Parshat Vayeira 5781 - Akeidat Yitzchak – The Binding of Isaac Revisiting a Timeless Biblical Narrative in the Age of COVID-19

By Rabbi Stanley Peerless, Director, Jerusalem EducTech Solutions (JETS) & Larry Ziffer, Former CEO of Baltimore’s Center for Jewish Education

Posted on 11/03/20

Parshas HaShavua Divrei Torah sponsored by
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Biblical texts often illuminate our contemporary experiences, providing valuable insight to guide our moral and ethical choices. As such, our experiences validate the eternal relevance of our mesorah (tradition).

The biblical story of Akeidat Yitzchak (The Binding of Yitzchak, in Parashat Vayeira, Bereishit 22) has had a powerful impact throughout history. The story is so fundamental to our faith and philosophy that our sages included it in the Torah reading of Rosh HaShana.

ויהי אחר הדברים האלה והאלקים נסה את־אברהם ויאמר אליו אברהם ויאמר הנני

Afterwards, G-d put Avraham to a test. He said to him, “Avraham,” and he answered, “Hineni: Here I am.”

ויאמר קח־נא את־בנך את־יחידך אשר־אהבת את־יצחק ולך־לך אל־ארץ המריה והעלהו שם לעלה על אחד ההרים אשר אמר אליך

And He said, “Take your son, your favored one, Yitzchak, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”

In addition to the many biblical commentaries on these verses, references to this foundational experience include the Gemara’s treatment in Taanit 4a, Rambam’s treatment in Moreh Nevuchim III:24, Kierkegaard’s treatise Fear and Trembling, countless works of religious art and even the Koran.

The Akeida story is not merely biblical history. It speaks to the existential angst of every generation. We are now involved in our own great nisayon (trial) as we confront the COVID-19 pandemic. In this context, the experience of Avraham in the Akeida story takes on new meaning.

Ibn Ezra and Ramban both explain that the purpose of the nisayon for Avraham in particular and for mankind in general is to demonstrate the unrealized potential that exists within each individual. To demonstrate this point: a person may have great musical ability or great athletic potential, but cannot be considered a great musician or athlete until challenged to perform a difficult musical piece or a demanding physical task. So too, Avraham was potentially a paradigm of faith, but that could not be demonstrated until he was tested by being told to sacrifice that which was most dear to him (his son) as an act of faith.

Regrettably, we are facing an incredibly frustrating test as we watch statistics about the current pandemic rise again. The nisayon of COVID-19 challenges us to sacrifice generally on behalf of public welfare, and more specifically on behalf of the elderly and weaker members of our society. The Midrash tells us that Akeidat Yitzchak was a test not only of Avraham, but of Yitzchak as well. So too, COVID has become a trial for parents (or grandparents) and children (or grandchildren), for those most vulnerable and for those with the power to protect them. Yet it is the opposite of Akeidat Yitzchak. It is not about parents being asked to sacrifice their children in order to demonstrate their faith. It is the young who are being asked to sacrifice things that they consider important in order to save the lives of those who are older.

As a society, we have seemingly fallen short in confronting this nisayon.

  • Many have been unwilling to sacrifice trips abroad or social gatherings at coffee shops, pubs or beaches to save lives.

  • Many have been unwilling to forego what they consider to be their unlimited right to participate in large group demonstrations, even at the expense of public health.

  • Many have been unwilling (sometimes obstinately so) to endure the temporary discomforts of wearing a mask or accept financial burdens associated with compliance which would affirm the sanctity of life.

  • Many were unwilling to defer religious experiences such as communal prayer or sitting in a packed Beit Midrash to learn Torah. Temporarily refraining from these practices would most certainly benefit the elderly and vulnerable, reflecting the support of well-established halachic guidelines for preserving life. Additionally, some have flouted religious and community mandates to avoid large weddings, funerals and other social gatherings where physical distancing cannot be guaranteed.

  • Last, but certainly not least, many politicians have been unwilling to sublimate their egos in order to provide real leadership to benefit the public, choosing instead to pander to their constituents, using the health crisis as an opportunity to promote and solidify their positions.

