Thoughts on Aliyah and the Akeidah from Israel at war

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Alan Jotkowitz

Written in honor of the thousands of young men and women protecting our homeland and with the fervent prayer that they soon return safely to their homes.

We were all part of a “blessed” generation. Having grown up after the euphoria of the Six Day War and the trauma of the Yom Kippur War, we were a part of the first generation of American Jews to go en masse to Israel for a year or two of intense Torah study after high school. We fell in love with the country and its people. In our year in Israel we grew exponentially in our Torah knowledge and enjoyed almost unlimited personal freedom. Many of us found a calling and purpose in life: to eventually return to Israel and build our lives there. We were exposed to tremendous role models and teachers, people who almost fifty years later remain beacons of light and inspiration to us and our families. We were lucky to mostly study in institutions that did not cater exclusively to Americans and to live side by side with our Israeli peers. We hitchhiked without fear and explored every inch of this beautiful country. We had long conversations into the night and made lifelong friends. It was an innocent time, before the constant bombardment of social media and the internet. Admittedly, we were politically naïve. Israel had yet to become a divisive issue on college campuses and one could openly support Israel with pride, not fear. Many of us eventually heeded the ancient call of God to Avram, “Go forth from your land” (Genesis 12:1), and made aliyah. Many of us joyfully celebrate our aliyah day as one does a milestone birthday or a wedding anniversary. Our aliyah experience was not particularly difficult, especially when you compare our experience with those pioneers from the 1950’s and 70’s. We didn’t have to wait years for a phone or car, and we built beautiful communities in Efrat, Rannana, and Bet Shemesh. We hiked the country with our families, sat dumbfounded and mute at endlessly long school assemblies,and tearfully sent our children to the army. Without meaning to detract from any of this, the experiences of the past three weeks feel very different.

The experiences of the last three weeks relate more to the second lekh lekha (go forth) command in the story of Avraham:

And He said, “Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go away to the land of Moriah, and bring him up there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains, of which I will tell you (Genesis 22:2).[1]

God tells Avraham to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. In the past few weeks this ancient story of sacrifice, devotion, and ultimately salvation has become too real for many of us living in Israel. We have sent our sons and daughters off to battle. And in this war our daughters are playing an equal role, either as actual combatants or working around the clock in various crucially important positions. Some of us have reacted with Avraham’s stoicism in simply following God’s decree without questions, but I imagine more of us have reacted with Sarah’s tears.[2] We have not slept for the past three weeks and have a constant ache in our hearts worrying about our children on the front lines. We are terrified that this will be our last phone call or last whatsapp message from our child. We are not alone. I look around in shul; almost everyone I know has a child serving somewhere. The looks of worry and pain are obvious on everyone’s faces. Of course, our anguish in no way compares to those who have already lost loved ones, either in the larger Israeli society or tragically in our small immigrant community, and to those whose life has been upended and suspended in time due to the horrific kidnapping of those closest to them. Last week, in the space of 24 hours, I was at four funerals, some of people close to me, others just to honor the kedoshim (martyrs) with my presence.

The story of the akeidah (binding of Isaac) has perplexed scholars for generations. Many have been bothered by the apparent immorality of God’s command, of how an all good and just God could command Avraham to sacrifice his son. In our current situation, we have no qualms about the morality of our actions. We were attacked by a barbaric and inhumane enemy. Notwithstanding the desire for revenge, Tzahal (Israel Defense Forces) is doing everything it can to avoid harming civilians while fighting an enemy who intentionally uses civilians as human shields. What we cannot understand is the reaction of the world to the immorality of our enemy. Why is the world not screaming about the murder and kidnapping of Jewish babies, the raping of Jewish women, the burning alive of Jewish women and children, and the killing of elderly Jews? Looking at some modern interpretations of the akeidah narrative may provide us with a measure of inspiration for the current situation.

Rav Shagar had a distinct perspective on the akeidah which is closely related to his life-long concern with the challenge of post-modernism to halakhic Judaism. The title of his essay on the subject is “Uncertainty as the Trial of the Akeda,”[3] which aptly summarizes his unique perspective. His interpretation will highlight an important contrast between the akeidah and our current situation, while other interpretations will relate more directly.

