The story of the “Binding of Isaac” that concludes this week’s Torah portion pulls hard on conscience and our soul. What parent would offer to sacrifice a child? What God would ask such a thing?
The rabbis wrestled with these questions too. The midrash imagines a conversation between Isaac and his older half-brother Ishmael before this dramatic episode.
Ishmael says to his younger brother: “I am more worthy to inherit the mantle of leadership from our father in that I was the first born.”
Isaac then replies, “No, I am more worthy to inherit than you, because I am the first born son of Sarah, and you are the son of her handmaid.”
Then it gets more interesting. Ishmael retorts: “I am more worthy than you because I was circumcised at 13, and if I had wanted to hold back, I could have. You were circumcised when you were just eight days old. If you had known, who knows what you would have done.”
Isaac answers: “Well, now I am 37 years old, and if the Holy One asked for all of my limbs, I would not hold back.” As soon as these words were heard, God immediately decided to test Abraham and said to him, “Abraham,” and he responded, “Here I am.” …
So the rabbis see this incident not merely as a test of Abraham but a test of Isaac as well.
This test poses a simple and fundamental question: for what would you be willing to give your life?
The Jewish people were born from an idea – that every human life is of infinite value, for each reflects the image of God. That our mission is to build a society grounded in the ideals of wisdom and understanding, compassion and justice, graciousness, freedom and peace. That in sacred covenant with the Creator of the Universe, we can heal a broken world with holiness.
What the Torah teaches here is that this idea is worth fighting for. Our people’s mission is one worth giving your life to accomplish, that is worth sacrificing everything to defend and achieve.
The United States of America was also born from an idea: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”
At the end of the Declaration of Independence is the same commitment Isaac offers in the midrash: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
Like Abraham and Isaac in this week’s portion, those who signed our Declaration of Independence declared: this is a cause worthy of sacrifice, of our children’s lives and our own.
From that moment to this very day, there have been times our nation has sent our children into harm’s way – to counter oppression, to redeem the oppressed, to repel tyranny, to fight for freedom. And throughout our history, there have been those who like Isaac have said “I will offer all of my limbs” in service to these values and ideals.
Veterans’ Day demands we ask ourselves a fundamental question: on what will we stake our lives? Are we choosing to live in a manner that honors their sacrifice and service? Considering the extraordinary cost so many women and men paid to secure the lives we lead, are we giving enough of our own selves as citizens to pay forward what has been given us?
The ideas and ideals of our people and this nation are sacred and holy and precious. And they are worth fighting for. They are worth a pledge of “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
To those who have given the gift of themselves in service to our country and the higher and holier ideals for which it stands – on this Shabbat we give our honor and our thanks. And hopefully, we will be reminded that it is our collective responsibility to secure the sacred gifts of “liberty and justice for all.”