Peter J. Rubinstein | September 16, 1993
You know the powerful and passionate story of Abraham and Isaac, which is the Torah reading for this day. It is a familiar tale, but consider the story told this way…
Abraham wakes Isaac early in the morning, quietly, so as not to awaken Sarah. Gingerly stepping around his sleeping mother, Isaac follows his father outside the tent into the sunlight, which is just beginning to lift above the hills of Judea. He rubs his eyes.
Abraham tells his son they are going to the mount of Moriah. There is something they need to do there.
His father tells him to gather wood for a sacrifice they will perform and to place the wood, along with a few provisions, on the donkey to walk to the mountain. Moriah was not far to the north. They would not be gone long. (Genesis 22)
Father and son set out for Mount Moriah with two servants, their mules, the wood, and… a knife. Isaac ordinarily loved going off with his father, but he felt something different this time. His father seemed more silent, almost brooding. But since Abraham was given to moods Isaac didn’t think too much of it. After all it was wonderful for the two of them to be alone.
At first time passed quickly. But as it grew late, an unusually dense cloud screened Mount Moriah from view and a single day’s journey took three. Isaac became tired. Abraham seemed irritable and worried.
Finally they reached the place. Isaac was relieved that whatever they had come to do would soon be over. His father faced him squarely. “Take the wood, my son, take the knife and come with me. The servants will stay here. You and I are going to do this alone, together.”
They set on up the mountain with few words. Abraham didn’t mention anything more about the sacrifice. Isaac innocently asked about the animal for it. His father turned to him with an ominous look. It made Isaac afraid. They walked on together.
At the top of the mountain, Isaac looked around. There was no animal, no ram, no sheep, no cow for the sacrifice. Isaac had an awful thought. Was Abraham going to do to him what fathers of other tribes did to their sons? It couldn’t be, but he wrestled with terror and fear. His father looked different.
Abraham meticulously arranged the wood on the altar. He sharpened the knife and very deliberately set it in place. Abraham walked up to Isaac, put his arm over his son’s shoulder, and they stared at the altar, together. In the time of a single breath Abraham’s gentle hand suddenly latched tightly like a vise onto Isaac’s arm, dragging him toward the altar. Isaac began to fight back. But his father was determined. Grabbing Isaac around the waist he picked up his screaming, struggling son and with the full weight of his body over him he forced Isaac down onto the altar.
Isaac screamed with all his young boy’s might, realizing what was to be, “Father, please, don’t hurt me! Please!” and for the first time in his young life he fought Abraham. But Abraham was strong. Holding him down under the weight of his body, Abraham grabbed the knife and raised it over his son. Isaac screamed and pleaded for him to stop. Abraham didn’t listen and began the murderous downward thrust aimed at his son’s heart. Just then a voice from the heavens shouted, “Avraham, Avraham, al ta-as lo m’oomah—Abraham, Abraham, don’t touch the boy.” But in the raging fury of the moment, Abraham heard nothing but Isaac’s screams and it was too late. The knife pierced Isaac’s chest. Isaac died on the altar.
What if the story ended that way? What if the Jewish people ended with Abraham? How would history have been remarkably different? What if there had been a world without Judaism, a world without Jews? What if the fragile thread of Jewish existence had been cut back then at the beginning, as it is apparently being cut now?
According to our best thinkers and most scientific analyses, we can no longer assume Jewish survival. We have been put on notice that we are an endangered species, you and I. The fictional parable of the last Jew on earth or at least the last Jew in America is now imaginable, if not foreseeable.
Passionate voices were routinely raised in the past to the glory of the Jewish people, to the brilliance of the Jewish faith. There was no shame in our particular uniqueness. No one hid from it. No one denied it. It was heralded. Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver declared, “There is a remarkable balance and sanity and pragmatic quality to Judaism.” Not given to hyperbole, he believed that we were a gift to humankind. So did Stephen Wise and Milton Steinberg and Lillian Wald and Moses Mendelssohn before them and Saadya Gaon before him and Hillel before all of them.
