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This week I present another of Rabbi Sack’s Divrei Torah. This one is nice on its own and presents an interesting criterion of leadership also discussed by Howard Gardner, the famous educational theorist. Here is a question to reflect on for our class: how might Sack’s analysis assist us in our deconstruction of the penultimate meeting between Joseph and his father Jacob? How do Sacks and Zornberg differ in their analysis? Can you relate it to different textual readings or other issues? Enjoy… Chayei Sarah - Beginning the Journey
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Every year, when we read the Akeda, the attempted sacrifice of Isaac as a test of Abraham’s loyalty to G-d [the Torah’s opinion— not mine], we have so many questions. So this year, I offer a collage of interesting insights from our Sages on a very interesting question that is actually raised in our High Holy Day prayerbook.

You will recall that on Rosh Hashana, the Musaf amida is divided into three sections: Malchuyot (the Kingship of G-d), Zichronot (How G-d remembers promises), and Shofarot (the sounding of the shofar in Jewish history). The Zichronot section mentions the Akeda in which “Abraham our patriarch conquered his quality of mercy and brought his son forward as an offering.” But, interestingly enough, just before the final bracha, there appears the phrase “v’et Akedat Yitzchak l’zaro ha’yom b’rachamim tizkor” – “and remember today the Akeda of Isaac for the sake of his descendants.” So the question is very simple: what special merit does Isaac’s role bear when the Torah, and the rest of the Zichronot prayer emphasizes the role of Abraham?

This is a very important theological question. The Brisker Rav offers a very interesting answer: Abraham’s merit is by far the greater, yet we as descendants can only depend on the merit of Isaac. This is a very strange answer from one of the most logical of our commentaries—by a Litvak to boot! What does the Brisker Rav mean to tell us by this insight?

In his commentary, the Brisker credits Abraham with “selflessness to fulfill the Divine command” and Yitzchak with “eagerness to be offered.” He then argues that Abraham’s deed was greater, perhaps because (as Rabbi Horowitz had observed 100 years before) the active fulfillment of a commandment is superior to its passive fulfillment. That is, Abraham had many things to do in order to make the command reality, while Isaac’s passivity was the rock upon which the fulfillment of the commandment depended. This being the case, how can the Brisker then state, in apparent refutation of his own Litvak logic, that the descendants of Isaac will gain merit by specifically recalling his actions on Rosh Hashana?

The answer may well be that the Brisker, though he did not wish to say so openly, agreed with the position of Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch of Germany who lived just before him. Hirsch wrote categorically (in German mind you which the Brisker read fluently) that the Akeda was designed to teach that human sacrifice was abhorrent to the Divine. Why not write this openly? Think of the situation in Russia at the time the Brisker wrote his commentary in the first decade of the 20th century. There the belief that the Jews were the murderers of Jesus was everywhere among the peasantry. Indeed, the Beiles Trial proved that belief in the blood libel was alive and well in Russia in the 20th century. Knowing this, it is possible that the Brisker dared not write openly of Abraham’s merit when it was associated with blood and sacrifices.

But, as to the question asked at the beginning: why recall the merit of the son over that of the father? All the traditional answers are problematic, Rabbi Sacks, sees the Akeda as a series of parallel bonds of trust: one between God and Abraham, one between Abraham and Isaac, and one between God and Isaac. Each of these bonds is “non exclusionary” and thus one does not depend on the other. We will consider this in great detail next year at Rosh Hashana. Abraham being commanded to offer Isaac is a completely independent issue from Isaac’s following his father obediently.

I have purposely left us with much to think about and already begun pointing us towards next year, may we all be there together. After we finish Bereishit, we will will go backwards a bit to Lech Lecha and we will encounter G-d and Abraham afresh. May we never stop learning.

Posted By The Stash
Avram dared to be different. Yes, his father did leave his familial hometown of Ur Kasdim and with the intention of coming to Canaan, but he died en route. Yes, it is true that Avram completed the journey when G-d asked him to, and this was difficult because it involved a loss of familiar homeland, relatives, and—most importantly—a new monotheistic faith. But, at the first sign of a challenge, Avram fled a famine and went to Egypt without waiting to see if G-d would assist him. The midrashim tell us that Avram was the Patriarch who exemplified hospitality and used it to acquaint people with his unique belief.

Here we see a man who was superior to Noah, a man who dared to be different as Rabbi Sacks puts it, and a man who, unlike Noah, did not stand by when he saw evil. Avram confronted G-d when he heard that it was the Divine desire to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah; indeed his challenge rings through the ages; “Will the Judge of the World not deal justly?” Yes, we may argue that the Akeda, the attempted offering of Isaac, shows that Avram can be accused of taking G-d’s words too literally. As Rashi shows, Avram seems to have interpreted the command ‘take him up’ to mean “offer him” (the root of the words is identical). We are also told that Sarai assisted her husband in every way and took the initiative in converting women to monotheism.

These are stupendous achievements. Together Avram and Sarai richly deserved to have the Divine name inserted into theirs, forever being recalled therefore as Abraham and Sarah. They were, of course, the first Jews, bringers of monotheism to a new region, and sacrificing a great deal in the process.

Sarah and Abraham’s greatness and willingness to be unique is further attested to by the simple fact that no one else joined the religion despite their efforts to proselytize. The Maggid of Dubnow explains that this happened because these converts were only told to believe in G-d and never told to do any mitzvoth to indicate belief and commitment to their newfound faith. Abraham’s descendants Isaac and Jacob, for whatever reason, did no better. In fact, the only people who believed in the G-d of Abraham were his family until the Exodus. It took until the Egyptian Exodus for non-members of Abraham’s family to associate with this new God. I use the word “associate” rather than “believe in” because the rabble of non-Israelite slaves who took advantage of the chaotic aftermath of the tenth plague to join the Exodus never fully believed in the God of Abraham.Their problematic non-conformist behavior persisted through the desert journey. The Torah calls them the “mixed multitude” and their behaviour was problematic throughout the desert journey.

Our grandparents loved to proclaim: “Ez shver zu zein a Yid” – it is very hard to be Jewish. Our religion is often demanding, we often go to great lengths to follow its precepts, and sometimes we wonder, almost paraphrasing Tevye, “you couldn’t have made it a little easier G-d?” But then we realize the exhilaration of self-discipline, of living on the edge, of always trying to do better and admitting we are all too human. Daring to be different isn’t easy. Sometimes we doubt it may not seem worth the effort, but over the long haul—the spiritual journey— is worth it.

Posted By The Stash
Rabbi Sacks has begun a year long series on “Jewish Leadership” through the lens of the weekly parasha. When I feel that what he says resonates for me personally, I will publish it. I really like today’s evaluation of the Torah’s famous analysis of Noah: Taking Responsibility



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