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Women's Wisdom

The Binding of Isaac
By Lisa Cook, EYAHT alumna

G-d once spoke to a man saying ‘Take your son, your only son, your beloved son and place him on an altar and sacrifice him to Me for the sake of My holy Name.”

So now this man was faced with choosing between the two options that were available to him:

A) Do what was asked of him and sacrifice his child, or

B) Ignore the request and hope that things would just turn out for the best. 

So he thought about it, and with a firm resolve and a calm, cool demeanor he chose option A.

This man was not our patriarch Abraham and the story did not take place those many years ago in the Land of Israel.  The story did take place on Rosh Hashanah, but it was a Rosh Hashanah some 4,000 years after Abraham’s time, during the Holocaust, in the Auschwitz concentration camp.  Fourteen hundred boys had been impounded in a sealed-off block, to be sent to the gas chambers that day.  Some desperate relatives had managed to free their sons by bribing the guards with valuables, but in order to fill their quota, the Nazis would find a new boy to replace each one released from the cell. 

This man’s son was among those 1,400 boys, and he had managed to acquire what was necessary in order to have his son released.  However, being a Torah-observant Jew, he sought out a Rabbi to ascertain what Jewish law would allow in this situation. 

He received his answer; he would not be allowed to save his son from being sent immediately, that day, to the gas chambers and crematorium.  He accepted the ruling. 

That evening when it was all over, the man made the following statement: “I could have redeemed my son, but I didn’t, because the Torah did not permit it… Now let the sacrifice of my son to Hashem be counted as the Akeidas Yitzchak.” 

BARUCH ATA HASHEM ELOKEINU MELECH HA OLAM HAMEICHIN MITZADEI GAVER – BLESSED ARE YOU, HASHEM OUR G-D, WHO ESTABLISHES THE FOOTSTEPS OF MAN.

The ability of the Jewish people throughout history to live and die according to the Will of the Almighty stems from the pattern established by our Patriarchs and Matriarchs.   Their trials and successes planted the seeds, set the stage and imprinted the footsteps for our own.  We are their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  

The Torah refers to the verses relating to Abraham binding up his son Isaac for sacrifice as the trial of Abraham (“…and G-d tested Abraham”). Yet we call on G-d’s mercy   in our prayers and traditional liturgy by referring to the event as the Akeidas Yitzchak – the Binding of Isaac.  Why the emphasis on Yitzchak, when it was really Abraham’s trial that is being mentioned?

A particular commentator on the Torah known as the Beis HaLevi says that Abraham’s trial was actually far greater than that of Isaac, because Isaac was willing to sacrifice his life, but Abraham was willing to give up what was most precious to him in this world and to go on living.  He then responds to the above question with the contention that mankind is unable to reach the heights attained by Abraham.  Therefore, it would not be in our favor to call upon G-d’s mercy in the merit of his ordeal.  What we can do, however, is call upon Isaac’s merit, as his act was something that we ourselves would be prepared to do.

One of the thoughts that we are supposed to have each time we say the Shema is that if we were put to the test we would give up our lives to sanctify the name of Hashem.  This is called dying for kiddush Hashem.  But what about the idea of living for kiddush Hashem?

This story from the Holocaust was not the story of a boy who was willing to give up his life. It was the story of a man who was asked to give up something so dear to him and to continue to live in this world.   And he found within himself the immense strength required to do so.  Thank G-d, this is not a type of test with which most of us are confronted throughout our lives.  But couldn’t I say that since it’s a proven fact that Jewish people across time have been able to emulate Abraham in the immenseness of his deed, surely I can too when it comes to something much less important?  In other words, let’s try to rise above ‘human nature’ or to overcome the temptation in our real everyday situations.

This idea has many practical applications.  Somebody stretches out his hand to me for charity.  Although it’s easier for me to mumble something and run off, I’ll sift through my bag until I find a few coins.  The garbage is sitting in the hallway.  But I’m tired and I want to go to bed.  Okay, so I’ll take it out anyway.  And so on.   

In particular, when we hear the shofar being sounded on Rosh Hashanah and recall the Akeidas Yitzchak, let’s not be thinking – “like Isaac, I would be willing to die for kiddush Hashem.”  Let’s instead say - “like Abraham, I want to prove that I am willing to live for kiddush Hashem.”  And in this merit may we see the arrival of Mashiach – speedily in our days.