Jews of ages past were not embarrassed by the concept of am s’gulah, a treasured people, a unique people not necessarily better but incurably different, who had a unique and precious relationship with God; a people whose existence was assured and protected by the God who had stopped Abraham from his repulsive act, the God who gave the commandments on Mount Sinai, a people who believed they had a profound message to carry to the world.
They did not fear for the demise of the Jewish people. While we might live through dramatic vicissitudes in history they believed we would endure because that is what God would have us do and that’s what we needed to do at any cost. So Nahman Krochmal, one of the first thinkers of modern times to consider the meaning of Jewish peoplehood, wrote dramatically of “The eternal people and the times through which it passes.” In the early 19th century he proclaimed that Judaism will never disappear completely because, “It is wedded to an eternal God and we will share in God’s eternality.”
Why then do so many speak convincingly of the end of the Jews, the termination of Judaism? Among other explanations we might confront and take to heart, consider two.
It may be partially our corporate mind-set, a mind-set that makes the agencies of Jewish life both the cause of our problems and responsible for their solutions. The initial shock of the national Jewish population survey indicating that our numbers are decreasing by percentage points if not in absolute numbers compelled synagogues and federations and community centers and Jewish agencies and institutions in Israel to rally with the intent to fix the problem. They willingly and creatively moved to strengthen the prospects of Jewish survival and continuity. But you know what has been significantly left out of the equation? You and me! Individual Jews have been treated and we have treated ourselves as though we have nothing, nothing personally to do with Jewish survival and continuity.
We have exempted ourselves as though nothing we do or refrain from doing has an impact on the future of our community. We should understand what Abraham quickly learned. Isaac needed to be nourished, not killed. Isaac was the key to Abraham’s and thereby our survival. Abraham taught us that no Jew can seriously abdicate his or her duty as the source of Jewish life.
Jewish survival relies completely on how each of us and each of our children declare ourselves as Jews. Judaism will ultimately be kept alive in our family lines when we teach our children how to be Jews because we observe, we study, we celebrate as Jews. Commitment and faith are not enough. Commitment and faith become crucial only when embodied in action and behavior. Jewish continuity will be healthy when we set out to create a Jewish world as individuals in the universe of Jewish life.
Surely the institutions of Jewish life will help by fostering trips for teenagers to Israel, building and supporting day schools, and helping after-school educational programs. All of that will certainly enhance the quality of Jewish life. But none of that will make Jews. This can be done only by home and family and personal will. Every indication demonstrates that Jewish identity is directly related to the level of clear and committed behavior at home. It is no wonder that some parents and grandparents now bemoan the death of their Jewish line as it comes to an end with those children who care not a whit about it. With regret they reflect on the casualness with which they treated this part of their identity when their children were younger.
Such parents and grandparents explain that they cared that their children be good people, full citizens of their school community. They explain that it was more important that they spent Friday evening on the way to the country or at the opera.
The next generation will be Jewish only as they apprentice as Jews by our sides. In the end we need to care enough.
Commitment to Jewish teachings does not interfere with being a good person. It enhances it. Observance of Jewish ritual and holidays need not interfere with quality time in the country or with participation at school, if it is our decision to have both or even to make the difficult choices to make Jewish identity a priority. Abraham discovered he could not have it both ways. He needed to choose life for his son and his son’s son in order to have a legacy.
Our institutions can enhance Jewish life. They cannot create it. Only we can, each of us in our universe.
The knife is in our hands. Whether the knife falls and cuts the thread of Jewish life is a matter over which together we have complete power. God willing we will use it well.
There is a second reason for our present predicament, a more subtle one born out of a societal attitude with which we have been plagued and of which we might not even be conscious. A strong trend of American culture suggests the priority of personal gratification over support of community well-being. It is insidious, as prevalent as the air we breathe.
