This torah portion (Gen. 22:1-18), the Akedah, is a challenge, isn’t it? Abraham almost kills his son, his only son – from his wife Sarah, the one he loves, because God tells him to? What parent – what child – can read this and not feel a sense of horror? And a big fat question for the Torah? What is this doing here, in our book whose paths all lead to peace?
Of course, the commentary on this fills volumes. And we all have feelings in our hearts about this story. One commentary of course is that this story specifically tells us that we are NOT to sacrifice our children, that’s not what OUR God demands, in fact the opposite. But then our God does a lot of playing with people’s heads, and I’m not so sure that’s a great message either.
We know that God kept testing Abraham, the first person to really start to pay attention. And sometimes Abraham tested God back, as with the number of people worth saving in Sodom and Gomorrah. And this binding of Isaac is entirely a test, as it says in the first verse (Gen. 22:1): Sometime after these things, God tested Abraham.
But what exactly is it a test of? The obvious answer is that it is a test of Abraham’s obedience to God. But then you have to wonder, why exactly does God stop speaking to Abraham after this test is done? If he’d passed with flying colors, wouldn’t God have continued their ongoing conversation? But it is a malach, an angel or holy messenger, who stops Abraham’s hand, not God. And God and Abraham never again converse; silence you could cut with a knife, like the one Abraham held over his son.
What if the test was whether Abraham would eschew violence, especially violence against his family, even if the call came from God? What if the path to peace in this chapter was that God tested Abraham to see if he could turn from humanity’s predilection toward violence, and Abraham failed?
Since I’ve served as your rabbi, I’ve watched too many times when we humans have failed this test. As your representative, I have written or co-signed and gotten into print condolence letters – for the shooting at the Jewish day school in Toulouse, France, the murder of 16 Afghani civilians by an American soldier, the Bulgarian bus bombing, the Aurora, Colorado movie theatre shooting, and the murders in the Sikh temple. The last three happened within 3 weeks, within the last two months. By the time of the Sikh temple shooting, I felt moments of profound sadness for our species, especially when I then read about the second arson in a brief time at the same mosque in Missouri. How would we feel if a synagogue was the victim of arson twice within two months so that the building—fortunately, with no one in it—collapsed? Pretty freaked out, yes?
And then, after I’d finished this drash, and prepared it for my iPad, September 11 came, with the deaths of 4 American consulate people in Libya, including Chris Stevens, a true American, Libyan and world hero, by people who were responding to someone’s vicious and idiotic YouTube insulting Mohammed, which they thought provided a good reason to take more life. More violence, more hatred.
Our ancient rabbis taught that to save a life is to save a whole world and to destroy a life is to destroy a whole world (B. Sanhedrin 37a). They taught that we are—each of us—unique, and each of us is a world unique to itself, with many people who are connected to us, and therefore many lives that will be harmed by our death, especially an early death.
Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, killed at his school in Toulouse, left behind his pregnant wife and a two year child. A family friend described him as a delightful man.
His widow, Eva, told a meeting of Toulouse’s Jewish community that her husband had devoted himself to teaching children with learning disabilities. “He wanted to bring people closer to one another, and he didn’t want to give up on a single student.” He died trying—and failing—to protect his two sons, Gabriel and Arieh. The children who will never have the opportunity to benefit from his caring will lose something, even as will the ones who knew him and lost him.
His sons, and the other children and young people killed in these slaughters, will also never have children who might have had children. Possibly their worlds would have birthed a new Isaac Stern, or another Aly Raisman, or the person who would have cured cancer.
These deaths were multiplied by the use of automatic weapons (or a bomb or antiaircraft weapons and rocket-propelled grenades): instead of destroying one world at a time, these incidents destroyed multiple worlds in mere seconds. There is no purpose for an automatic weapon other than to kill humans: certainly shooting a moose with one would render its meat useless or its head unfit for mounting. We have become so much more proficient at killing in the last 100 years, but we have not become better at curbing our violent tendencies.
My teacher Rabbi Schochet, whom many of you met in June, taught us that one of the key purposes of the Talmud was to do just that. We Jews had been a rebellious people under the yoke of the Romans. This led to the destruction of the temple, our connection to the divine, the decimation – the decimation – of our people, the exile of most of the remaining ones and the near destruction of Jewry. Then we rebelled again, with Masada. That didn’t go so well for us either: only a handful of survivors in the fortress.
