While in rabbinical school, I had a teacher, a rabbi, whose contention was that the greatest force was fear. We were fearful of being hungry so we became slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and were hungry anyway. We were fearful that Moses had died on the mountain, so we built a golden calf. When Moses returned, those who had built it died. We were fearful of entering the land of Canaan. It was inhabited by giants reported the scouts. Thus, we wandered for another 38 years in the desert before being allowed to enter the land. Running from something out of fear has not enhanced our opportunities.
The Hebrew word for fear, also frequently translated as awe, yirah, is also the word for see. The question is: do we fear what we see or do we see what we fear?
In the story of the Akeida, the binding of Isaac, Avraham addresses his fear of lost promise. He is told to sacrifice his son, Isaac. This is an act through which his entire life’s work, the adherence to a single God, the introduction to the world of ethical monotheism, will be destroyed. Abraham, known for his kindness, is ready to perform the most unkind act of all, the taking of a human life for seemingly no purpose. The fact that he slinks away to do it, must surely exacerbate his abhorrence to this act.
Yet, Avraham shows that he has faith, bitachon. He knows in his heart that a just God will not provide him with an heir through which the relationship with God can continue, only to needlessly kill him. Indeed, we have a natural revulsion at the thought of human sacrifice. So, Rabbi Ari Kahn reminds us, “Even enlightened, modern Democratic societies are prepared to sacrifice their children for their ideals -- for example, to protect the country or ideology. Indeed, were this not so, there would be no war. As difficult as sacrificing one's child is, it would seem that most societies today deem it justifiable when done for the sake of one's beliefs.”
According to Rabbi Weisz, quote “The withdrawal of God's command to sacrifice Isaac was not understood by Abraham as the timely revocation of a horrendous edict.” End of quote. Rather, this test, this tenth test, is not to show faith, nor love of God, but according to Nachmanides, to bring forth in Abraham a hidden spiritual potential. Abraham understood through the Akeida, that kindness must be balanced by judgment. If a parent allows a child to eat only the sweet foods the child likes, it may seem kind at the moment, but eventually, that child will be ill. It is the parent’s responsibility to temper kindness with good sense. So too, God is making Abraham aware, that kindness by itself is insufficient. All things in life must find their balance.
Throughout the story, the name for God is Elohim. Each name of God is associated with a quality. Elohim is used as the name to represent the quality of judgment and justice, whereas the yud-heh-vav-heh name - Adonai, is the quality of compassion and kindness. Justice and kindness walk together balancing all of life. Just as Abraham’s attribute is kindness, Isaac’s attribute is justice. Thus do we read in the story several times, Va-yel-chu she-nay-chem yach-dahv, and they walked, the two, together.
What does the story tell us of Isaac? Isaac is not a child at this point in the story. He is a man in his 30s and though he stops to question his father saying, “Here is the fire and the wood, where is the lamb for sacrifice?” stiil, he continues on with his father to the mountain top. Moreover, he allows himself to be bound. There is a midrash that says, he requested the binding, for being a man of judgment, he understood that though his spirit was willing, the flesh was weak and he may have a last minute regret and resist being killed. So, Avraham binds his beloved son and places him on the wood.
Rabbi Yehuda says: "When the knife touched Isaac's neck, his soul flew out of his body. When the Voice emerged from between the cherubim, the angels, and commanded, "Do not send your hand to hurt the youth..." his soul returned to his body, and Isaac stood up on his feet, and realized that just so would the dead be eventually resuscitated, and he declared, "Blessed are you God, who resuscitates the dead." (Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer, 30)
In traditional prayer, this blessing continues to be recited. It appears as the concluding words of the gevurot, the second blessing of the Amidah. Baruch atah Adonai, mi-cha-yay ha-may-teem. Blessed are You, Adonai, the One who revives the dead. Reform Judaism, in objecting to the concept of resurrection, altered these words to read, mi-cha-yay ha-kol, the One who revives all. Further, it becomes translated in our machzor, the prayer books we use on these holy days, as Source of all life.
Happily, the Mishkan Tefiliah, our new siddur, has given us the choice between the two, translating mi-cha-yay ha-may-teem as ‘reviving that which is dead’. By using Isaac's words, we are allowed to partake in the experience Isaac had when he pronounced those words for the first time, mesmerized by the experience of his freshly returned life.
A footnote says, The Talmud recommends saying M’Chayeih Hameitim for greeting a friend after a lapse of twelve months and after awakening from sleep (Bruchot 58b, Y. Bruchot 4:2)”, for the Talmud also teaches that sleep is 1/60 of death in that the soul is temporarily and partially separated from the body.
It is easy, particularly at this fall season, to look around and see that much of nature appears to be dying. Leaves are turning and falling. Our fruits and vegetables have ceased sending forth new flowers. Flowerbeds have dried and our grass has begun to brown and whither. We recognize this and yet we know that new produce, fauna and flora will appear next spring. This dying is real though we perceive it as temporary, for it is not the same flowers and fruits that return. It is new ones. Yet, we view the winter as a transitional condition. For many, our routines now change as our summer activities end and we return to the school year cycle. This, too, is a type of death. When we pick up those summer activities next year, they will not be the same, because we are not the same person. We grow, and change and evolve and when we encounter next summer, we do so as different people.
Spiritual growth takes place within, inside any individual. It cannot be seen except by the outer expression of that growth through actions. By the same token, spiritual growth occurs as a reaction to those events which are seen and experienced. Abraham was brought to new realizations of balancing life. Isaac was awed by his new chance at life.
May we take this opportunity to judge others through the lens through which we wish to be judged; to open our eyes to the many occasions we encounter to see the wonder, the awe, in relating to the Divine, through action as well as feeling. And may God - Elohim, and God - Adonai, the One who set the cycle of life and death into motion, and views that cycle with both justice and compassion, help us to find that balance, the balance of justice and compassion in our lives.