This week's parsha relates Akeidas Yitzchak, in which Hashem told Avraham to sacrifice his only son. Avraham complied immediately, without any hesitation, and even ran to do it (22:3). This was the climax of Avraham Avinu’s 10 tests, and throughout history, this has served as one of our nation's greatest merits.
As crazy as it sounds, back then in the times of Avraham, the gentiles would sacrifice their children to their gods ALL THE TIME. This was the normal culture. So much so that Hashem, who never uses a single letter in Tanach unnecessarily, felt that it was imperative to spend eight entire p’sukim forbidding His nation from ever adopting this common at the time, albeit wrong, practice*.
If this was such a normal practice & culture back then, was Avraham’s agreeing to sacrifice Yitzchak really SO significant, especially if Hashem Himself personally commanded him to do so?
There was once a man from Brooklyn named Sam Zeitlin, whose nickname was "Brooklyn Lightening" because of the speeds that he reached racing his bike. From the time that his father bought him his first bike on his 5th birthday, Sam dreamed of racing in the Olympics. As he grew older, he practiced day and night. He entered competitions in the New York metropolitan area and won race after race. Scouts took notice of his talents and he was asked to join the New York cycling team. By the time the Olympic trials took place in 1967, he had been practicing for many hours every day, building his stamina, with the hope of winning an Olympic gold medal. At the try-outs, he sped through the finish line far ahead of the competition. However, the judges disqualified him from the race, because he raised his arms in victory a fraction of a second before crossing the finish line. Sam was rejected from the Olympic team. He was crushed.
A few days later, while riding his bike, a car sped towards him. He swerved onto the sidewalk and barely avoided a head-on collision. The car window opened, and he saw some of his rival cyclists from the try-outs. They yelled, "we'll get you next time, Jew!". Sam felt that he would never be successful in the U.S.A as a cyclist due to Anti-Semitism and concluded that this was part of the reason why he was disqualified from his win. At that moment, Sam decided that nothing would prevent him from following his dream. He moved to Eretz Yisroel, with the hope of winning a gold medal for them in the 1972 Olympics. He joined the sports club there and his skills quickly became known. He designed a rigorous cycling routine for Israeli athletes to join him and created a cycling team. Under his tutelage, his vision of sending an Israeli cycling team to the Olympics began to take form.
At that time, Sam had a basic knowledge of Judaism, but was not religious. Once, while visiting the Kosel, he noticed two boys praying with heartfelt emotion. Afterwards, he had a conversation with them and was very impressed by their spiritual ideals. Sam used to ride his bike all over Israel. One day, he rode to Benei Brak and went in to a Yeshiva to see what it looked like. He saw hundreds of students debating over sacred texts. Again, he was very impressed. Rabbi Gershon Rabinowitz came over and introduced himself to Sam. He invited him to spend Shabbos in his house. Sam agreed and loved the experience. He came back on a weekly basis. Shabbos became the highlight of his week. The Rabbi introduced him to Torah thoughts and Shabbos songs. Eventually, Sam became much more observant.
Sam felt guilty about training on Shabbos, but how could he stop now? Saturday was the designated day for practice and tryouts in Israel. He went to the Israeli Sports Federation, explaining his dilemma, but they were unmoved. He pleaded with them, saying that he was their only hope of winning a gold medal. They responded, "Practices and tryouts will only be held on Saturday. No exceptions".
Sam had spent his entire life preparing for the upcoming tryouts for the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany. After serious deliberation, however, he made the difficult decision not to violate Shabbos, even if it meant giving up his life’s dream & ambitions, as well as the potential fame & fortune that would have come along with winning a gold medal.
That year, without Sam, there was no Israeli cycling team. On the tenth day of the Olympics, the Black September terror group burst into the Israeli sleeping quarters and brutally murdered all eleven athletes. Klal Yisrael mourned a terrible tragedy, but Baruch Hashem, Sam and his entire cycling team were saved from that attack. Adhering to Shabbos provided protection for Sam and his friends. Eventually, Sam went on to marry the daughter of a Rabbi and built a beautiful family.
(true story, I had heard related by R’ Ashear).
