I must confess that the whole story of Akedat Itzak, the binding of Isaac, that we have just read, is a bit disturbing to me. And I am sure I am not the only one who feels this way.
It is an inhumane story: God commands to a father to kill his son. Even summarizing the whole tale in a single line, a sense of horror overwhelms me. I try to look for something more reassuring.
Each time I think of the Akedat Itzak I say to myself that it isn’t true, that such a cruel command can’t come from my God. No father can accept such a horrible command. Only if I manage to impress different thoughts into my mind, to cancel out the idea of a God commanding such a terrible commandment, to kill a son, one’s own flesh and blood, do I feel myself safer, and reinforce my confidence in mankind. I return to my daily life, safe and sound. Thank God I do not live in a world where sons risk ending up killed by their fathers.
But things were not always as such, in the course of Jewish history. In the Middle Ages, for example in Germany, the crowds surrounded the Jewish quarters. Pushed to suicide entire families, more than once, escaping more terrible deaths by the hands of the Crusaders. It happened also in Spain and Portugal, in the endeavor to avoid the horrible tortures of the Inquisition to the youngest.
Jewish parents hastened the death of their children, to spare them from more cruel torments. This happened not only centuries ago. The Shoah is not surrounded in clouds, as myths are. We have detailed accounts and the witnesses are still around. It is a real event.
It is perhaps something we experience in Israel today, only a few hours flight from here? It is true, no one in Israel kills his own children, but to educate and build an Israeli citizen means also to prepare him or her to dress in a uniform. The uniform of an Army that on one hand does certainly beautiful acts of social justice, tiqqun olam, assistance to weakest. Few people know that Israeli soldiers may choose months of additional service, in retirement homes, in shelters for battered women, cooperating in the integration of new immigrants from Russia or Ethiopia. On the other hand it is an army, a war machine and in war you kill. And you die also.
To risk one’s own life because you are a Jew in Israel happens not only in the military. Today the condition of the inhabitants of Sderot, or the cities on the northern border, also calls for sacrifice. Other Israeli citizens also sacrifice their lives: passers-by crossing a road, retired citizens that ride a bus, or children playing in a park of Jerusalem.
In the Diaspora, being a Jew is to be a minority, and a minority is not always secure. In democracies, numbers count, and we Jews are not a significant number of the population. We are not a group numerically significant in Italy, but probably in the future we will be a smaller community.
To raise children as Jews means to raise them as a minority. Even if they do not risk their lives a child, a boy or girl, all young Jews are going to face ignorance and suspicion. They will be asked: What are these strange biscuits that you eat in a certain period of the year? Why for you is Saturday important and not Sunday, as it is for everybody else? Why the barbaric rite of circumcision?
But they may confront even worst moments, like those that happened to not a few of us. During a conversation on an international policy, turn out the topic of the power of the neocon lobby, perceived as a kind of Elders of Zion that control the USA and also the world. A person that we believe is a friend explains to us that Jews always help each other, so why is a certain guy, friendly with Caio, who everyone knows is called Levi.
And we would explain that those are myths, myths which, moreover, we would wish were always true, but suddenly we feel a deep loneliness and the words die in our throat. We do not know whether to talk to our friend or about the distorted legends that live in his brain.
At one moment or another, without any control, those destructive elements out there may coalesce and create a poisonous mixture. We expose our children to an uncertain atmosphere, when they are with us at the Temple, or when we ask if they can stay away from school for Rosh ha Shana?
Oh, yes. Grown children, when we educate them as Jews, are not going to be part of a majority. We will explain to them, usually around our table, during festivals that their friends have not (yet) heard about, that not always being part of the crowd means to know everything. It often means that you are not in the right. There are, as they say, more things in the world.
With this strange New Year, which begins more or less when the school year starts, but not every year on the same date, we educate our children to feel part of a Community wider than that of their peers or of the inhabitants of Milan: the Jewish people, whatever that people means, a people that follows its own calendar, and not just the one we call civil calendar.
Being Jews mean to be part of humanity in general, and be part of a particular minority: it is not easy, of course. But it is also an extraordinary tonic for independent judgment. To educate a child to be Jew is also to educate him/her to think critically and independently, hoping that one day will increase the number of Jewish Nobel Prize winners: women and men dealing with extraordinary things, for the benefit of humankind.
But to educate children to be Jewish means also to educate them to respect human life, regardless if this is a value or the will of the majority. Because being a Jew means to be part of a tradition that proclaims that each human being is created in the image of God: that the dignity of human beings, and human life are the supreme values. This is how we educate our children, when we want them to grow up as Jews.
Being a Jew is also found in that feeling of horror that inspires the reading of the Akeida, this Rosh Hashanah morning- a story that I can read and hear only because I already know it is going to end up humanely. Isaac is not going to be killed. A few pages after this story begins the narration of the events of a normal and complicated Jewish family.
Being Jews means also being faced with the stories and myths of our tradition, with the terrible questions aroused by the Akeida’s narration. The story of how God tests the world.
Our past, ancient or recent, is full of these kinds of tests and trials. But they are also in our present: in the difficulties of living out the existence of a minority; in a constant risk of encountering a fool or an anti-Semite (I have never met an intelligent anti-Semite and tend to consider the two terms as synonyms); in the arduous task to advancing into the future generations in an interesting or even fun way.
Leiner Izbicer, a Chassidic teacher explains that the text of this morning’s Rosh Hashanah Torah reading says that, yes, God put Abraham to the test, but Abraham did not pass the test.
Abraham, the Izbicer argues, was engaged in a fight against the practices of the idolaters. We know they had the custom of sacrificing their offspring to their gods. Abraham received a command from God to do exactly the same.
The test was in this, in receiving this command: God wanted a negative response from Abraham, God wanted the opposite of blind obedience and subjugation. God wanted Abraham to recall that the Lord does not kill the innocent, as he had already done defending the inhabitants of Sodom, where innocent people were few in number.
The Izbicer argues that the proof is spoken at the beginning of the Torah text, And God tested Abraham. But Abraham failed the test. He did not manage to rebel against to an unjust order, which he should have challenged, and refused to carry out. He should have remembered, he should have realized that God does not ask us to kill. Abraham failed the test because he said yes, without even thinking about it. For this reason an angel must intervene to stop him.
This is the center of Akeidah. God says to Abraham: I know that you fear God – Do not raise your hand. This is the story that was read, recited, sung by generations of our ancestors, alongside the Rosh Hashannah wish expressed by the words zokhrenu lehayyim, Remember us to life. May you be inscribed in the book of Life.
To teach the next generation and ourselves, that the main value is human life. It is to ensure to our children that the Omnipotent does not call for the death of sinners, but that they can change and live because every human being is created in the image of God. In order that we can show our faith through our respect for other human beings and that to destroy a single life is like destroying the whole world.
And that the supreme wish, the dream and task for the future, is to turn weapons into ploughs, so that that humankind will follow derakhei Shalom, the roads of peace, as he did for our first ancestor Abraham, whom God has prohibited from killing.
May this year be remembered as a year for peace.
May we all be inscribed in the book of Life.
Andrea Zanardo, PhD
Leo Baeck College, London
Delivered in Milan, Congregation Beth Shalom, on Rosh ha Shana 5769email print