The heart of the dilemma for Rav Shagar is as follows: the conflict between the ethical-religious imperative forbidding murder and God’s commandment to slaughter Isaac, and the uncertainty as to the nature of the trial. Could it be that Avraham was tested not regarding his ability to obey God’s commandment, but rather regarding his ability to disobey? What if Satan assumed the voice of God to deceive Avraham? The argument here is that even if it truly is God’s voice demanding the slaughter of Isaac, it is open to multiple interpretations. Avraham has no way of determining whether God truly wants him to sacrifice his son or whether His commandment is a ploy.

From Avraham’s perspective, the primary challenge of the akeidah was that it was impossible for him to know what God really wanted him to do.

In this interpretation, our current situation is very different from the akeidah. There is no ambiguity in our current situation. The akeidah is correctly named Akeidat Yitzhak, not Akeidat Avraham and Sarah. For all the tears and anguish Avraham and Sarah must have gone through, it was Yitzhak who went willingly and put his life on the line. Likewise, it is our children who are putting their lives on the line to protect the State of Israel. Three times in the akeidah narrative it says hineini (“here I am”), and our children have answered that call. I know of no soldier in our community who has refused to serve. On the contrary, I know of many who are fighting to return to active service after having been released from reserve duty.

In his attempt to grapple with the narrative, Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun quotes his wife’s interpretation (whom he does not name) that the test of the akeidah was neither theological, ethical, nor emotional, but one of faith. Avraham, in her understanding, had complete faith that God did not want him to sacrifice his son. Thus, Avraham spoke in complete truth when he told Yitzhak that God will provide an animal to be sacrificed.[4]

Similarly, Yehuda Gellman quotes Rabbi Elimelech of Lyzhansk (1717-1787) who writes:

It seems we should explain that in truth Abraham and Isaac knew that God did not intend that he be slaughtered. And Abraham, whose attribute was “kindness” went with confidence that the two of them would return.

The test, in this interpretation, was whether Avraham could work up the same passion for God as if he were really going to sacrifice his son even though he knew it was not really going to happen. Gellman connects this to Rabbi Elimelech’s general contention that a good intention is accepted by God as if the person had actually acted, which reflects his preference for pure and holy states of mind over action.[5]

Rabbi Bin-Nun raises textual and theological objections to his wife’s approach. His primary one is that the Torah explicitly tells us that the test centered on Avraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to God. Additionally, from a theological and historical perspective, there have been too many instances where this complete faith in the justice of God has not been realized. In a moving exchange about a parent sending his or her child to the Israeli army, Rabbi Bin-Nun writes:

And on this I disagree with my wife who says I send my children to Tzahal with a complete belief that they will return in peace. And I am in no way sending them to an Akedah. An accident can happen at any time or place but my children, the soldiers are leaving on the condition they will return home safely. And I say they leave with the hope and prayers that they will return safely but with the knowledge of the dangers. We do not run from danger and we do not hold back our children from the army because of the great privilege we have to live as a free and sovereign nation in our land. And with this we are following the tradition of Abraham and Yitzchak.[6]

Some of us have the powerful faith of Mrs. Bin-Nun and others have the grim reality of Rabbi Bin-Nun.

The great religious humanist Rabbi Yehudah Amital has another perspective on the akeidah which is relevant to our current situation. He teaches:

On the surface, Abraham seems to accept the divine decree with silent submission. He is commanded to slaughter his son and, recognizing that nothing can stand in the way of a divine command, he nullifies his own will before the will of God. It appears that he suspends his feelings, his fatherly love, mercy, moral considerations. Everything stops, freezes, disappears before the divine command. “My heart is empty within me” (Ps. 109:22). I think this interpretation is entirely mistaken. I believe that Abraham’s love for his son neither disappeared nor dissipated. On the contrary, its intensity was a necessary condition for the Akeda itself…the essence of the Akeda lies precisely in that special loving relationship between father and son…In Hazal’s teaching, and between the lines of the text itself, we find a further message: the patriarchs, the forefathers of the Jewish nation, are not angels. They are not depicted as performing miracles and working wonders. On the contrary, they are presented to us as human characters, in the loftiest sense: characters who are full of hesitations, emotions, and mixed feelings.[7]

