Torah from Around the World #37

By: Rabbi Rich Kirschen, Director,

Anita Saltz International Education Center


World Union for Progressive Judaism

Recent Issues

“The Best Lack All Conviction, While the Worst are Full of Passionate Intensity”

So this is the parsha that we think about every Rosh Hashanah, the one that they drilled into our heads in rabbinical school, that paradox of paradoxes; yes I am talking about the


– the binding of Isaac. Mind you this is not the “sacrifice of Isaac” otherwise we would have a very different religion. But let’s face it, this story tells us a lot of about the first Jew – Abraham, and maybe it tells us a lot about Jews today. As we know, on one hand Abraham is filled with righteous indignation and ready to argue with God, just as God was getting ready to destroy Sodom & Gomorrah. And yet on the other hand Abraham did not offer the slightest word of protest but submitted immediately when God asked him to offer up his only son up as a sacrifice. There is a very powerful message in this week’s Torah portion regarding the potential danger we pose to those around us as we move ahead on our religious journeys.

The tension is built into the text of the Torah that narrates the slow three day walk of Abraham and Isaac as they make their way to the mountain. Painfully we are forced to hear Isaac’s question to his father Abraham, “Here is the wood and the knife, but where is the ram for the sacrifice my father ?” And of course Abraham says, “God will provide the ram, my son.” Hello…? What was our forefather thinking?

Well, a few observations about this parsha: Even if Abraham meant well or only had the best intentions when going about his religious quest, as Freud would say…”the man had issues.”  The beginning of this Torah portion gives us an idea of who we are dealing with when we read that Abraham had just circumcised himself at the age of 90 (I don’t even want to know what Freud would say here…).  Our forefather was a man of conviction, a leader who thrived on constant change and rebellion, if not trauma. As we know from the


, Abraham smashed all the idols in his father’s idol shop, he made a rebellion figuratively and literally. He left the land of his birth in anger (no, he did not detach with love) and moved to a new country far away. And yet once he got to the land of Israel, he did something very common to all new immigrants who arrive in Israel… he left! After many years living in Israel I have learned that there is a difference between Aliyah – that leap of action when one moves to Israel and Ali…oops – moving to Israel and then leaving as soon as you get here. Apparently our forefather who left for Egypt the second he arrived in Israel was not one of the most stable people in the ancient world.

After not being able to conceive a child with Sarah, an heir to his spiritual revolution, he decided to conceive a son with Hagar, Sara’s handmaid. Is this a man who was there for his wife? Then he sent Hagar and his son Ishmael to die out in the desert …is this a man who was there for his household? If all of this wasn’t enough, Abraham now takes Isaac, his son, whom he loves most, to offer him up as a sacrifice to God. What kind of role model is this for us?

Abraham was a man who possessed religious zeal if not existential


. He could not keep still and even when he was settled in a geographic sense he kept pushing the family further and further according to his understanding of God. It is during Abraham’s religious journey where we see that he was willing to hurt if not come close to killing every one around him. Just think of what he does to his father Terach, his maidservant Hagar, his wife Sarah, his son Ishmael and finally his son Isaac.

Indeed there is a certain power in the religious quest. It took Abraham across rivers until he got to the other side of the Mideast. It allowed him to make major breakthroughs with an understanding of God and the meaning of his life. But along with the rush of the religious mission and occasional epiphanies there came a very high price. Look at the end of the text… when Abraham comes down the mountain he comes down alone without Isaac and the two of them never speak again.

For some people religious journeys are powerful, and for the manic at heart, they are incredibly seductive if not a form of spiritual rocket fuel. However it is very important to make sure that “one’s own spiritual journey” does not turn into “one’s own ego trip.” Was Abraham so intent on finding out what God/Hashem wanted from him that he didn’t care who got in his way and/or who got destroyed? Unfortunately Abraham’s religious journey was a bit of a train wreck for his own family. By going ahead with the


– by binding his son for a sacrifice – Abraham succeeded in making his point that he was obedient to God… but again at what price? What was the damage to all those around him?

It is not easy to read about how our forefather Abraham ran around ancient Jerusalem and tried desperately to understand what God wanted from him, while simultaneously causing such suffering to his family. Ironically we are in a similar situation today. Right now there are other Jews running around Jerusalem (read: right wing settlers who are only 4% of the country) who are claiming that they are carrying out “Hashem’s will” and like all zealots they are causing incredible suffering to the whole house of Israel.

As I go about my day to day business living in Jerusalem I cannot escape the words of the poem by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) “The Second Coming.” Specifically the lines:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

The best lack all conviction,

while the worst are full of passionate intensity


These days we Israelis may not be bound; but we are passive like Isaac. And whether we like it or not it looks as though we do lack conviction. Meanwhile the people who want to destroy the peace process are indeed filled with passionate intensity. Today I am writing this on the anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. This is not an easy day. And I wonder if it is going to take the State of Israel all the way until the moment when the knife is dangling over our head before we realize we are not willing  to sacrifice this country on the alter of those who claim they hear the voice of “Hashem”.

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