Min ha-Meitzar #2

Rabbi Aviva Richman

From the Narrow Place

In the 18th centurym a woman named Sara bas Tovim wrote a Yiddish prayer that turns the Akeidah (binding of Isaac) into a stance of protest:

And through the merit which I gain by preparing the wick for the sake of our foremother Sarah, may hashem yisborekh – praised by He – remember us for the merit of her pain when her beloved son Yitshok was led to the binding.   May she defend us before God – praised be He – that we should not – khas vesholem – be left widows this year, and that our children should not – khas vesholem – be taken away from this world in our lifetime

You have commanded us to blow the shoyfer on rosheshone using the horn of a ram, a reminder of the binding of yitskhok.  Remember this merit so that we may be able to provide for our children’s needs, that we may be able to keep them under the guidance of a teacher, so that they may become accustomed to Your service and respond, “Omeyn.  Yehey shmey rabo.´ May the merit of my mitsve of candles be accepted as equivalent to the flame which the koyen gadol lit in the beys hamikdesh, so that it may illuminate the eyes of our children in the study of the holy toyre.

Two years ago, in a weekly Dvar Torah, I reflected on this tkhine and Sara bas Tovim’s embrace of Sarah instead of Avraham in the story of the Akeidah.  I wrote:

When we embrace Sarah as a religious role model, Akeidat Yitzhak offers a starkly different set of guiding principles for our relationship with God.  The God we pray to is not the God who demands we give up our children, but the God who never wants parents and children separated.  We come close to God through a web of deep commitments to loved ones, not by virtue of our willingness to sever these ties.  The way we demonstrate our religious devotion most fully is not by sacrificing those most dear to us, but through the day in and day out work of tending to their physical and spiritual needs.

In the wake of the Akeidah, Sara bas Tovim prays: Never Again.  May we never experience the loss Sarah felt at the prospect of her child being killed.  In our current moment, we have witnessed shocking forms of terror, intentionally and horrifically severing ties between loved ones.  As we relive our ancestor Sarah’s trauma of the Akeidah, we can scream out Sara bas Tovim’s prayer: “May our children never be taken in our lifetimes!”  

But the crisis in which we find ourselves also brings to the fore a more traditional prayer borne out of the Akeidah.  It is a paradoxical prayer, found in Rosh Hashanah Musaf:

ותראה לפניך עקדה שעקד אברהם את יצחק בנו על גבי המזבח וכבש רחמיו לעשות רצונך בלבב שלם, כן יכבשו רחמיך את כעסך מעלינו...  ועקדת יצחק לזרעו היום ברחמים תזכור.  ברוך אתה ה' זוכר הברית.
May the binding that Avraham bound Yitzhak his son on the altar and subdued his mercy to do your will with a full heart—be pleasing to you.  So may your compassion overcome your anger against us… and remember with compassion the binding of Yitzhak for his descendants today… Blessed are You God who remembers the covenant.

Here, we pray for the merit of Avraham’s ability to “overcome” his compassion, so that God will allow divine compassion to overcome divine anger.  We laud Avraham’s willingness to overcome his compassion for a split second, because that would pave the way for a future defined by compassion.  

Right now, the paradox of this traditional prayer rings loud and clear.  In many ways, the closest event in our modern lives to the Akeidah is the reality of people willing to sacrifice themselves and their children to fight a just war.  As Am Yisrael, we prize compassion and we pray to a God of compassion—א-ל רחום וחנון.  How can a situation that demands holding back compassion ultimately yield greater compassion?  How can we fight a war—knowing lives will be lost—and at the same time hold up compassion as our defining trait?  

This prayerful rendition of the Akeidah teaches that sometimes exercising narrow compassion will not create a world where compassion abounds.  Instead, there is a need to see beyond a narrow definition of compassion so as to unlock the much more abiding divine compassion.

At this moment, I am praying for a complex compassion that leads to the world in which God’s compassion is wholly manifest.  On the one hand, I am sobered by the fact that this can entail the necessity to overcome shortsighted compassion and to accept real losses.  At the same time, I feel accountable to Sara bas Tovim’s insistence that we should never become numb to the pain of people separated from their loved ones that necessarily ensues when we “overcome” our compassion.  We have to scream out her prayer even in the midst of following through in a moment that calls for sacrifice.

I hope that our fear, trauma, anger, and pain will ultimately fuel our fortitude to transform the fire of the Akeidah into the “illuminating glow” of nourishing the next generation, physically and spiritually, as Sara bas Tovim demands.  I pray that the ethics of sacrifice ultimately give way to an ethics of compassion.  As our traditional prayer articulates, this is the only reason for an ethics of sacrifice in the first place.