One of the most famous stories and dramatic scenes in the entire Torah appears this week: G-d instructs Abraham to sacrifice his son Issaac!
When in 8th grade here in Dalllas, at Levine Academy, the principle and Jewish studies teacher – Rabbi Ed Feinstein, taught his class this passage. We began by reading the text with the various commentaries. He then prepared a framework to analyze the story. “How old was Issac at the time? How do the different interpretations of his age change the conversation between father and son?” Who is the real hero? Why did the man who bravely stood up to God for the villains of Sodom quickly submit to such an outrageous command?” and so on
He then invited three local Rabbis to be separately interviewed by us- one from a reform synagogue, the other conservative, and the other orthodox. When they arrived, they were at the mercy of the 8th grade students, bombarded with difficult questions that we had spent the past few weeks constructing. I’m not sure what was more brilliant in the design of this activity- the educational tools and benefit to the students, or how our teacher was indirectly testing the knowledge of his rabbinical peers. But that’s another topic.
Here we are going to focus on the story’s general significance. It has been the image on countless paintings, the focus of many analyses, and is recalled daily in the liturgy of our daily prayers. At the most pivotal moments of appeal, this passage was instituted to evoke divine mercy. But what sets this story apart, making it so admirable in the eyes of Jewish literature?
The obvious theme is “sacrifice”- relinquishing one’s personal leanings, however strong, in the face of a higher moral authority or cause. George Herbert Palmer, professor of Natural Religion and Moral Philosophy at Harvard University elegantly writes: “Intelligence, skill, beauty, learning–we admire them all; but when we see an act of self-sacrifice, however small, an awe falls on us; we bow our heads, fearful that we might not have been capable of anything so glorious.” The demonstration of Avraham is what is termed “mesirat nefesh”- complete self-sacrifice.
But the question remains: Sadly, Jewish history is a history of martyrs, and what distinguishes this from all the other famous figures, such as Rabbi Akiva, his colleagues, and later generations till our day, who chose to give up their lives rather than renouncing their faith? Furthermore, unlike Avraham, they had no open command or divine revelation to compel them.
Some commentaries suggest that Avraham’s case involves the unparalleled love of a parent to a child. But this too does not suffice, for it is not the only demonstration of its kind. [Indeed, during the story of Chanakah, Antiochus, determined to enforce his vicious edicts upon the Jews, arrested Chanah and her seven sons. He asked each son to bow to an idol- or be killed. Each son, starting from the oldest to eventually the youngest, refused.
Chanah stood by her sons, giving them encouragement until the youngest child remained. The seven-year-old boy displayed the same courage as his brothers. Chanah begged to kiss him one last time- and then whispered to him before he was killed: “tell your ancestor Avraham, ‘you bound only one son upon an altar, but I bound seven.”]
There are many nuances in self sacrifice. To be sure, philosophers have debated the issue, some arguing that true self-sacrifice is psychologically impossible, that no man ever performs a strictly disinterested act. The world has seen many heroes willing to put their lives on the line for others, or to die for a cause. And often this “commitment to the cause” is not the most commendable, even destructive.
But the Jewish view of “mesirat nefesh” is different. The claim of what distinguishes the Jewish concept from other forms of martyrdom or daring zealousness is the motivation behind the act. There is no planning or calculation propelling the decision. It is not done for any (spiritual) gain future reward, or to advance a cause. The same individual, who refuses to forsake his faith in the moment, if asked in advance, may laugh at the prospect of performing such an extreme act. Rather it is an inner power, a deep instinctive attachment to one’s Jewish identity that, when confronted, spontaneously emerges and knows no bounds.
A more compelling answer to the above question then is that Avraham’s willingness to sacrifice was not unique in quality but in that it was the first. Being the first, he paved the way, “opened the pipeline,” for future generations to withstand the harsh tests of faith. If there were ever to be a parallel tribulation for a Jew to overcome, this event would provide the strength and serve as an enduring reminder that it is possible.
The broader and milder message in instituting this daily recollection is a call to activate the powerful Jewish identity that may currently lie dormant within. While we are fortunately not being asked to go to such extreme measures, nor facing the harsh tests of our ancestors, we can nevertheless seek to move beyond our comfort zone and uncover selflessness in smaller doses.