Sam was willing to sacrifice his life’s work, dreams & ambitions, as well as the fame & fortune that would have come along with winning a gold medal, in order to serve Hashem (and was greatly rewarded for doing so even in This World). Where did he get his fortitude from? He got it from Avraham Avinu (ma’aseh avos siman l’banim). You see, R' Eliyahu Dessler** explains that Akeidas Yitzchak was Avraham Avinu’s hardest test for the following reason: it required him to not only sacrifice his precious son, but also, to negate ALL of his life's work, triumphs, and ambitions…forever. Yes, it's true that most of the gentiles in the times of Avraham sacrificed their children, but it's that exact practice, as well as many others, that Avraham had spent most of his life trying to stop. Avraham had dedicated so much time - over a century of his life - to spreading Hashem's words, and telling everyone, in Hashem's name, to stop sacrificing their children and how terribly cruel and wrong it was. This was a foundational truth that he taught to everyone that he encountered. He must have been famous for it. People would probably say "don't sacrifice your child. Avraham says it's wrong". It was proper teachings like this that caused everyone to embrace Avraham's way of doing things. After spreading this message for over a century, Avraham was an extremely successful man. The Torah tells us that he was wildly wealthy, he had a tremendous group of followers, and he was highly respected by even the kings in the area (they even minted a coin with a picture of him on it)***. Can you imagine what Avraham's reaction could have been when, after all that, Hashem turned to him and said that now I want you to go and sacrifice Yitzchak, your only son to Me? Avraham knew with absolute certainty that if he would go through with this, people would find out, and everything he worked so hard for, his life’s work, would be destroyed forever.****
THIS was his test. Was he willing to disregard all of the personal loss, and prove to the greatest degree possible, that he was "all in" and would follow Hashem’s instructions no matter how great the personal sacrifice?
Indeed, he was. In fact, he literally RAN to do Hashem's will, as the Torah openly attests (22:3). By doing so, Avraham passed the ultimate test & proved that his level of devotion to Hashem was flawless. It is therefore fitting that an act of such selfless devotion to Hashem would be the crowning jewel of our nation, for all of eternity.
Avraham and Yitzchak were willing to sacrifice everything al kiddush Hashem. Their doing so has given our nation the strength to follow in their example and to be moser nefesh al kiddush Hashem in every way, throughout our history.
What about us? Nowadays, Baruch Hashem, we live in an era of relative peace and security. We don’t have many opportunities that demand that we sacrifice everything - all of our accomplishments, or, our very lives – to be m’kadesh Hashem like our nation has in past generations. If so, does this mean that WE cannot tap into the unparalleled zechus of mesiras nefesh al kiddush Hashem?
The Rambam addresses this question (Hilchos Yesodei Torah 5:10). In the very same chapter where he discusses mesiras nefesh al kiddush Hashem, the Rambam adds that similarly: any time that one refrains from an aveirah or does a mitzvah, not because of any external factors – not because of fear of others [social pressure] and not for honor - but rather simply because Hashem commanded [him or her] to do so, that person has the unparalleled zechus of someone who was m’kadesh Hashem.
As, in the words of R’ Frand (during a Teshuva Drasha), “mesiras nefesh al Kiddush Hashem is an incredible accomplishment. But, technically speaking, it is an action performed in an instant. Do you know how incredible it is to not just die al kiddush Hashem, but to LIVE day in and day out al kiddush Hashem?
We all have the opportunity to do so, and thereby be m’kadesh Hashem & take advantage of this unequaled zechus, each and every day. May we all merit to do so.
*- Vayikra 18:21 and 20:2,3,4,5. Malachim Alef 11:4. Malachim Beis 23:10. Yirmiya32:35.
**- In Michtav M’Eliyahu on our parshah.
***- In fact, the Gemara in Bava Kama 94a states that he was so influential and wealthy as a result of his popular teachings of truth, that the nations even minted a coin with his face on it.
****- In addition to that, Avraham himself must have been bothered by this strange commandment that challenged everything that he had believed in up until now. After all, isn't Hashem the one who says that murder is wrong? Isn't He the one who told him how horrible of a practice sacrificing a child is? Also, Hashem had literally promised Avraham that his entire nation would come from Yitzchak, who currently had no children. How could Hashem go directly against His own words? Avraham could have procrastinated, thinking that there must be some mistake and that none of this seemed to make any sense.
- Special thanks to Charlie Harary. Much of these thoughts are based on a speech that he gave.