The nisayon of COVID-19 has indeed exposed and brought to realization the toxic impact of selfish individualism so characteristic of modern technological society. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, in his monumental work The Lonely Man of Faith described the “man of technology” (in contrast to the “man of faith”) as one who looks to the future and disregards the past. The man of technology has little regard for the elderly. The man of faith, on the other hand, recognizes the need to live in a community where there is collective responsibility and governance guided by traditional ethical norms. The man of faith sees a future that is informed by the experiences of the past, leading him to revere the elderly.

Avraham was, in fact, the paradigmatic lonely man of faith. He struggled with the existential challenges of being different. After experiencing a divine encounter and confirmation of faith on Har Hamoriyah, he descended the mountain alone, without Yitzchak. The Midrash explains that Avraham was called Avraham Ha-Ivri because he was on one side while the whole world was on the other side (כל העולם בעבר אחד, והוא בעבר אחד). Yitzchak, who was destined to inherit the mantle of family leadership from his father, also remained alone following the Akeidah - by himself on the mountain, estranged from the world around him.

Throughout Sefer Bereishit we are reminded by the commentators that Maaseh Avot Siman LaBanim, everything that occurred to our forefathers is a sign for the children (see Ramban at 12:6 and Midrash Tanchuma 9). What can we learn from the past? There are some who would say that the younger generation is our future and that we need only worry about their welfare. But as Jews, as members of a covenantal community, we insist that our future is informed by our past, and therefore we need equally to protect and safeguard those who represent the chain of tradition, our mesorah. We can have no meaningful future without respecting (and caring for) our elders. Similarly, the value of Pikuach Nefesh (preserving life) mandates that we must care for the lives of others and actively protect those who are most at risk.

In contrast to those cited above who have, to date, failed our contemporary COVID-19 challenge, there are many people of faith who have behaved with extraordinary responsibility. In stepping up to the challenge and recognizing the need for individual and collective leadership, they have demonstrated new levels of self-sacrifice to protect and save the sick and elderly, to bring relief to those in need and to sustain a society based on traditional Jewish values, including (to list just a few):

  1. קדושת החיים (Kedushat HaChaim): revering the sanctity of life

  2. וחי אחיך עמך (V’chai Achicha Imach): ensuring that your brother lives with dignity among you

  3. ואהבת לרעך כמוך (V’Ahavta L’rei’acha Komocha): loving your neighbor as yourself

  4. מפני שיבה תקום (M’pnei Seiva Takum): respecting the elderly

  5. לא תעמוד על דם רעך (Lo Ta’amod Al Dam Rei’acha): not standing by while another’s life is at risk

For many this has been a lonely task. It is not easy to wear a mask (or ask people to do so) when others do not. One can feel isolated when conforming to communal restrictions when others are behaving in ways that undermine them. Maintaining the values of unity and preserving life in the face of rampant egocentricity and hedonism (which often masquerade as standing up for personal freedom) can cause feelings of estrangement or outright rejection.

The messages of the Akeidah narrative ring loudly today:

  • To those who have not yet risen to the challenge, it is never too late. Avraham was well over 100 years old at the time of the Akeidah. We all possess potential for greatness. We can and should realize it now, at the time of this extraordinary challenge. This is the time to respond Hineni – “I am Here” – as Avraham did.

  • To those who have, in fact, risen to the challenge…keep it up and be proud! You are role models for everyone. Avraham passed on his theology and ideology to only one of his sons and a small group of close followers (the original Covenental Community), but did not immediately impact surrounding societies. Yitzchak passed this mesorah on to only one of his sons, Yaakov, who then passed it on to his numerous children and an expanded clan. Eventually the values of the original lonely man of faith spread to become the foundational values of Judaism and of Western civilization. Our efforts, too, will have a larger impact than might seem evident in the short term.

This current nisayon, confronting the challenges of a pandemic both personally and collectively, reinforces our appreciation of Akeidat Yitzchak as one of the most important and timeless of all biblical narratives.