A small example: Once in conversation with a group of congregational leaders I suggested that the soul of the synagogue is best expressed, even symbolized, in the worship service. Therefore we discussed the importance of synagogue leaders attending worship services on some regular, if not frequent basis. One person responded that services didn’t do anything for him. Therefore he said there was no reason for him to attend.
The concept of minyan suggests another perspective to consider. The traditional requirement for a minimum of people to be at a prayer service was based on the premise that people should be there for others, not necessarily for themselves.
Even when a Jew didn’t personally feel the need to pray, one would come in order to create a community in which others could pray, so that those who felt the need would be surrounded in times of sadness and loss, so that they would not be alone, or that they would be showered with “Mazel tov!” in times of celebration and birth as their joy is reflected back on them. People came so that others could share their most profound sentiments. If a person who came to form that community perchance benefitted from the spirituality of the occasion, then the angels would sing even more.
Judaism is driven by mitzvah, by commandment and obligation, not by whim, gratification, or what makes us feel good. For reasons born out of history, we were convinced that we would ultimately feel good by helping others feel good. Mitzvah, obligation transcended satisfaction, and if there is a swelling of fulfillment, it stems from having helped.
I’m reminded of an informal study made by Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin. They wanted to emphasize for students the distinct difference between tzedakah, a commandment, and charity that is performed at whim.
They presented a hypothetical case to several thousand Jewish and non-Jewish high school students.
Suppose, they suggested, two people have the exact same earnings and expenses. They are approached by a poor man in desperate need of food and money for his family. The first person, after listening to the man’s horrible experiences, cries and then out of the goodness of his heart gives him five dollars. The second person, although concerned, does not cry, and in fact has to rush away. But because his religion commands him to give ten percent of his income to tzedakah, he gives the poor person a hundred dollars. Who did the better thing — the person who gave five dollars from his heart, or the one who gave a hundred dollars because his religion commanded it? Seventy to ninety percent of the teenagers asserted that the person who gave the five dollars from his heart did the better deed.
Prager concluded, “Judaism would love you to give 10 percent of your income each year from your heart. It suspects, however, that in a large majority of cases, were we to wait for people’s hearts to prompt them to give, we would be waiting a very long time. Ergo, Judaism says, give 10 percent—and if your heart catches up, terrific. In the meantime, good has been done.”
Being a Jew mandates mitzvah, obligation—to do for others, even perhaps before you would do for yourself. Our existence has at times been difficult because we were committed to what was right rather than what was easy. Perhaps we have survived because we did what we said, we lived our word, we made difficult choices. Even if those choices skirted disaster, as they did for Abraham, they ultimately led to survival, as they did for Abraham.
If we are committed to survival, this is the time for renewal. Our people need us. Hope for a Jewish future mandates a higher priority for honor and obligation than for personal ease. It took devotion by our ancestors often at great cost, sometimes even the ultimate cost, to have brought us this far. Honor to them is paid by completing the bridge to our future.
Each of us and all of us are the fundamental instruments of Jewish identity.
And we are at a pivotal point of history. As Jews in this country we can be a gift to others through our presence at services, as a teacher of others when we attend adult Jewish study, as a model of Jewish identity by providing the glue of ritual observance, practice, and celebration, as a support of the synagogue not for services rendered but to keep healthy the institution that will always be needed by Jews.
So we return to Abraham. He held the prospect of Jewish survival in his hand. So do we. Each of us makes the decision whether the knife will fall. For some Jews it has already fallen and part of us sadly has disappeared forever. In the story told in the Torah Isaac survived. I imagine that his father learned on Mount Moriah how precarious life is and how precious is the opportunity to nourish the future and to give it meaning and substance. Almost losing a son, Abraham never again treated his legacy casually.
An eternal people? God knows. But our numbers and our quality are precious and fragile possibilities now left to us. Each of us has the power to resuscitate our Jewish world. May we choose wisely, we pray. The heart, soul, and body of 4,000 years of history are now in our hands.
Indeed the existence of our people is in the balance. May our decision ultimately be for us, for all our people, for all eternity a blessing. With God’s help and our strength. Amen.
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