This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Vayeira (5760)
This week let us try to understand the 'Akaida (tying up) of Yitzchak', which could possibly be the most important, and yet the strangest single occurrence in the entire Torah.
Imagine yourself taking a long hike in the woods. You've been peacefully walking for several hours when suddenly you notice through the trees in the distance a horrifying sight: what seems to be a man tying up his son on what looks like… an altar with a small fire burning nearby! You can't believe your eyes!
Shaking all over, you take out your cellular phone, call the police and begin shouting and making noise to interrupt the ritual. The police arrive faster than you thought possible, get out of their car and begin approaching the man while announcing through their megaphones "Put down the knife and let the boy loose, and nothing will happen to you". He complies, and minutes later he is sitting on the altar calmly explaining "G-d spoke to me three days ago and told me to sacrifice him. Well, we been on the road since then waiting for the sign… and finally it came"
If this man were your relative would you be proud of him? Would you try to emulate him?
Why, then, is the Akaida at the foundation of the Jewish religion? It is in printed at the beginning of every prayer book to inspire us every morning before we pray. Why? What is it supposed to make us think?
I want to answer this with another story.
Once there was a King who loved to hunt wild boar on horseback. One cold winter afternoon after an unsuccessful day of hunting one of his entourage spotted a large boar. The king set off to the chase. Several times he almost caught his game but after over an hour he suddenly realized that he had become separated from his company and that it was getting dark. The king turned his royal coat inside out so no one would know him, for he feared his enemies, and in pitch darkness he began wandering aimlessly in the freezing, snow-covered forest.
After several hours he was becoming frightened. The wolf's howls were nearer and the biting wind had already numbed his hands and feet. Suddenly he saw a small hut with light shining from the window. He quietly approached on horseback and looked in the window. There he saw an old Jew, obviously a woodcutter, sitting by the stove reading a book while his wife was lying fast asleep in her bed. The king, numb and shivering from the cold alighted from his horse, walked around to the door and knocked. The woodcutter cautiously opened up and said, " If you are a robber I have nothing to steal, but please come in you must be freezing!"
He sat his guest by the stove pulled over the table, gave him a drink of vodka, a hot meal, and finally a warm place to sleep. Late next morning the king woke up. He thanked the Jew for saving his life and, with difficulty, succeeded in forcing him to accept a gold coin before mounting his horse and returning to his palace.
The next day the old Jew heard a knock on his door. He opened up and was shocked! There stood one of the king's royal guards in full uniform and behind him a royal coach escorted by twenty soldiers on horseback "Our orders are to bring you to the kings palace" said the guard, "Please put on your best garments, the king wants to speak to you".
Two hours later the astonished woodcutter found himself standing before the king (who he, of course, did not recognize) seated on his throne in his immense palatial hall surrounded by royal pomp and glory. "Zalman" said the king to the bewildered old Jew, "I have been watching you. My spies have singled you out as one of the most honest and pure men in the kingdom.
I want you to be one of my advisors. Your hours will be from one to two in the afternoon every day with a free house on the palace grounds, all the servants you need and special privileges for all your family forever. Your wages are 1000 dollars a day beginning today. But, one small detail, you will have to change your religion, I'll not have a Jew on my royal court. That is all. Congratulations!" He said with a smile. "Your majesty" answered Abraham bashfully, "I am truly grateful for your kindness and praise, but please forgive me but I cannot accept your offer. Please understand that I am a Jew, I was born a Jew and will die a Jew and I cannot change who I am, I am sorry, I cannot accept your offer" Suddenly the palace became silent. The royal musicians sensed something was wrong and they stopped playing, all eyes were on the king.
Slowly his smile faded and his eyes narrowed in hatred. He leaned forward on his throne and screamed "What do think, that I am one of your friends that you can say yes or no!!! I am your king!! You are NOTHING! Either you take my offer and receive everlasting comfort for you and your family, or…" At this point the king clapped his hands three times. A gasp went up from the crowd as three immense executioners dressed totally in black with black hoods over their heads appeared as if from nowhere and grabbed poor Zalman. One forced him down onto the floor onto his knees . The other, carrying a large chopping block, set it before him,. grabbed poor Zalman by the hair and stretched his neck over the block. Finally the third raised a huge glistening sword and poised it in the air, ready to chop the poor Jew's head off.
"Perhaps now, you want to retract your words?" hissed the angry king. Avraham stared up at the king... and suddenly, as though transformed into a completely different being, he closed his eyes and proudly shouted: "SHMA YISROEL HASHEM ELOKENU HASHEM ECAUUUD! The next thing he heard was the king clapping his hands three times and then saying "Zalman, please stand up, please stand up my friend." He opened first one eye and then the other and he felt the strong hands of one of the executioners helping him to his feet. "Zalman, do you recognize me?" Said the king as he removed his royal cape and his crown. The crowd again gasped in amazement; His Majesty removed his crown!!! "Why… you were the wanderer that came to my house the day before! Why are you doing this to me, what is happening?" Asked the bewildered Zalman.
"Let me explain" Answered the king, "Zalman, you saved my life, if it wasn't for you I would have frozen to death last night. I wanted to reward you, but I didn't know how. I saw that you didn't want money and were happy living your modest life, and then I remembered something. When I was a young child my father, who was then the king, used to encourage me to wander around the palace grounds and see how the simple workers lived. I especially loved to watch the Jewish tailor. His life was completely different than all the others, especially in the way that he treated his children. Every day he would sit and talk with them, teach them Torah and other things and tell them stories. But once he told a story that really impressed me. He told how Abraham, the first Jew, wanted to kill his 37-year-old son for a sacrifice to G-d and how his son Isaac actually happily agreed! Then he explained that what that meant was that Abraham was willfully destroying his past, his present and his future; Everyone would say that both of them were insane, and all of Abraham's accomplishments would be erased in one instant. He would lose his beloved son and it could be that he would even lose his place in heaven for transgressing the universal prohibition of murder! Why did he and his son do it? Because they were happy to serve G-d."
"I remember thinking to myself" the king continued, "these Jews are really strange. Everything we do is for a reward, for ourselves, and these Jews are thinking of giving everything to G-d without receiving anything back, that is really unusual!"
"So," concluded the king, "I decided that the greatest reward that I could give you was to allow you to sacrifice your life to your G-d, but I also know how much you love life and I couldn't bear to see you killed, so I arranged this whole scene"
This, then, answers our questions. The Akaida is the essence of Judaism because Judaism is only one thing; serving The Creator, and loving Him with all our being. Abraham knew the voice of HaShem when he heard it, he had purified himself and devoted all his life to searching for and embodying the truth. But today we have the word and will of G-d in the Torah, so our man in the woods was only fooling himself.
This was the essence of Abrahams life and the inheritance that he gave to all the Jewish people, 'm'sirus nefesh' self sacrifice to carry out the Creator's plan, namely to make this world perfect with the coming of.....
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