IN THE NAME OF GOD
Rabbi David Walk
Often I begin these articles with a light hearted introduction to my quite serious topic, but not this week. Too many tragic ideas are swirling around in my head to allow comedy to emerge. It sort of begins with the terrible events of this year's Haj. On September 24 there was a horrific stampede at one of the sites visited by the pilgrims to the annual event outside Mecca. This progressive crowd collapse was initially reported to have killed 719 people. Later reports (October 19) have put the toll at 2121, with expectations of that number rising still higher because 1250 pilgrims are still missing and many of the those still in hospital (173) are not expected to survive. The Saudi Vice Minister of Health officially announced 4,173 people dead in this incident in a press release (October 4), which was quickly removed from official records. In any event this was the greatest disaster in the history of the Haj far surpassing the previous catastrophic record holder of 1426 fatalities in 1990. Added to that we're sadly in the midst of terrible terrorist attacks in Israel, which are being touted by Moslems as a defense of the holiness of the Temple Mount. That holiness cannot bear the prayers of non-Moslems for reasons which I cannot fathom. Both of these tragedies are connected to a famous episode in this week's Torah reading.
That stampede occurred during the Stoning of the Devil in Mina, Saudi Arabia. This is a reenactment of Avraham's interaction with the devil on his way to Akeidat Yishmael. Of course, this story in the Koran is a reworking of the attempted sacrifice of Yitzchak which is the climax of our parsha, with their patriarch Yishmael replacing ours. And, of course, our tradition claims that the Mount Moriah of the Akeida is none other than Har haBayit, the Temple Mount. Will the madness never end?
But my melancholy over the Akeida isn't connected to either of these disastrous developments. Rather, it's the events of Sunday October 11 which have sent my mind into jumbled overdrive. On that day Bruce and Deborah Leonard brought their 19 year old son, Lucas, to the ironically named Word of Life Christian Church outside the village of New Hartford in upstate New York. There they and other parishioners beat Lucas to death during a 14 hour torture session. It has been revealed that the parents and friends did this because Lucas wanted to leave the secretive church. This is reminiscent of a news article by Peter Arnett from 1968, when he reported how an American major explained the massive bombing of the Vietnamese village of Ben Tre by stating, 'It became necessary to destroy the town to save it'. Now back to our central dilemma: Can it be possible to worship a God who demands that we kill our children to demonstrate our devotion? The story of the Akeida answers a resounding 'No!'
Finally, we can turn our attention to the Akeida itself. There are almost as many interpretations of the Akeida as there are scholars who study it. Within the rabbinic tradition there are two major approaches. The first is that of the commentators who describe Avraham as coolly suspending all logical judgment to just carry out his instructions as if they were any other mitzvah, like keeping Shabbat or kashrut. Rabbi Soloveitchik expressed this idea in the following way, 'We marvel at Avraham's sedateness, complacency and peace of mind. The enormous feat of the knight of faith was demonstrated…in the manner in which he behaved in the face of the most puzzling Divine absurdity.'
The other team of rabbis emphasizes the pathos of this scene. Our saintly ancestor struggled mightily with this demand of our Maker to offer up his only, beloved son, the sole heir to his legacy. Three days and nights were spent in agony and anguish. I prefer door number two. The Rav may marvel at his version of Avraham, but I mourn such an apparition.
I find solace in a comment by Reb Yehudah Amital ZT''L, the late Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etziyon, who pointed out that we refer to the Akeida whenever we recite Slichot (penitential) prayers. We begin, perhaps, the most famous and last of these liturgical poems with the words: May the One who answered our father Avraham on Mt. Moriah answer us, and it continues May the One who answered his son Yitzchak when he was bound on the altar answer us. They prayed for a way out of the absurdity of the Akeida and God gave them the escape hatch. A beautiful Midrash expands on this theme: He placed him upon the altar. Avraham's eyes gazing into Yitzchak's eyes, and Yitzchak's eyes gazing towards heaven. And tears fell from Avraham's eyes until he was swimming in tears. He said to him, 'My son, since you have already expressed your readiness to relinquish your blood, your Creator will find a different sacrifice in your place (Yalkut Shimoni).' Now that's my alta zeidie! My image of our Patriarchs is one of compassion and empathy, and this ancient prayer quoted in the Mishneh (Tractate Ta'anit 2:1), and probably derived from the work of the Men of the Great Assembly (perhaps 400 BCE) enshrines that vision forever in our prayer books and in our preparations for the High Holidays.
The crime in upstate New York was a fulfillment of the words of Blaise Pascal, who saw much bloody conflict between Catholics and Protestants during the 17th century, 'Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.' Killing children in the name of religion is so heinous that the Torah is disgusted by the worship of Molech, and, therefore, Avraham must have been equally disgusted. The Dalai Lama recently aired a TV special called Not in the Name of God and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote a book of the same name. Both of those works reflect this humanist sentiment and condemn violence perpetrated in the name of God. We must finally arrive at the conclusion that acts done in the name of God should be kind and generous and empathic.