Holding Up Heaven (In Memory of Nahshon Waxman)

Vayera By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Oct 22, 1994 / 5755 | Torah Commentary

We turn to this week’s Parasha numbed by the brutal kidnapping and murder of Corporal Nahshon Waxman just outside of Jerusalem, two miles from his home. Terrorism again shocks us with its power to outrage, disrupt and paralyze civilized society. The weapon of the savage few to force their will on the decent majority, terrorism reminds us of just how easy it is to wreak havoc on modern urban life. In contrast to Abraham’s inquiry about the minimum number of good people necessary to save Sodom, we find ourselves asking how few terrorists does it take to bring a modern city or country to its knees?

Sodom was a city governed by terrorists who defined morality in terms of lust. The flood had failed to eradicate decadence. In Sodom strangers were still loathed as less than human, objects to be feared and violated. Its citizens, young and old, demand of Lot that he turn over his two male guests to be “sodomized.” They show not the slightest interest in the virgin daughters that Lot, in desperation, offers in their stead. Clearly there is no saving remnant in this society with a capacity to redeem it.

With exquisite literary skill, the Torah precedes this violent vignette with a glimpse of an alternative moral code. Abraham presses God to reconsider the fate of Sodom on the basis of God’s own sense of justice. “Far be it from You… to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike (Genesis 18:25).” What is so striking about this dialogue is that Abraham pleads for the welfare of a city in which he has never lived and whose inhabitants he doesn’t know, in other words, for strangers. Despite the lack of personal contact, Abraham feels a sense of kinship because of a shared humanity. The tale bears the seeds of a universal ethic that Abraham’s children will carry into the world. “For I have singled him out (says God of Abraham just prior to this dialogue), that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right (Genesis 18:19).” A divine-human partnership was forged for the education of humankind that Jews renew each morning when they don their tefillin, and at the heart of which are the values of righteousness and justice and goodness and mercy, grounded in a steadfast love of God (Hosea 2:21- 22).

Jews were destined to be a distinctive minority, the embodiment of a lofty world view and high moral standard. It was not to be an enviable historical role. Teaching is always a beleaguered labor, even at times life-threatening, as evidenced by the fate of Socrates and some of Israel’s prophets. This mission, to my mind, has always been the key to the akedah, the gloriously enigmatic and harrowing story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac.

Children are never born with a clean slate. The life choices of their parents set the parameters in which their own fate will unfold. Nahshon Waxman’s mother chose to make aliyah some five years before he was born. Sometimes our children pay the price of our idealism, just as they may garner its blessings.

The lesson that God sought to impart to Abraham at Mt. Moriah is that his children, as the bearers of a demanding new faith, would often be at risk. The story starts with the identical command oflekh-lekha, “Go to the land of Moriah… (Genesis 22:2),” that first launched Abraham on his religious journey, “God forth from your native land… (Genesis 12:1), as if God intended only now to reveal to Abraham the full consequence of his choice to heed God’s call. There was nothing idle about the order to sacrifice his son. History would make that inhuman demand of his descendants many times. Were you, Abraham, ready to expose your children to such a fate? Indeed, would Isaac agree to bear it? Graphically, God’s design is to have Abraham knowingly assume responsibility for what may befall his progeny. This time the grisly deed is not called for, but Abraham has shown the depth of his conviction and defiantly calls the place of his testing, “God will see (Genesis 22:124),” that is, the future shall confirm my declaration of faith.

And so it has, right down to Nahshon Waxman. The afterlife of the akedah reverberates through much of Jewish history. Sons and daughters died for the persecuted faith of their ancestors. Among Ashkenazic Jews during and after the First Crusade in 1096, the akedah became a compelling paradigm for how to respond to the prospect of forced conversion. Many parents on the verge of falling into the hands of frenzied Crusaders consciously reenacted Abraham’s unfinished sacrifice by killing their children and then themselves. The liturgical poems of the synagogue from that dark period not only preserved the record of their martyrdom to prepare future generations, but turned the akedah into a gentle protest against God. I quote from a piyyut whose author is unknown, which vivifies the mass suicide of the Jews of Mainz on May 27, 1096.

Oh, how the children cried aloud! Trembling, they see their brothers slaughtered; the mother binding her son, lest he profane the sacrifice by shuddering (and incur a blemish which would disqualify the sacrifice); the father making the ritual blessing to sanctify the slaughter.’
Compassionate women strangle their own children; pure virgins shriek bitterly; brides kiss their bridegrooms farewell— and all rush eagerly to be slaughtered.
Almighty Lord, dwelling on high, In days of old the angels cried out to You to put a halt to one sacrifice. And now so many are bound and slaughtered – why do they not clamour over my infants? (T. Carmi, The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, 373)

When Reb Yaakov Arye of Rodzhimin once visited the Kotzker Rebbe, a saintly recluse oppressed by the evil in the world, his host asked him, “For what reason was man put on this earth?” Reb Yankel answered that “man was created to repair his soul.” “No,” the Kotzker shouted back in disapproval. “Man was put on this earth to hold up heaven!”

This was to be Abraham’s task, to mobilize humanity to help God keep the heavens aloft, for which his children would often be loathed and abused. The akedah foreshadows the human cost of the covenant, the dark side of Jewish history.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va’yera are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.