Every year as the New Year approaches I find that, despite my best intentions, reality dictates that I concentrate more on the physical preparations than the spiritual ones for the holiday. So I always try to attend at least one pre-Rosh Hashanah lecture. These lectures cover a number of topics: repentance, the shofar, prayer, and on. My favorite topic, though, is the Akeidat Yitzchak, the story of how G-d tells Avraham to sacrifice his son, his only son, the one he loves, Yitzhak, and then just as Avraham raises his knife to slay his son on the altar, G-d commands him to stop.
My affinity to this subject began years ago when I was in grammar school. The rabbi at our Reform Temple did not just lead the congregation; he was a close family friend and had a strong influence on me. He was captivated by the Akeidat Yitzchak and spoke about it in religious school sermons, passing that fascination on to me.
As I approached my thirteenth birthday I began my Bat Mitzvah lessons with the new rabbi who had replaced our family friend. I was thrilled to learn that my Torah portion was Vayera, the one which begins with three angels visiting Avraham after his Brit Milah and ends with the Akeidat Yitzhak.
The custom in our Temple at that time was to read just a small section of the entire Torah portion on Friday night. There was no doubt in my mind which section I would read. The new rabbi did not share my enthusiasm, however. He thought the verses dealing with Avraham’s bargaining with G-d over Sodom and Gomorrah would be far more appropriate. I was a stubborn twelve-year-old, though, and in the end I read the Akeidat Yitzhak. My sermon was about making sacrifices for my faith.
My Bat Mitzvah experience probably had a lot to do with my forage into traditional Judaism and my commitment to keeping the commandments of the Torah. Seven years later I married and made a kosher, Shabbat-observant home. Twelve years after that my husband and I moved our family to Israel.
Once in Israel, it was easy to find profound, pre-Rosh Hashanah classes on my level. At one of lectures on the Akeidat Yitzchak the rabbi made a statement that I have never forgotten. He said that parents should be as ready to sacrifice their children for Torah as Avraham was ready to sacrifice Yitzchak. Not that we should, G-d forbid, put our children on an altar and slit their throats. Rather we should do all we can to ensure our children will be able to live a Torah-true life. He brought down as an example how families in Europe would send their young sons far away to good yeshivas and often see them only once a year at Pesach.
It was his words that gave me the emotional strength to deal with the fact that my third son had chosen, at the age of fourteen, to go to a yeshiva high school three hours away from home. There were many other yeshivas closer to us but this is the place where he felt he had the best opportunity to grow into a Torah-true Jew.
And it was those words I recalled last year during the Torah reading on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. In our synagogue the chanting of the portion is done by a group of volunteers. One of our favorite readers had lost his son in The Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva Massacre the previous spring. That loss did not keep him from reading, though.
He was chanting in his calm, melodious voice and then, all of a sudden, he paused. For a fraction of a second I thought that there was a problem with the Torah scroll and it would need to be replaced by another one from inside the ark.
Immediately afterwards I understood when I heard the next verse read aloud, “Avraham, Avraham, and he said, I am here and He said Do not harm the boy, nor do anything to him.”
There was a silence in the synagogue that could be felt. From above, in the women’s section, I kept my eyes downcast, afraid to look at my neighbor, unwilling to see the pain in my eyes reflected in hers.
The silence lasted several more minutes. The congregation was patient, sharing our friend’s pain. And then with a slightly quavering voice the bereaved father began reading. He paused again. Again we waited patiently, our hearts aching. And then he continued his reading with tears in his voice.
“I know now that you are one who fears G-d and have not withheld your son from me.”
Almost a year has past since he chanted those awesome words. In those few emotional moments I received a powerful lesson about faith and love of G-d, a lesson stronger than any of the lectures I have ever attended.
May we all learn the lesson and may no more of our children be sacrificed.
Ester Katz Silvers has lived in Shilo, Israel with her family since 1987. Her writings have appeared in Horizons, The Jewish Observer, Aish.com, and various anthologies. Recently her first novel, Sondra’s Search, was published by Devora Publishers.