And then again, we rebelled with the Bar Kochba revolt. We held out for two years against the Roman oppressors, until they lost patience with the annoying Jews, and sent reinforcements to crush us. Crush us. The sages were terrified that everything that we had would disappear. The Tanakh, our sacred Bible, and the mishneh, the first level of commentary, which was never supposed to be written down. Now Judah ha-nasi, Judah the Prince, the head of the Jewish people, put the words to scroll, so that they would not be lost.
If we dedicated ourselves to study, to understanding the mind of the Holy One, they reasoned, if we turned from the outward world and learned to process testosterone differently, maybe we would live. So they turned study of the ever growing library of Jewish texts into almost a contact sport. Whoever could come up with the best interpretation, the best connections of one section to another, whoever could solve the riddles and help the community the most by nurturing their souls – that person won the gold medal, the world series and the world cup all in one.
For nearly the next two millennia, we kept at least some of our noses in the Books, and survived as empires arose and disappeared. Survived is probably a good description, given all that we experienced, as violence was done to us. But it was our way of curbing the violence all around us.
Maimonides, the gold medal winner in the 12th century, noted that the entire purpose of the torah is to enhance our souls, but first to create a society in which we can live together without killing each other: it is there to teach us to get along so that I can give up a little so as not to resent you so much as to want to harm you…
That may be its purpose, but it hasn’t quite succeeded yet. The lessons are there, but maybe sometimes a little obscure, as is the exact test Abraham was given in our text for today. Of course, “Thou shalt not murder” does seem rather direct and clear. Along with not hating your brother in your heart, loving your neighbor as yourself… well, the list is almost endless.
And violence is not only physical violence. Emotional violence is also on the rise, from bullying to internet stalking. Our ancient rabbis taught that to shame someone with words was akin to murder, an unforgiveable offense.
We Jews have been the victims of violence, both physical and emotional too many times in our history. The dehumanization, the expulsions, the murders, the forced conversions, the burning of our sacred books, the homicide bombings, the firing of rockets into villages.
And now we live in a society where we become desensitized to killing. This can be seen in the extreme violence in our films (some of the people in the Dark Knight Returns movie theatre didn’t realize the gun fire wasn’t in the movie, until people started falling). It can be seen in the video games. Even books: The Hunger Games series is entirely about children being glorified for killing other children, in a violent reality TV show. Even though it claims to be against such child murders, it is almost impossible not to be fascinated by them and cheer on the winners.
We live in a society that demonizes the other. We believe we have the truth, so that the person who disagrees with us must be wrong, and therefore, too often, must be evil, and not worth our respect for their humanity. We forget the words of Pirkei Avot, the teachings of our ancestors, that these and these are the words of the living God, but the rulings of Hillel win over the rulings of Shammai. Why? Because Hillel and his students would state the arguments of Shammai and in fact would state them first, out of respect, and then state their own. When we lose that ability to see the other side, we too often demonize, and we lose respect. And that demonizing is just a short hop skip and jump to violence.
Most of the recent mass murders were a result of antisemitism or Islamophobia, or in the most recent attack, more religious fundamentalism—hateful ideologies that we have to combat at every opportunity. Any time we allow such hate to stand, we allow the broth that violence is brewed in to steep. Against anyone who is different: a different skin color, a different sexual orientation, a different religion, a different ability, a different sex.
We who have been the victims of the longest hatred must stand up when hatred harms others. Always. Always.
The other two mass murders—in Aurora and Afghanistan—were likely at least in part the result of mental illness. And we still too often see mental illness as weakness or a lack of character, rather than an illness like cancer. How we treat people with mental illness, in terms of access to treatment, access to medication, access to recovery and wellness communities, is not only a measure of our humanity, but a measure of our commitment to curb violence.
King Saul experienced what could only be mental illness, after God withdrew God’s ruach elohim, God’s spirit from him, after God gave it to David. He had rages, paranoia, depression. He tried to kill David several times, even though David had offered him the first recorded example of music therapy, through his lyre and singing.
Mental illness has been with us for millennia, and while our understanding of it has advanced beyond the belief that it was caused by the removal of ruach Elohim, God’s spirit, we still don’t have a great handle on it. Our ability to notice, to encourage, to support and to promote good mental health will only help reduce the violence in our world.
As we proceed through the ten days of awe, let’s keep the image of Abraham not knowing what the test really was, and look at how we are in our own lives, what tests lie before us, what the real questions are, underneath the obvious ones, and see if we can do everything we can to reduce the violence around us…if we have the strength to go against human nature and say no to the violent urges we experience.