R. Amital brings proof for this contention from the Mishnah in Ta’anit (2:4), which teaches that on public fast days it was customary to add an extra blessing to the Amidah:

In the first [extra] blessing, he concludes, “He who answered Avraham at Mt. Moriah – may He answer you and listen to your cry on this day. Blessed are You, Lord, Redeemer of Israel.”[8]

It is evident from this mishnah that Avraham prayed fervently that God would cancel His decree. Another midrash describes the prayer in detail:

“And he placed him on the altar.” Avraham’s eyes gazed on Yitzhak and Yitzhak’s eyes gazed at the heavens. Tears welled and fell from Avraham’s eyes until the pool of tears was as tall as he. He said to him, “My son, since you have already expressed your readiness to relinquish your blood, your Creator will find a different sacrifice in your place.” At that moment his mouth opened with a great weeping and he sighed a great sigh and his eyes wandered, seeking out the Shekhina. He lifted his voice and said, “I lift my eyes to the mountains; from where shall my help come? My help is from the Lord, Maker of the heavens and earth” (Ps. 121:1-2).[9]

What we can do as parents is to follow in the footsteps of our great ancestor Avraham and pray for the same answer given to him at Har Ha-Moriah:

And he [the angel] said, “Do not stretch forth your hand to the lad, nor do the slightest thing to him, for now I know that you are a God-fearing man, and you did not withhold your son, your only one, from Me” (Bereishit 22:12).

In times of crisis, though, prayer alone is not enough. As Rambam taught (Hilkhot Ta’aniyot 1:2), teshuvah (repentance) is also required: teshuvah as an individual and teshuvah as part of the community. And teshuvah requires heshbon ha-nefesh (introspection). As we pray and await divine salvation, every community has to do its own particular heshbon ha-nefesh. I am certainly not qualified to say what my particular community has to atone for. Nevertheless, the effort certainly needs to be made.

Three times in the akeidah story we read “and they both went together” (Bereishit 22:6, 22:8, and 22:19). Avraham and Yitzhak went together, sacrificed together, and left together. Togetherness seems to be a vital condition for the salvation of the akeidah. Are we together as a Jewish People? It is ironic that the day before the massacre the Israeli media were consumed with the question of whether there would be mehitzot in the Simchat Torah hakafot in Tel Aviv. I understand the halakhic necessity of mehitzot, but the irony and tragedy of the debate is telling. I am worried about the war with Hamas, but also worried about the day after. Will the war ultimately unite us or just magnify our differences? I end simply with the same prayer which with we end all of our tefilot: “Bestow peace, goodness, and blessing, life, graciousness, kindness, and mercy, upon us and upon all Your people Israel.”[10]

I would like to thank my friend Ari Ferziger for his advice and encouragement and David Fried for his usual expert editing.

[1] Biblical translations taken from

[2] See Genesis Rabbah 58:5.

[3] Rav Shagar, “Uncertainty as the Trial of the Akeda” in A Collection of Essays in Memory of Eli, Claudine, Uri and Chaim Pal z”l, A.Witzman, ed. (Jerusalem: self-published, 1998).

[4] Available at

[5] There is a slight but important difference between Rabbi Elimelech’s approach and that of Mrs. Bin-Nun. In his understanding, Avraham knew by prophecy that Yitzhak was not to be sacrificed, whereas in her approach it was only known through faith, and that certainty was precisely the test of the akeidah.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Rabbi Yehuda Amital, When God is Near: On the High Holidays (Jerusalem: Maggid, 2015), 161-162.

[8] All non-biblical translations are my own.

[9] Yalkut Shimoni 1:101

[10] These are just the personal musings of one simple parent and should not at all be generalized to what others may be feeling or experiencing. Written on Thursday, October 26, 2023.

Alan Jotkowitz is Professor of Medicine, Director of the Medical School for International Health, and Director of the Jakobovits Center for Jewish Medical Ethics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be’er-Sheva, Israel.