Tuesday, Jun 25, 2024

The Failed Akeidah: A Guide to Success in Life

Even a casual perusal of Rav Chaim Shmulevitz’s Sichos Mussar reveals that he usually rendered his famed shmuessen on the parsha during the following week. Although we are most accustomed to preparing for the upcoming sedra and offering or listening to insights geared to that portion of the Torah, the great rosh yeshiva of Mir in Yerushalayim did the opposite. He reflected back and retroactively explained what had already been read from the Torah. I do not know why he did this, but I would like to borrow his method for just one week. Although this is generally not a parsha-based column in any case, this week I would like to share part of my seudah shlishis Torah from Parshas Vayeira.

Klal Yisroel has been living from and energized by the Akeidah for millennia and it never grows old. But I thought that this year the sedra had a particularly great to deal to say to us in 5782.

To jump right in, the last of Avrohom Avinu’s nisyonos – the seminal tests he passed for all of us – never actually happened. Let’s compare for a moment. Avrohom was thrown into a boiling fire. That is a fact. He was commanded to abandon his birthplace and family and did so. However, he never did offer Yitzchok as a sacrifice. Both Avrohom and Yitzchok were certainly willing, ready and able to so. But divine intervention stopped the process. Can the Akeidah be said to have occurred? Rashi (Vayikra 26:42), in the name of Chazal, teaches that “his ashes are piled up on the heavenly altar.” But wait. Doesn’t Rashi mean that the ram’s ashes are available to obtain forgiveness and expiation for us? Yitzchok walked home alive and well with his father. Whose ashes are they anyway?

Rav Yonasan David (Kuntrus Sukkos, Maamar 61) offers an extraordinary answer, which can and should also change our lives. He points out that in Shemoneh Esrei, after all our requests of Hashem have been completed, we add one more bakasha in Shema Koleinu: “From before Yourself, our King, turn us not away empty-handed.” This means that it is part of the eternal nature of man that he wishes to feel accomplished. He wants to see some result from his efforts and actions. It is difficult to live with a meaningless or at least apparently fruitless endeavor. Thus, we cry out during every weekday in Shemoneh Esrei, “Please make my actions effective in some way.” This was expressed also by Yaakov Avinu to Lavan as “Had not the G-d of my father…been with me, you surely have now sent me away empty-handed.”

Rav David continues to find a source for this yearning in a Mishnah (Avos 2:1): “All of your actions are recorded in a book.” This means that indeed everything that we do not only leaves an impression, but in fact is recorded for posterity. A halachic analogy may be seen in the fact that witnesses always warn a potential transgressor that his actions will result in a certain punishment. It is imperative that he respond that he is about to perform the forbidden act “knowing that this will be the result.” In order to be considered a purposeful transgressor (b’meizid), he must feel that he has impressed the witnesses with his intention to commit a particular sin with all its ramifications. On the cosmic level, Moshe Rabbeinu adjures the heavens and the earth to bear witness to his warnings and to be prepared to punish accordingly (Rashi, Devorim 32:1).

Rav David returns to the Akeidah. Hashem Himself commands Avrohom to slaughter his son, but it is the angel who tells him to stop. A careful reading of the pesukim reveals that the first time the malach speaks, he says to Avrohom, “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad nor do anything to him, for now I know that you are a G-d-fearing man, since you have not withheld our son, your only one, from Me” (22:12). The second time the words “from me” are left out.” Rav David notes that the second time, the malach also adds “By Myself I swear – the word of Hashem” (22:16). Now we know that the words ne’um Hashem always reflect a higher level of occurrence. Here it means that in the earthly world, Yitzchok was indeed spared and not killed. However, on the celestial level, the deed was fully accomplished and in some fashion, the ashes on the heavenly altar are indeed those of Yitzchok.

The moral, if we may use the term, is that through the offering of the ram, Avrohom and Yitzchok’s intentions were completely fulfilled. The Akeidah, far from a failure, was the ultimate success, for in the place that counts the most, the place of truth and finality, Yitzchok was offered. Perhaps not slaughtered, but certainly offered, and a credit and salvation for Klal Yisroel ever since.

Rav David does not quote the story, but the metaphor and its lesson are well known. A man is thrown into a miserable dark prison, where he is hooked up to a wheel by a chain. In order to be fed and not further tortured, he must turn the heavy wheel for agonizing hours at a time. Although the work is backbreaking, he wonders what machines or end results his labors have achieved. When he is finally released some years later, he is heartbroken to learn that it was an illusion. He had accomplished nothing, for his wheel was merely designed to keep him busy and occupied.

Hashem is nothing like the cruel inquisitors of that poor prisoner. Everything He asks of us and puts us in the position of doing has vast significance. If it is the difficult mitzvos we must exert ourselves to fulfill or the powerful seductions of the Evil Inclination, every moment carries eternal meaning and substance. Life is full of tests, and even when nothing seems to have happened, the other end of the wheel has built worlds, created heavenly mansions, and brought redemption ever closer. If, G-d forbid, one has sinned, the ramifications were equally significant, destroying and wreaking havoc where there could have been accomplishment. But no action or attempted change goes unnoticed or forgotten.

In the realm of child-rearing and chinuch, these words are of seismic proportion. Children often feel helplessly lost, either unnoticed or insignificant. Adults sometimes joke about the quality time they spent in the principal’s office learning about life. But of course at the time it didn’t seem either funny or a useful way to spend the day. People with seemingly boring lives and professions wonder why they should bother getting up in the morning, let alone putting energy into their lackluster day. But if everyone knew that each moment is precious, every day is a test, and every hour has potential, life would be so much more valuable and meaningful.

After two years of Covid with no clear end in sight, we hear more and more stories of lost souls and untreated depression. One response must be Avrohom and Yitzchok’s “failed Akeidah.” Without it, it is hard to imagine how we could function today. With it, we are the stars of the universe, able to try our best and not worry about the results. Indeed, our beautiful education system is not “outcome-based,” but “effort-based.” As a number of our greatest used to say, “Unzers iz tzu tohn, nisht oiftzuton – Our job is to do, not to accomplish.”

So let’s go forward with pride, doing our very best knowing that it can save the world and ourselves as well. It may be last week’s teaching, but it can be tomorrow’s key to joy in life.




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