Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Akeidah in a time of war...

He Qui is a Chinese artist who paints images from the Hebrew bible and New Testament. While the great majority of paintings of the Akeidah are disturbing and dark, his take on this subject offers and hope and light.

Every year for the past 2,000 years or so, Jews on Rosh Hashanah read the Akeda in Genesis, which tells the story of how God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. This is a terrifying tale but sadly so relevant in our world today.

“Al tishlach yadcha al hanahar … lay not thine hand against the boy!” This is the climax of the story. It is also the universal cry of every parent whose child is sent off to war.

In the Torah, Abraham does not ultimately sacrifice his child. In real life, not every Isaac comes home. And even when they do survive, when the knife is held back at the last minute, there is no guarantee that those who go to war and return can ever truly feel at home again.

We are at war. Almost every day someone’s son, someone’s Isaac, is killed in a myriad of different but equally effective ways. And there is no end in sight. When will it end? What will be the ultimate price? Until recently, the war in Iraq was like the great white elephant in the room that no one was talking about. Now, thanks in large part to Cindy Sheehan, we are slowly waking up to the fact that we are at war. It is real.

It is interesting to me that it takes the tears, indignation and determination of a bereaved mother to catch our attention. In the Akeda, the voice of Sarah, Isaac’s mother, is silent. The Torah does not tell us her side. The Midrash teaches that Abraham left early in the morning to avoid Sarah, and that he lied to her about what he was doing. Abraham, in his zealotry, might sacrifice their child, but not Sarah!

How can Abraham be so silent when God demands the innocent life of his own son? Where is his voice? Every time I read this tale I want to scream: “Speak! Say something!”

In our contemporary world, where is our voice? Are we struck dumb like Abraham, lulled into complacency by our own distance from the Middle East? Is Iraq too far away or are we too caught up in the good life of the Bay Area to give a damn? How many Isaacs will have to be sacrificed before our voices will be heard?

I am not a pacifist, at least not yet. I recognize that there are times when war is necessary. Nevertheless, I adhere in the long chain of Jewish tradition that views war as the last resort, to be avoided except as a means of defense. Silence in any war is not justified. At every turn, we must ask the question: Is this necessary? And when the answer is “No, there is another way,” let us not be silent.

Rather, let us say: “Al tishlach yadcha al hanahar … Don’t raise your hand against the boy!”

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is here. We take this time to do an accounting of the soul. This is the time for reflection, introspection and reorientation. As we enter the New Year, may we remember the Akeda, the near-sacrifice of Isaac, and resolve to break the cycle, and shout with one voice — “al tishlach yadcha al hanahar … lay not thine hand against the boy!”

Not Isaac, not anyone, not now and not in the year ahead. (From Rabbi George Gittelman)

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