Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Akeidas Yitzchok — rational approach

Some people have a problem with akeidas Yitzchok. “What do you mean, Avraham wanted to kill his son? Isn’t it barbaric — to want to sacrifice your own child? How is this used as a virtue? Isn’t it just like Muslim terrorists? Why would G-d ask such a thing? So, if G-d asked you to sacrifice your son, you would also do it? So, when a crazy person kills someone — it’s OK?”

In response, a few points:

1. To begin with, the argument that it is barbaric is not fair. We find it barbaric to sacrifice our children precisely because Judaism — a religion founded by Avraham — says so. During Avraham’s times and much-much-much later, it was OK to sacrifice one’s children to gods according to general rules of morality existing amongst most people. We find accounts of the Nations’ child-sacrifice practices in Torah and Judaism in general (and some of our mitzvos include prohibitions to emulate these nations). Throughout history, we also find stories of mass massacres of children. For instance, inhabitans of the famous Carthage sacrificed their children en masse (and you thought Romans were bad, huh?). When Carthage was besieged by Rome, they sacrificed a lot of children even when they knew they were going to lose — just in case it’d work.

One can hardly apply to Avraham standards of morality which appeared much after his time and were created by his own religion! It would as if I, as a surgeon, invented a certain procedure at the age of 50 and then would be blamed for not using it at the age of 30. Only until after it became clear that G-d does not want Yitzchok sacrificed has it become possible to even suggest that perhaps G-d does not want children sacrificed. Furthermore, as a moral message for masses it only appeared as a part of Torah given to Moses many generations later.

2. The more important thing that we are overlooking here is that this was asked by G-d. Yes, the same G-d that created the Heaven and Earth, the same G-d the gave Yitzchok to Avraham (in a miraculos way), the same G-d whose Essence penetrates all existence, aside of whom there is no reality. All laws of logic, morality, all emotions stand aside from the word of G-d. I am not sure how to say it any clearer that whatever G-d says is an absolute law, because there is nothing besides Him. Therefore, when Avraham was able to see past his own emotions and logic and recognize the Uniqueness and Oneness of G-d, he is indeed to be praised — especially regarding how hard our reason must calm our emotions in order to comperehend this.

3. I hardly think this can be compared to Muslim terrorists. First, because you do not compare light to darkness, life to death, and something clean to something filthy. In other words, lehavdil. Second, because what they are doing is not sacrifice. They blow themselves up because they have convinced themselves that they will be immediately rewarded for this act by life infinitely better than the one they are leading right now. What separates them from those not yet ready to commit a suicide is that they convinced themselves much better, while others still have some doubt or did not overcome the regular animalistic fear. When you trade X for Y, and Y is much better than X, you are not sacrificing X, you are making a reasonable exchange.

What about atheists who blow themselves up for an ideology? Aren’t they trully giving up their life for some higher (in their opinion) cause? No. They are giving their biological existence for something that in their mind replaced their life. Their life is their ideology, not what we call life. Therefore, they are not sacrificing something. A sacrifice can be only of something you really value, losing which is a real tragedy for you. Then it is a sacrifice.

What Avraham was sacrificing was infinitely valuable for him. Yitzchok was not only his son, given to him by G-d miraculously, but also his future, his cause, his whole life, his only promise that his life would not be a mere existence, but a life, with a reason and a purpose, having its effect in infinity. That was taken away from him for no reason, with no promise of receiving something back, by G-d whom Avraham knew as merciful (as we find out at the beginning of the parshah, Avraham argued that merciful G-d cannot kill inhabitants of Sodom if there was only one righteous person amongst them). Furthermore, it was absolutely against Avraham’s character, because his nature was that of love and kindness.

And he was ready to do it, because he recognized who G-d is: that G-d is beyond any definition, and our realization of G-d’s boundless and limitless Essence must be above any definition we have of G-d, of this world, and of our lives.

4. Should somebody today follow in Avraham’s footsteps? No, because G-d Himself promised He would not violate His Law, the Torah, and in Torah it is forbidden to sacrifice children. Just like G-d is unlikely to call pig kosher or square a triangle, He will never call child sacrifice permitted. What a lot of people overlook, furthermore, is that G-d never permitted child sacrifice in human history. He simply asked Avraham to be ready to sacrifice his child (and act Avraham would have not indication to be immoral), and then did not permit it happening!

So, if you believe G-d is speaking to you and telling you to sacrifice your child, see a good psychiatrist. And get yourself commited before it’s too late. How did Avraham know he was not having a delusion? Just like you know that the world around yourself is real — to Avraham (and Moses), G-d’s revelation was at least as real as the world around himself, and probably more, and G-d made sure that there absolutely no doubt (if something miraculous happens in front of me right now, I will first question my own sanity; Avraham knew that was his revelation was real). At the same time, he, as all prophets, had proof of absolute clarity of his mind, full logical capacity and so on.

Finally, we must all draw a lesson from Avraham’s conduct: ability to realize with absolute clarity who G-d is. When you’re thinking of breaking Torah (either a Biblical commandment, a Rabbinic commandment, doing something not in spirit of Torah, or even just taking a more lenient path because it is easier), G-d forbid, for some physical or mental pleasure, think about the realization of who G-d is that allowed Avraham to be ready to sacrifice his own son. G-d does not and will not ask us to sacrifice our children for Him. He does ask as to sacrifice ourselves — our love of this physical world and its pleasures — by keeping Torah and realizing that there is nothing besides Him. Literally. Mamosh.

(Oh yeah, the last thing: Yitzchok was not a child. He was in his 30’s and went willingly, knowing what’s going on.)

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