Stories from our past light the way to our future
Where do human values, ethics, morality, and the fundamental principles of civil society come from? According to John Adams, Leo Tolstoy, and 19th century ethicist Charles Wagner — among many others — they all come from the Jews.
Without the influence of Jewish culture and tradition, writes historian Thomas Cahill, “we would see the world through different eyes, hear with different ears, even feel with different feelings … we would think with a different mind, interpret all our experience differently, draw different conclusions from the things that befall us. And we would set a different course for our lives.”
If so, how can we explain the eagerness of many contemporary “thinkers” to contaminate the wellsprings of wisdom with self-indulgent musings, poisoning the fountain that has sustained civilization for over 3,300 years?
Like all great literature, the Torah narratives are not simple to understand. But their complexity is part of their profundity. Rather than imposing on them our own social biases, we seek guidance from the accumulated teachings of the wise generations that came before us.
Standing alone among the greatest heroes of human history is Abraham, the first person to recognize from his own observation the existence of a Creator. By committing himself to spread the word of divine wisdom throughout the world, Abraham brought to light the underpinnings of moral freedom, so they might be disseminated by his descendants for the benefit of all mankind.
The most profound lesson is taught through Abraham’s most profound test, when the Almighty instructed him to sacrifice his son Isaac. Seemingly without reservation, Abraham prepared to do the unthinkable despite both his own personal agony and his inability to understand why.
The conundrum of Abraham’s test has proven too much for “enlightened” minds committed to the primacy of ethical humanism. Some have concluded — flouting irrefutable scriptural evidence to the contrary — that Abraham failed this test when he prepared to slaughter his son. Others have suggested that the test must have crushed Abraham’s self-esteem, resulting in self-hatred or hatred of God.
This kind of postmodern, ideological revisionism reduces moral greatness to moral dysfunction. It formulates biblical analysis in the style of the ancient Greeks, who fabricated a pantheon of vindictive and capricious gods as caricatures of human vice and depravity. It perverts the moral archetypes at the core of Jewish tradition into shallow and self-serving mythology.
Here is what the classical Jewish commentaries teach us:
On the most basic level, the test of Abraham demonstrated a character defined by absolute trust and humility. In a single act, Abraham prepared to forfeit everything he had accomplished and everything he understood. Why? Because the Master he served had proven again and again His wisdom and His benevolence. If the Almighty commanded it, Abraham reasoned, it must be good, regardless of how utterly his own human comprehension might fail to understand it.
But this only scratches the surface. Astonishingly, Abraham could have found an escape clause. The Almighty commanded him only to “bring Isaac up as an offering.” Abraham had not been explicitly commanded to slaughter his son. If so, why was he not satisfied to fulfill the literal wording of the command? Why did he prepare to sacrifice his son when he could have justified stopping short of the final blow?
On the one hand, Abraham knew that once an offering was placed on the altar, the inevitable next step was sacrifice. But on the other hand, everything he knew about divine mercy and justice argued against human sacrifice. And so, faced with two options that both defied his understanding, Abraham did not trust himself to act in his own self-interest. The implicit command of the Almighty was clear, even if the literal command provided a loophole for not following through to the end.
No doubt, Abraham felt excruciating emotional pain as he raised the knife to slaughter his son. But self-hatred, or hatred of God? Just the opposite. Nothing short of divine love and unassailable confidence in his own mission and purpose could have steeled Abraham to sacrifice not only his son but everything that had given meaning to his life. This was an act of spiritual heroism, and Abraham rose to the occasion, having no idea that the Almighty would stay his hand at the final moment.
But why would a merciful Father subject a beloved child to such a trial? First, so that Abraham could actualize the extraordinary spiritual potential that resided within him. And second, as an example for future generations, to teach us that self-sacrifice unlocks the potential for greatness that resides within every one of us.
Today, a crisis of confidence plagues a generation that is morally and spiritually lost. Cut off from their authentic past and unable to chart a course toward a meaningful future, young people in soaring numbers descend into depression and many even contemplate taking their own lives.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. The lessons of our forefathers provide the hope and vision necessary to find happiness and fulfillment. All we need to do is take those lessons to heart.
Rabbi Yonason Goldson is director of Ethical Imperatives LLC and associate rabbi at U. City Shul. Read more of his work on his website, yonasongoldson.com.