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Parashat 11/9/11

Parashat Vayera

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

We have spoken of the Akeidah (the “binding” of Isaac and his near sacrifice at the hands of his father, Abraham) before; I would like to consider it this year again from another angle.  There is a concept in Jewish thought called mesirut nefesh, giving up one’s soul.  It has been said that the currency of the World to Come is mesirut nefesh – how much one is willing to put aside one’s agenda, one’s personal desires, in order to do Gd’s Will.  The degree of mesirut nefesh that one displays is a measure of how close one has come to Gd, and since the entire purpose of our creation, and the creation of the universe in which we live is to come close to Gd, the more we are moser nefesh, the more we are fulfilling the entire raison d’être of our existence.


It is clear that Yitzchak displayed mesirut nefesh – he allowed himself to be bound on the altar.  Yitzchak was, according to the traditional chronology, 37 years old, and Avraham 137 years old, at the time of the Akeidah, so clearly had Yitzchak objected, the project would have fallen through!  The commentators point out however, that dying for Gd is a lot easier than living for Gd, and in this sense, the mesirut nefesh demanded of Avraham is much greater than that of Isaac.  When we give up our life in an act of Kiddush Hashem it is over and done with and we move on to our reward.


What Avraham was asked to do was something much more difficult.  Had he gone through with the slaughter of his son, he would have had to spend the rest of his life not only mourning his son, but being unable to carry out the very mission that Gd had given him from even before he left Mesopotamia for Charan, and later for the Land of Israel.  Avraham’s entire life was spent bringing people to the knowledge of one Gd, the Creator of the universe, full of mercy and compassion for all his creatures, and who demands that we treat each other both justly and mercifully.  Now, this Gd allegedly demands that Avraham slaughter his son on His altar!  Were Avraham to have gone through with this act, as he wished to do, his entire life’s work would have crumbled into the proverbial dust.  Why, then, did he do it with nary a peep?


I would like to give an example from my own life that afforded me some insight into this question.  As some of you may know, I am the primary caregiver for a lady who is bedridden with MS.  Since she has no movement in any part of her body below the neck, she relies on me, or people I supervise, to handle all aspects of her personal care.  This requires me to remain in the house virtually 24/7; fortunately my work allows me to work from home, but going out of town further than an hour or two is impossible, as is moving somewhere I might prefer to live (Israel).  She expressed at one point her gratitude that I had “given up my life” for her.  That kind of caught me by surprise, because I actually have no feeling of having given up anything; as I told her at the time, I’m living my life exactly how I would want to live it – with her.  So what she saw as mesirut nefesh (albeit on a much, much lower level than was demanded of, and produced by, Avraham!), I evaluated as not much of a sacrifice at all, because of the love I have for her.  As far as I am concerned, I am not moser nefesh!


Now perhaps we can begin to understand a little bit of Avraham’s greatness.  Avraham’s life was completely subsumed in his love of Gd.  In Arabic to this day, Avraham is called al-khalil, the friend of Gd par excellance.  If Gd told him turn left he turned left.  If Gd told him now turn right, he turned right.  In modern terms we might say that in his relationship to Gd he was “process-oriented” rather than “goal-oriented.”  He had completely transcended his individual ego and made himself a pure conduit to implement Gd’s Will in the material world.  In one sense we might describe this as the ultimate form of mesirut nefesh – completely giving one’s body, mind and personality over to Gd to do with as He pleases.   I think maybe Avraham would take the opposite tack.  To Avraham, his love of Gd was so intense that nothing he did in response to Gd’s command was a sacrifice.  He had, in the words of Pirke Avot, made Gd’s Will his will.  If Gd told him to slaughter his son and give up everything he had worked and hoped for in his life, that was what he wanted to do.  What Avraham actualized at the Akeidah was a state of being where a finite, individual human was identified with Gd’s infinity to the maximum extent possible.  It was as if Avraham’s personal considerations had become completely transparent, ethereal; the underlying Reality, which is Gd alone, shone through him in all its glory.


Sometimes we feel that our Patriarchs were larger-than-life figures, and of course they were spiritual giants the likes of which few of us will be privileged to meet on this earth.  Yet they are human beings, and as such, they are examples of the heights to which human beings can rise.  We are enjoined to ask “When will my deeds match the deeds of my forebears?”  Well, it’s a long way to go between where we are and what they achieved.  Let’s at least make sure that we’re moving in the right direction.