Min ha-Meitzar #2
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:
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:
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:
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.