Friday, November 6, 2009

The Binding of Isaac: A Tribute to our Veterans

This week's Torah portion, Parshat Vayera, includes the haunting text of the Akeidah - the Binding of Isaac.  We Jews have been scratching our head, and wrestling with this text, for as far back as the Torah goes.

For those who don't recall the story - this is the one where God calls out to Abraham and asks (demands, actually) that he offer up his beloved son Isaac as a sacrificial offering to God.  Keep in mind that Abraham is the first Jew, and that the future wellbeing of the Jewish people (total world population of Jews at this point in the story: maybe about 3) most certainly depended on Isaac.

How can we make sense out of a story that is absurd: absurd that Abraham would so willingly sacrifice his son, and absurd (and terrifying) that God would have asked him to do it in the first place?

My ethics (and my identity as a relatively new father) have pushed me in the direction in the last few years of making sense out of this story by critiquing Abraham.  Sometimes biblical characters are anti-role models (i.e. that we read and learn about them so as to do precisely the opposite of what they do!).  It used to be that this was one of those moments for me...where the only way that I could figure out how to authentically deal with the text was by speaking against it, or critiquing it.  (One such critique can be found here, posted by the intellectually provocative humanistic synagogue of Cincinnati.)

This year, though, I'm in a different place.

I was in Canada earlier this week (Toronto to be exact), taking part in the opening portion of the Reform Movement's Biennial convention.  And I was incredibly moved by a phenomenon that I witnessed among the many Canadians that I encountered during the trip: in my hotel, at the convention center, on the streets, and on television. 

You see: practically everyone was walking around with these bizarre red and black felt lapel pins on.  Check out this picture of Prince Charles, currently on an 11 day state visit to Canada.  He's wearing two of them!

I learned that the pins are meant to represent a poppy flower.  Why do Canadians wear the poppy during this time of year?  Turns out: the poppy calls to mind the brave soldiers of World War I (and by extension all subsequent wars) who gave their lives in combat.  (For more on the connection between the flower and the tribute to the troops, see here.)  Canadians honor their soldiers, and their veterans, on November 11th, just like we do.  The only difference is: Canadians wear the poppy.

During this season, patriotic Canadians wear the poppy. 

The amazing thing is: nearly everyone does it.  I was in awe of the phenomenon - primarily (and sadly) because my cynicism made it hard to imagine so many Americans gathering together in solidarity for such a cause.

Contrary to my earlier reading of the Binding of Isaac, the poppy reminds me of the glorified notion of service to our nation - most often in the form of serving in our armed forces - and the sacrifice that so often comes along with it.

Maybe Abraham really should be praised: for being willing to give up the thing that was most precious to him - more precious even than his own life - in the name of a cause (namely: the God he so fervently believed in).

The confluence on this year's calendar of the reading of the Binding of Isaac this Shabbat, and our observance of Veteran's Day this coming week, has got me thinking: what, if anything, are we willing to sacrifice?  What terribly valuable thing (our life, a material object, money, a child - God forbid) would we be willing to put on the line, and potentially give up, in order to defend the cause, belief, or ideology that is at the core of our beings?

Could we ever imagine ending our own lives - like the Jews on Masada did - in order to escape from Roman political and religious tyranny?

Can we ever imagine the sacrifices that former Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin surely understood that he was making - sacrifices of risk - as he turned a decades-long career as a soldier into the lauded role of peacemaker?  Last weekend, Jews around the world marked the 14th anniversary of his passing.  San Diego's commemoration of his death will take place - coincidentally - on Veteran's Day.  Click here for more info.

Do you remember the Elton John song called "Sacrifice" from way back in 1989?  Listen to it here:

The song - actually really really depressing - talks about how it's easier for two former partners to live apart in separate worlds, rather than to live together.  If Elton John teaches us that "it's no sacrifice" to live apart, then that must mean that there is a lot of sacrifice that comes with being in a relationship with others (and the logic applies equally, whether we're talking about relationships between individuals or between countries).  We have to compromise during disagreements.  We have to risk getting hurt.  And most of all, we have to be prepared to sacrifice what we cherish most, for what we believe in.

So...on this Shabbat preceding Veteran's Day, I hope we all take a moment to: 1) not be so hard on Abraham the next time we read the Akeidah; 2) thank a veteran (or current soldier) for their dedicated and inspiring service; and 3) begin asking ourselves: Who am I?  And what am I willing to sacrifice for the things that are centrally important to me?

I'd love to hear your thoughts.  I invite you to publicly post a response on the blog, or you can email me for a more private exchange.

Shabbat Shalom.

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