Sanctity and Sacrifice: Binding Isaac on the Zionist Altar

"The Binding of Isaac" by Israeli painter Roni Pinto, 2008.

by David Breakstone

‘After these things it came to pass that God tested Abraham and said to him, ‘Abraham.’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ And He said, ‘Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a sacrifice.’”

A few days after these verses were recited in synagogues around the world, I had the humbling honor of addressing the annual gathering of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel held in memory of those North Americans who fell in service of this country and those who were victims of terror. The bearing of the biblical episode on the occasion was inescapable, and as a further tribute to those for whom there was no angel to intervene, I share here the thoughts I shared there with those who assembled.

The binding of Isaac is a curious choice of narratives with which to welcome a new year. This is the moment at which we symbolically crown God as our king and declare our loyalty to his dominion. Why proclaim fidelity to a monarch that would require such an act? Perhaps it becomes possible to comprehend as the narrative unfolds, but as it is developing? How are we to understand Abraham’s obedience? He who bargained for the lives of imperfect strangers was ready to forsake his son without so much as a word of protest, to devote himself to a God who would demand a deed so indecent? What parent could conceivably carry out such a command?

And yet, here we are – with far too many of those who gathered already having been called upon to echo Abraham’s simple pronouncement: Here I am.

It is not belief in God that I am pondering, but the ethos of our tradition. How many times have I asked myself how it is possible that a father could bind his son to the altar of his convictions, how a mother could acquiesce to such a deed by her silence, for Sarah’s voice is never heard.

And yet, here we are.

Here we are, having followed in the footsteps of our forefather – knowingly, willingly, even eagerly heeding that inner voice instructing us to go forth. Surely it was not the thought of sacrifice that enticed us hither, but rather the promise of being present at the unfolding of biblical prophecy, when indeed we would become that great nation through which the families of the earth would be blessed. But is there any denying that on some level we were also well aware that by partaking in this historical drama, we were placing ourselves and our children – often as yet unborn – in harm’s way? Did we not bind them to the altar of our dreams?

Yes, here we are. Fixed forever in this existential moment as was Abraham, for it was not once that he was told to go forth, but twice: the first time, away from his father’s house, from everything that was familiar to him, severing himself from his past. The second time, to a foreign land, there to sacrifice his son, cutting himself off from the promise of his future. At such a moment, it is far easier to identify with another voice that cries out to us from the Rosh Hashana service: “A voice heard in Ramah, wailing, bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted… for they are not.”

The assent of Abraham. The silence of Sarah. The refusal of Rachel. Is there not a bit of each of them in each of us? And perhaps also something of Isaac. “The two of them walked together,” it is written, parent and child being of one mind, of one purpose. In our own day, it is often the child who walks ahead of the father, proudly waving goodbye to the mother, binding him or herself to the altar of Zion, responding to the echo of that charge to “go forth” that has reverberated within the Jewish soul for nearly 4,000 years, upholding an oath that we have repeated for more than 2,500: If I forget thee O Jerusalem…

Indeed, the account of the binding of Isaac may be baffling, but hardly more so than the heartrending chapters of passage that brought together the many who came to pay homage to those who have died so that the rest of us might live. From such a perspective, the biblical tale might be easier to identify with, but is it any less difficult to digest? And what of its juxtaposition with Rosh Hashana? Is it not strange that on the very day when we pray to be inscribed in the book of life, we are also asked to reconcile ourselves to death?

Strange, but not altogether incomprehensible. The days of awe constitute a season during which we are meant to meditate on the higher meaning of life, when we are to dedicate ourselves to something greater than our own being. And for us, this “thing” that is greater than us is neither abstract nor amorphous but real and defined: a land that we love and a state that we cherish.

And herein lies the connection between life and its forfeit.

No, it is never good to die for one’s country, but after 2,000 years of exile, it is good to have a country worth dying for.

If the deaths of those whose memory we came together to honor are to be imbued with meaning, if their sacrifice is to be sanctified on the Zionist altar, it can only be through the example of how we carry on in their absence. If they were prepared to die for the things they believed in, how much more so must we be prepared to live for them. No doubt we all have different ideas as to the shape that this country of ours should ultimately take, but just as certainly, we all believe it must become something other than what it is. Together with the pride we surely feel in all that has been accomplished by those who have come before us, we also recognize that there yet remains a great deal to do, and need dedicate our lives to achieving that, so that even those who would come to curse us will instead feel compelled to sing our praises: “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwelling places, O Israel.”

In the meantime, I will not be so presumptuous as to offer words of consolation. I will only pay my respects and offer my appreciation for the sacrifice that has been made, while adding my hope that the mourners, along with their grief, will also allow themselves to feel something of the honor of which another Abraham spoke in addressing the survivors of Civil War casualties: “the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.” For while Rachel refused to be comforted, the prophecy prompted by her tears has been fulfilled: “Restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes from shedding tears; for there is hope for your future, declares the Lord: Your children shall return unto their borders.”

I pray that those whose grieving can never end might nonetheless find a modicum of comfort in knowing that it is their endless nightmare that allows the rest of us to keep dreaming. May they peer through the darkness and awaken to the sounding of the shofar, as for those whose sacrifice we acknowledge, there is in each blast another voice:

Tekia the solemn, firm declaration: Here I am. Shevarim – the wailing of a broken heart for the loved one surrendered, refusing to be comforted. Terua – the stringing together of the shards that remain and the small, tentative steps taken to regain some semblance of normalcy. Tekia gedola – the emphatic reaffirmation that still, here I am.

May their memory be for a blessing.

David Breakstone is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive; the opinions expressed are his own. Published courtesy of the author.