November 16, 2018

Walk with me: The Akeidah as a call to communal support

Today we cry out to Hashem as individuals who have strayed and sinned. We pour out our hearts, pains, and petitions before God asking for life. We know from the Gemara in Masechet Rosh HaShanah 18a that today we pass before God as “בני מרון”, as sheep being counted one by one by our Shepherd. But as we do this incredibly personal work with God, do we also need to pay attention to what’s going on inside the souls of the people sitting in the seats next to us? Are we supposed to take this journey together?

Our Rosh HaShanah leyning of Akeidat Yitzchak sheds light on this very question. As we just read, God tests Avraham’s faith by asking him to sacrifice his only, most beloved son, Yitzchak. In the midst of this dramatic story, a striking, but small detail arises. As Avraham and Yitzchak journey to Har HaMoriah to fulfill God’s test, we read “וילכו שניהם יחדו”, “the two of them walked together” (Bereshit 22:6). And again, after Yitzchak cries out in fear to his father, “איה השה לעלה”, “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”, we read “וילכו שניהם יחדו”, “the two of them walked together” (Ibid 7-8) . But, after Avraham has been blessed and Yitzchak has been saved, we read not that Avraham and Yitzchak walked together, but that Avraham and his servants walked together, “וילכו יחדו” (Ibid 19).

Why does the text bother to underscore twice this seemingly superfluous point that Avraham and Yitzchak walked together? And how do we make sense of Yitzchak being left out of the return journey?

According to Rashi, the repetition of the phrase “וילכו שניהם יחדו” shows that Avraham and Yitzchak were of one heart and mind in fulfilling God’s test both before Yitzchak understood he would be the sacrifice and afterward. This unity of father and son in service of God is idealized and even described as a form of simcha. Yet it does not resolve, but instead further complicates Yitzchak’s absence at the end of the story.

In his KeMotze Shalal Rav, Rabbi Avraham Yisroel Rosenthal comments on our question, “אם שני אנשים הולכים יחד, ואחד מהם מצטער והשני אינו מצטער”, “If two people are walking together and one of them is filled with sorrow and the other is not, “לא יוכל ההולך בצער ללכת במהירות כמו זה שאינו מצטער, אלא יישאר מֵאָחוֹר מפני צערו”, “then the one who is filled with sorrow will not be able to walk at the pace of the one who is not. Rather, he or she will remain behind because of his or her sorrow” (קלח). From here we uncover an answer to Yitzchak’s absence. Yitzchak did not return with his father and the servants– he could not keep up with their pace–  because he was filled with a heavy sorrow that kept him from joining his family.

This poignant explanation demands that we ask: How did Avraham not slow down? Why did he not recognize his most beloved son’s sorrow? How did they go from being so unified in their ascent of the mountain to being so disconnected upon descent? I believe that the answer is two-sided: Avraham, who was elated with blessings, internalized what we will soon describe in Musaf as “וְכָבַשׁ רחמיו לעשות רצונְךָ בּלבב שלם”, the suppression of his compassion in order to do God’s will completely. In the fervor of his religious passion, Avraham was unable to see his son’s sadness. Yitzchak, at the same time, did not allow his father to see his pain, vulnerability, and brokenness because he felt that the Akeidah, which had brought him closer to God, had ultimately distanced him from his father. Yitzchak is strikingly silent for the rest of the story, perhaps afraid to be vulnerable or filled with sorrow from feeling distant. Woefully, the Torah does not record another interaction between Avraham and Yitzchak.

Each of us can imagine a time when we were like Avraham, immersed in our passions or blessings and missing the silent suffering of another. I think about the times that I myself have walked past the homeless individuals sitting on Pico. Or the times when I have been so focused on my davening that I did not notice a friend struggling to find the right page in the siddur. Blindness to sorrow or struggle is often justified with obliviousness, inconvenience, and discomfort.

And probably many of us have felt like Yitzchak, distant or in pain but deciding not to share our struggle, whether out of fear, the desire to not appear vulnerable, or a propensity toward perfectionism. The fear of being judged by others for our imperfections and limitations can be crippling and isolating. I personally resonate with this struggle and believe that each of us can imagine a moment when we trembled at the idea of being vulnerable before others. It is hard to engage with the flaws in ourselves and in our relationships with each other. And yet in avoiding doing so, we are more likely to walk behind, מאחור, unable to keep up with our own pace.

Yes, we are each engaged in a personal process before God. But we davka do it sitting next to other people, because part of our personal process on this day is about learning how to walk together with others. On Rosh HaShanah, the day we focus so intensely on our relationship with God, we read this story– the story of a father and a son who lose their intimate, unified relationship because of their inability to be hurt, broken, and filled with sorrow together. It is a remarkable triumph of faith and a tragedy of human fear and disconnection. The lesson rings clear: Chas Vechalilah our avodat Hashem, our service of God today, know the same end. On the contrary, our prayers should encourage us to share our vulnerabilities and sorrows with those we are close to, and to train ourselves to better recognize the sorrows of the people in our lives.

And on a more sweeping scale, as we lift our heads and look beyond this room to the “בני מרון” all over the globe, we must be wary of what Pope Francis recently described as “the deafness of selfishness and the silence of retreating into ourselves”. We see this need to support and connect rather than retreat occurring at this very moment on a global scale with the displaced refugees in Europe, as we are called to act with what Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks deems “humanitarian gestures [that] light a flame of hope”. Imperfect people can still perfect the world.

This Rosh HaShanah, as we stand together before God with His “בני מרון”, our fellow sheep, may we live out the lessons of Avraham and Yitzchak. We plead to God, “וְתֵרָאֶה לפניך עקדה”, “See before You the image of the binding of Yitzchak”, for the story of the Akeidah is our reminder of “ה’ יֵרָאֶה”, God’s promise to see, remember, and save us in our struggles. It is also an impetus for us to see, share, and respond to each other’s struggles. May we genuinely offer the sacrifices of our souls, with all of the attached fear and sorrow. In the coming days as we beat open our hearts with “אשמנו”, may we be willing to be imperfect and vulnerable– both in front of God and each other. This is a journey we take together with those sitting in the seats next to us. Let us merit to be written in the Book of Life for a year filled with simcha, empathy, and the gift of walking together, יחדו.