of the Angel, the second voice of compassionate understanding and spare the life of his son Yitzhak. Israel's leaders could not hear that voice in time to spare the life of Uri and of hundreds of others, both Israeli and Lebanese.

On this Shabbat Vayera, let us acknowledge before God that we seem to have little difficulty knowing how to follow that first voice, which calls us to actions filled with moral righteousness and justice. Source of Life, we pray for the strength and courage to open our hearts so we may hear your second voice, the voice of your angels, the voice of compassion and understanding.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah