The story of the Akidah – the binding of Isaac – that we read today, affirms the covenant between Abraham and God. It is not a comfortable story but it is an important one. It reminds us of the fragility and sometimes absurdity of life. An overarching theme throughout the high holy days is that we may be sealed this week in a Book of Life or a Book of Death, and we won’t know which one. We recite on Yom Kippur the Unetaneh Tokef prayer that asks, who will live and who will die, who by fire and who by water. On Rosh Hashanah we remind ourselves and God of the mutual covenant between us and begin a cycle of teshuvah so that we might circumvent harsh judgment. Isaac is given no warning, no time for teshuvah, and honestly hasn’t done anything that seems to warrant needing to do teshuvah. In yesterday’s portion, we read that he is still a small child, and suddenly today he is sentenced to death.
But sometimes life is like that. It is absurd and tragic and fragile. Recently, the news and social media have been flooded with horrifying images of children screaming, crying, or dying. Of parents clinging and pushing. Of people trying to securement in the Book of Life, despite having done nothing to warrant their apparent seal in the Book of Death. In the Torah, God intercedes at the last minute to save Isaac. In life, no one interceded at the last minute to save Aylan Kurdi, the washed ashore little boy whose picture went viral. It feels really hard to see images like that, to read that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his own son, and then to still continue praying to a God that allows or even commands these hardships to occur. To continue to believe in an order to the Universe when something so ridiculously unfair happens.
Abraham does as God commanded. Abraham, the great litigator who was willing to argue against God on behalf of all the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, is not willing to argue with God on behalf of his own son. Perhaps he had faith that God would intercede and not really allow such a thing to happen. Many people believe Abraham knew all along this was just a test. After all, though Abraham was not able to find any righteous people to warrant saving Sodom and Gomorrah, God was willing to listen and give him the opportunity. How could the Judge of all the Earth, who strives for justice, allow such an unjust death?! Others say Abraham did not know he was being tested, and he failed the test. He should have argued with God, he should have protected his son as he did for the strangers of Sodom and Gomorrah. That is why it is an angel who stays his hand at the last minute, rather than God. God is too disappointed to talk to Abraham at that moment. He failed the test.
Perhaps the injustice we see in the world today is again a test, and we are all failing. We fail when we don’t act to correct the injustice. We fail when we turn a blind eye to it. We fail when we are apathetic to oppression or cruel to our neighbors. We fail when we are willing to allow such violence to continue. Maybe Abraham was so horrified by what he heard from God that he went into shock. Maybe he was unable to process what was happening and his body just started acting out of his own sentient control. Maybe we are likewise numbed to what we see on TV or Facebook because it is so horrible we can’t even begin to know how to help.
When Abraham Joshua Heschel tells the story of his learning the story of the Akidah in Hebrew School, he says he cried at the moment that the angel shows up. His teacher asked him why he was crying, since everyone knows that Isaac lives, and he replied, “What if the angel came a second too late?” His teacher said, “An angel cannot come too late.” Rabbi Heschel concludes his story by telling all of us, his readers and spiritual disciples, “An angel cannot be late, but man, made of flesh and blood, may.”
It’s hard to say what is too late. It’s too late for Aylan. It’s too late for a lot of individuals. But it’s not too late for humanity. Yet. I don’t think. Anyway, we’re still here now, so let’s assume it’s not too late. Let’s begin this New Year of teshuvah, tzedakah, and tefillah with putting more tzedek (justice) in tzedakah. Practice radical empathy. Give to humanitarian charities. Reduce, reuse, and recycle. Be the angel interceding on other people’s violence, be the change you wish to see in the world. Reaffirm the covenant with God to follow the mitzvot, which our great rabbi Hillel summarized as “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others.” And may we find 5776 a little bit more peaceful than 5775. Amen.