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Torah Ve-Ahava ‫ה‬ ָ‫ֲב‬ ‫ה‬ ַ‫א‬ ְ‫ו‬ ‫ה‬ ָ‫ּתֹור

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Torah Ve-Ahava ‫ה‬ ָ‫ֲב‬ ‫ה‬ ַ‫א‬ ְ‫ו‬ ‫ה‬ ָ‫ּתֹור
    Torah Ve-Ahava Rosh HaShana 2017/5778  –   Akedah and Martyrdom Rabbi Haim Ovadia Page | 1 Torah Ve-Ahava         ֹּ   Finding insights of love, dignity, and social commitment in the Torah’s narrative and laws Rabbi Haim Ovadia  Akedah and Martyrdom  For Rosh HaShana 5778     - These words are the refrain of a poem chanted by all Sephardic communities, from the Iberian Peninsula to North Africa, from Iran to Jerusalem. The meaning of these words is: He who bounds; He who is bound; The Altar. Those three Hebrew words encapsulate the tremendous theological and emotional tension of the momentous event of the Binding of Isaac. They draw the reader s’ attention and force the m to focus on the singularity, deep pain, and desolate loneliness of the moment. At that moment, there are only two people in the whole world. Abraham and Isaac. No one else is aware of what is soon about to take place. Sarah was never told that her husband plans to slaughter her only child, the one she bore him when she was ninety years old, and the two pages are waiting at the foot of the mountain. On top of the mountain there are only Abraham and Isaac, father and son, devoutly religious man and a young innocent child, slaughterer and sacrifice. It is a terrifying image: a knife-wielding man looming over a small, helpless body of a child, who with hands and feet bound together, is curled un top of a pile of firewood, about to be slaughtered and burned. They are alone only on the human plane, though, for they are joined the altar, which seems to be a representation of a blood-thirsty and cruel deity, one who demands human sacrifices, and so the poem zooms in on the three tragic protagonists in their total isolation: He who bounds, he who is bound, and the altar. The poem was written by Rabbi Yehudah ) Abu-Al-Baqqa Yahya) ben Shemuel ibn Abbas 1 . There is only fragmented information regarding his life, but it is known that he was a contemporary of the great poets of the Golden Age in Spain, Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi (1075-   1  Schirmann, J., Poets contemporary with Mose ibn Ezra and Yehuda Hallevi (III) pp. 297-299, in Studies of the Research Institute for Hebrew Poetry in Jerusalem, vol. IV, Jerusalem, 1945, Schocken Publishing House.    Torah Ve-Ahava Rosh HaShana 2017/5778  –   Akedah and Martyrdom Rabbi Haim Ovadia Page | 2 1141) and Rabbi Moshe ibn Ezra (1058-1138), and that he passed on, at the earliest, at 1167. It is not clear if he ever lived in Al-Andalus, and he was probably born in the Maghreb, or North Africa, and visited Aleppo and Iraq. He is the only non-Spanish poet whom Yehudha Al-Harizzi included in his essay on the Jewish poets of Spain. As we shall see, his poem about the Akedah is a powerful theological debate about the balance between religious devotion and human interaction, and since his son Shemuel converted to Islam, there were those who suggested that the poem is a eulogy for his son. This theory is questionable because the father did not know of his son’s conversion until shortly before his death , and I believe that the conversion of the son was a result of the theological struggles of the father, described in the poem. The fact that the poem is still part of Sephardic liturgy around the world, despite the tarnished reputation of the poet as the father of a son who converted to Islam and then attacked Judaism, is a testament to the more flexible nature of the authors of Sephardic prayer books, as well as to the mesmerizing hold of the poem on the reader. There are several tunes for that beautiful poem 2 , as well as different practices for chanting it. The following practices are all part of the diverse tapestry which is commonly referred to as Jerusalem Sephardic practice: 1.   The whole poem is recited by cantor and congregation. The cantor repeats the last stanza. 2.   The cantor reads the first and last stanzas. The other stanzas are chanted by qualified members of the congregation. In most Sephardic synagogues there is no choir, but some members, vetted for their musical talent or revered status, are invited to take part in chanting. 3.   Only the first three and last three of the fourteen stanzas are chanted, and the rest is read quietly. The cantor repeats the last stanzas. 4.   The congregation and the cantor chant together the first nine stanzas in one tune. The cantor then switches to a more solemn and mournful tune and chants the tenth and eleventh stanzas solo. These are the stanzas which describe Isaac’s dialog wi th his father and his concern for his mother, and seeing people crying at that point is not a rare sight. 2  For the full text of the poem as well as for audio recordings of the different traditions, visit    Torah Ve-Ahava Rosh HaShana 2017/5778  –   Akedah and Martyrdom Rabbi Haim Ovadia Page | 3 The congregation then resumes with the cantor the reading of the last three stanzas, and the cantor then repeats the last stanza. In the third stanza, the poet seems to embellish the biblical story, by adding a conversation between Abraham and Sarah, probably on the night before the journey. That conversation is first imagined in the Midrash 3 :      ,   ?  :     .        , " : ... ?  ,                     .     ,     " :  ,"   , "     [When Abraham was told to sacrifice Isaac] he thought “what am I going to do? If I tell Sarah, [she will not be able to decide what to do because] women are slow to decide even when dealing with a minor issue, how much more so with such a major decision. If I do not tell her and steal the boy form her, when she will not find him she will kill herself.” What did he do? …he told her: “you know that I have come to know God when I was three years old, and this boy has already grown up and has not been educated yet [lit. inaugurated]. There is a place, not too far from here, where young boys are educated [lit. inaugurated], let me take him there.” She answered: “go in peace.”   In the Midrashic version, Sarah, the hidden protagonist, is revealed, but for only a brief encounter. Abraham contemplates whether he should tell his wife Sarah, the mother of the unsuspecting sacrifice, about the divine commandment, and eventually rules against it. He decides to lie to Sarah and tell her that he is going to train the child, or perform with him a rite of passage, and she give her curt approval. In the poem, the author takes the conversation to a new depth by adding several words to Sarah’s response. When Abraham tells her that her cherished one, Isaac, needs to learn how to serve God, she answers:     ,   Go, master, but do not go too far. 3  Midrash Tanhuma, Warsaw edition, on Genesis 22:1.    Torah Ve-Ahava Rosh HaShana 2017/5778  –   Akedah and Martyrdom Rabbi Haim Ovadia Page | 4 It is as if her heart, a mother’s heart, senses the ominous danger. Her plea with Abraham refers not only to physical distance, but to religious extremism as well. “When you perform the rituals in your service of God,” she tells him, “do not go too far…”  Abraham answers with ambiguous words, not necessarily calming her fears:          He answered: let your heart trust God. The answer leaves her hanging. Does he mean that Isaac will return sound and safe, as she wants? Does it mean that God will do with him as He wishes, leaving her no choice but to accept the divine verdict? Later, as Abraham and Isaac approach the mountain alone, Isaac asks his father a seemingly innocent, but truly chilling question: “where is the sacrificial lamb? 4 ” The poet rewrites this question, turning it into a piercing theological debate:                                         They both approached to do the service, When Isaac spoke to his father thus: Father, here are the fire and the wood for the altar Where, master, is the lamb required by law?  Are you, on this day, forgetting your religion? Whereas in the biblical story Isaac addresses his father before they reach the mountain, the poet keeps Isaac silent until his engagement in the process of building the altar. In the bible, the question is almost theoretical, but in the poem, it dawns on Isaac, as he is preparing for the offering of a sacrifice, that something is terribl y wrong. He addresses his father as “master” and the subliminal message of the question: "have you forgotten your religion?" is directed not at the 4  Genesis 22:7.    Torah Ve-Ahava Rosh HaShana 2017/5778  –   Akedah and Martyrdom Rabbi Haim Ovadia Page | 5 lack of a sacrificial lamb but at Abraham' s future act. Isaac is asking him: “How can you prepare yourself to offer me as a sacrifice? Wouldn't such an act violate your belief system?”  This question reflects the author's struggle with the phenomenon of voluntary martyrdom which has become prevalent in Europe during the crusades. Not only did Jews sacrifice their lives to avoid being captured and converted to Christianity, they also took the lives of their children. This is attested to in the Daat Zeqenim commentary on the Torah, anthologized from the writings of Jewish German scholars of the 12-13 th  centuries 5 : There was one rabbi who slaughtered many children at the time of the decrees [i.e. the crusades] because he was worried that they will be forced to convert to Christianity. There was a rabbi there who was very upset with him and called him a murderer, but he did not pay heed. The [opposing] rabbi said “if I am right, that rabbi will suffer a cruel and unusual death”, and so it was… later the decree was nullified, and [it turned out that] had he not killed those children they would have been saved.”   But the challenge to Abraham is not over yet. In the tenth and eleventh stanzas, the poet puts in Isaac’s mouth a gut -wrenching farewell speech in which he forces his father to consider the consequences of the act he is about to perform. The poet skillfully weaves Midrashic elements into a new narrative, in which Isaac reminds his father that while sacrificing his child demands one moment of devotion, it will bring in its wake a life of sorrow and contempt. In the following few lines we find a full theological treatise, one which Sephardic Jews analyzed and reflected on every Rosh HaShana as they were preparing to blow the Shofar:                                                     5                   :  פ   , פ      פ              .                             פ   "  
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