The Fast of Yitzchak

Parshat Chayei Sarah

In uncomfortable situations we don’t always say what we mean.  Sometimes we even say the opposite of what we mean.. sometimes we call something the opposite of what it is.  Depending on the inflection or context such misnomers come off as irony, sarcasm, dementia or a Freudian slip.  Sometimes a word or an expression simply change meaning. [i]

The portion of the annual Torah reading cycle, Chayei Sarah, is a perfect example.  Chayei like Chai, means “life” as in the Life of Sarah, but the reading is about Sarah’s death.

Of course the best misnomer is the Akedát Yitzḥák the “Binding of Isaac” commonly known as the “Sacrifice of Isaac”.  As we should all be aware, Isaac was not sacrificed.  This non-event should be called the Non-Sacrifice of Isaac or simply “The Un-Binding”.

The mischaracterization of this non-event is possibly an outcome of the ambivalence, ambiguity, irony and generally high level of discomfort that is the legacy of this troubling narrative.

But here’s the news flash: The unbinding of Isaac killed his mother Sarah.

Says Rashi: The account of Sarah’s demise was juxtaposed to the binding of Isaac because as a result of the news of the “binding,” that her son was prepared for slaughter and was almost slaughtered, her soul flew out of her, and she died. — from Gen. Rabbah 58:5]

לספוד לשרה ולבכתה: ונסמכה מיתת שרה לעקידת יצחק, לפי שעל ידי בשורת העקידה שנזדמן בנה לשחיטה וכמעט שלא נשחט, פרחה נשמתה ממנה ומתה:

Events have repercussions.  The bizarre urge to sacrifice to God or the gods and the equally grotesque desire for martyrdom were strong within Judaism and Christianity up until modern times and survive in radical Islam till today…. and some would argue survive as a tumor in remission in most religions, including ours.

It is for this reason that the Unbinding of Isaac plays such a central role in our commentaries and liturgy.  Isaac’s blindness is attributed to the tears shed over him by his father, the Angel and maybe God.

The chapter of the Akeda is read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the new year…. The sacrifice of the Ten Martyrs is memorialized (glorified?) on Yom Kippur.  The angst of the Unbinding lives on.

A religion such as Judaism which believes in a God in History becomes irrelevant when it stops marking history, it’s religious and community leaders lose their mantel.   Our tradition lost no time in marking the significance of the unbinding of Isaac … starting with Sarah’s death.

Human sacrifice, even attempted human sacrifice can never be a footnote. Murder, and even attempted murder needs to be signified.  Which brings me to the Fast of Yitzchak …. By way of the Fast of Gedaliah.

Gedaliah, an unremarkable governor of Judea was murdered by fellow Jews, which ended Jewish autonomy following the destruction of the First Temple.  Our leaders instituted a Fast Day on the anniversary of Gedaliah’s assassination which occurred, ironically, the day after Rosh Hashanah.  Was the fast day to mourn the loss of Jewish autonomy or was it to mourn the Jew-on-Jew violence and virus of human sacrifice which lay behind this loss?  Who knows. There are those that say that Gedaliah was actually an appeaser and his killers were zealots.  Who is to say… but the fast was institutionalized and is observed by observant Jews till today.

The Sacrifice of Yitzhak Rabin z’l, was not a non-event, not an allegory .. unlike the Unbinding, it actually happened.  What is an affront to Judaism is that  the Fast of Yitzchak has not made it into the Jewish Calendar. This year the 18th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination (12th of Marcheshvan)  fell on October 16th the week that the parsha of the Akeda was read.  The common date will be on November 4th.

The poverty of our religious, communal and political leadership is nowhere more apparent than in the non-event of  the Fast of Yitzchak.

Is it because the event is still too recent and raw or is it just politics? Surely we can all agree that no matter what one’s politics; human sacrifice, martyrdom and Jew-on-Jew violence let alone assassination will destroy us.

One educator in Israel asks the same question of Israeli students every year:

“What does your school do on Rabin Day?”

The most painful answer, that I received in several different orthodox schools, was always delivered with a combination of defensiveness and dismissiveness: “Well I didn’t kill him…”

That our youth demonstrate such ambivalence and discomfort with Yitzchak Rabin’s death is surely sign enough that we should consider making the Fast of Yitzchak into reality.

This November 4th I will remember Rabin, but I will mourn the Children of Sarah, who unlike their matriarch cannot rise above political ideology and eschatological end-of-days planning to feel revulsion for child sacrifice… sacrificing one of our own.  I will mourn a nation without leaders and without a Fast of Yitzchak.[ii]

rabin 18

Event commemorating the 18th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, October 12. Photo by Daniel Bar-On.

[i] One of my favorite examples is the word for “good for nothing” “batlan.  In the Talmud it means, not only unemployed, but especially those who are unemployed and hang around the synagogue during prayer time and/or spend their day in study.  Nowadays, especially in the Yeshiva world, a Batlan is someone who does not study!  I suppose that Paul Simon was correct, “one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.see Mishnah Megilla 1,3 and R”N and Meiri

[ii] See also: The Fast of Gedaliah: Fear and loathing in Jerusalem: Fast of Gedaliah commemorates a political assassination after the destruction of the First Temple. Have we learned its 2,600-year-old lesson? By Arie Hasit  Sep. 9, 2013


Filed under Bible, Chosen People, Israel, Judaism, magic, Religion, social commentary, Torah

2 responses to “The Fast of Yitzchak

  1. Matt Landau

    Totally interesting, a great read and I learned much. Kol hakavod,
    Moishe Landau

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