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In this week’s parashah, our Patriarch Avraham is given his final and greatest test, the Akeidas Yitzchak (the “binding” of Yitzchak to be slaughtered and sacrificed by him).
“And it came to pass after these things, that Hashem tested Avraham, and said to him, ‘Avraham;’ and he said, ‘Behold, here I am.’ And He said, ‘Take now your son, your only son, Yitzchak, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you’” (Bereishis 22:1-2).
The Hebrew words “achar hadevarim ha’eileh – after these things” is literally translated as “after these words.” Rashi wants to know what words were spoken which instigated the test of the akeidah. He brings one opinion of the Sages which explains that it means after the words of Yishmael who boasted to Yitzchak that he had been circumcised when he was thirteen years old without resisting whereas Yitzchak was a child of eight days and had no opportunity to protest or acquiesce. Yitzchak then responded, "You attempt to intimidate me by mentioning the loss of one part of the body. If the Holy One Blessed Be He, were to tell me, ‘Sacrifice yourself to Me’ I would not refuse.” Immediately after these words, Hashem commanded Avraham to bring Yitzchak up as a burnt offering before Him.
I believe that it was not merely the fact that the words went forth from Yitzchak’s mouth that he was called to task to back up his statements with actions. Indeed, Rashi does not say “after the words of Yitzchak,” but, rather, “after the words of Yishmael.” The problem was that Yishmael’s argument was valid. He had performed a greater deed of valor than Yitzchak had. If Yitzchak were to receive all of the blessings of Avraham, and be his successor, he had to be the one who served Hashem more intensely than anyone else. Therefore, Yitzchak was called upon to surpass Yishmael’s dedication and sacrifice his very life upon the alter before Hashem.
In a similar vein, Eretz Yisrael was promised to the Children of Avraham who are circumcised. The Arabs claim that these requirements include them. The Holy Zohar says that there is some validity to their claim but that since they do not perform the mitzvah properly, on the eighth day, they are only eligible to inhabit the Holy Land when the Children of Yitzchak are in exile.
During the Gulf War, a great rabbi said that, like Yishmael their Patriarch, the Arabs today claim that they deserve the Land of Israel more than we do since they perform the rite of circumcision at an advanced age and, although it is not the proper way, as the Zohar said, even so, there is an advantage to their credit that they show more self-sacrifice than the Jewish babies who have no choice in the matter.
What did Hashem do to refute their claim? the rabbi continued. He caused the Iron Curtain of the Former Soviet Union to fall, the gates which were shut tight for seventy years were suddenly opened, and hundreds of thousands of our brothers from Russia immigrated to Israel. These Jews’ parents had not been allowed to circumcise their children, but when they came to the Holy Land, many of them requested that they undergo a bris milah. Consequently, the Arab argument was refuted when suddenly there were so many Jews too who were being circumcised even older than their cousins were; some in their teens, some in their twenties and thirties and some even in their sixties!
Possibly, the rabbi concluded, it was this phenomenon which caused the Arabs to lose the war and the Children of Yitzchak to remain the sole inheritors of the Land of Avraham.
In 1992, Parashas Lech Lecha, I had the privilege to attend the Bar Mitzvah of the son of Rabbi Chaim Bar On, Founder and Principal of the Migdal Ohr Yeshiva High School in Moscow. It was probably the first public Bar Mitzvah in Russia since the rise of Communism, seventy years prior. It was a very emotional Shabbos as the elders of the community remembered what Jewish ceremonies were like when they were young, while the youngsters stared, like the Simple Son in the Haggadah Shel Pesach, asking, “What is this all about?”
At that moving event, I spoke in the Great Synagogue of Moscow, and I related the above vort. In the name of the inhabitants of Israel, I thanked our Russian brothers for saving us from the Arab threat in the Gulf War the year before.
On that special Shabbos, a very interesting thing happened to me on the way to the shul.
Baruch Hashem, I live in Ramot, in Jerusalem. It is a totally religious neighborhood, with an abundance of shuls. I do not get much sechar halichah (“reward for going” – the reward one gets for going far to pray in the synagogue) since all of the shuls are very near my home. But in Moscow, I stayed at a hotel which was a forty-five minute walk from the Main Synagogue. In addition, it was pouring rain and, since there was no eiruv, I could not even wear a rain hat.
As I trudged through the streets, soaking wet, I was not too happy with my lot and I had a sour look on my face.
Near me, walked a Russian boy, 16 years old, who was just as drenched as I was, yet he wore a big smile on his face. I looked at him as if he were crazy, and he seemed to look at me the same way.
It turned out that this youngster, who learned in Rabbi Goldschmidt’s yeshiva, had taught himself to speak Yiddish. A block before we reached the shul, he approached me and said, in perfect Yiddish, “Our grandfathers and our grandmothers went in the snow and the pouring rain to their deaths, while we are going in a pouring rain to daven in shul on Shabbos. Aren’t we lucky?”
I felt ashamed and humbled at the poignant words of this pure child. I wondered from where they had come. He surely had not heard them from his father and probably not from his grandfather either. Then I remembered what I had seen written in many holy books that the “pintele Yid” (the Jewish spark) can never be completely extinguished no matter how hard our enemies may try. At that moment I was witnessing that truth with my own eyes. Seventy years of Communism could not destroy Judaism. It was alive and well in the Jewish hearts of Hashem’s Chosen People.
All of this should make us realize that we have an obligation to be mekarev (reach out to) our brothers and sisters from the Former Soviet Union. We must understand that they were denied the basic human rights to study and practice our religion, and things which are simple to us since we were children, are totally strange to them. But, deep down inside, they are loyal Jews like the rest of us, and perhaps even more so. They had trials and tribulations which we never had, and which we hope we never will have. We must attempt to introduce them to our heritage, which is their heritage as well.
When Moshiach comes, soon, in our days, he will ask us what we did to help them find their roots. I hope that we won’t be embarrassed and will have the proper answers.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network