In Gaza, Where Was Isaac's Angel?

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

In 1967, to explain why he was speaking out against the Vietnam War, Rabbenu Abraham Joshua Heschel told the story of a young Polish Hassidic boy who cried when he read the story of Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son Isaac.

"Why are you crying?" said his teacher; "You know that the angel saved Isaac's life."

"But what if the angel had come a moment too late?" said the boy.

Said Heschel: "Angels are never late. But sometimes human beings are."

We — all of us — were too late this past week.

In Gaza, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, and the ambulance driver who tried to rescue him, as the boy's father begged them to stop shooting.

For some Jews on the first, and for some on the second day of Rosh Hashanah we read the story —


But on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read a different version of the story. William Orme wrote, in the New York Times of October 1, 2000: —

"[The 12-year-old boy Mohammed Aldura] was filmed by a foreign television crew as he cowered behind a cement block with his father, who shouted at the Israeli soldiers to hold their fire. The ambulance driver was killed as he tried to rescue the boy. The excruciating scene, including the boy's screams as he was hit by the fatal gunfire and the father's cries of horror, was broadcast on Israeli and Palestinian television tonight."

And the Associated Press added:

"The boy screamed in panic as shots hit a wall just inches over their heads. Seconds later, [he] was fatally struck in the abdomen. He loosened his grip on his father and slumped over.

"Seriously wounded, the father, Jamal, shook with convulsions, rolled his eyes skyward and lost consciousness. He was hospitalized in Gaza and was expected to recover, family members said Saturday.

"An ambulance driver was killed trying to rescue them. . ."

So this is what Rosh Hashanah has come to? — The reverse of the Torah's story of the Binding of Isaac: For here the father tries to protect the child, while the messengers of God — ourselves — do not speak out to save him.

Must the child — and more than 80 others — Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinians — die so that in the person of Arik Sharon, the Jewish people can insist on political sovereignty over the rock where Isaac was bound and where the angel saved him?

(Sharon last besmirched Rosh Hashanah in 1982, when as Minister of Defense he had Israeli troops stand by while Lebanese Phalangists murdered hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra & Shatila camps. He was rebuked as "indirectly responsible" by an official Israeli investigatory commission, and was forced to resign, but reentered politics and has become leader of the chief opposition party in the Knesset.)

We had barely begun the Ten Days of Tshuvah, repentance, and already as a people had to face our responsibility for the death of this young Isaac — only of course he is a young Ishmael, Abraham's other son — and of other Palestinians.

And the responsibility we share for the deaths of Israelis as well, who are still sent to die — in order to occupy the territory that must be the grounding of a Palestinian state if there is ever to be peace.

What are the most authentic and effective ways to speak in defense of Jewish values and in defense of the Isaacs and Ishmaels who may well keep on dying?

First, to speak to our own deepest selves. For all Jews who have any serious spiritual commitments, is it not idolatry to make PHYSICAL POSSESSION of the rock on which Isaac (according to the story) was almost sacrificed, such a central element of Judaism that we are prepared to die and to kill for it?

Is this not EXACTLY the opposite of what the story is trying to teach — that indeed we DO feel the call of a Voice to kill for some vision of a value, but MUST NOT?

And is not the story itself , the Torah that teaches us, our crucial possession?

Is not the real rock that we possess the Rock of Ages — which only we, through idolatry, can take away from us?

Possession of [part of] "the land" is one thing. On it human beings can live, make a living, grow a culture, govern themselves.

But possesssion of a rock?

Killing and dying to keep it?

Is it not our religious task to take action and to educate, against this idolatry?

Secondly, how do we speak to the official American Jewish leadership, many of whom have criticized even the limited compromises P. M. Barak offered for sharing sovereignty over the Temple Mouint?

How do we speak to the Israeli government, which did not prevent and did not condemn Sharon's arrogant visit to the Haram Al Sharif/Har haBayit; which did not order soldiers to restrict themselves to tear gas but allowed the use of lethal weapons in addressing protests by outraged Palestinians; and which has for months been fueling a growing rage among Palestinians?

For even while the peace negotiations continued, the Israeli Army was still demolishing Palestinian houses, driving roads through Palestinian lands in ways that isolated different sections of the emerging Palestine from each other, and allowing more settlers to arrive on the West Bank. — The rage this caused was the gasoline into which Sharon threw a match. But why did the Barak government pour out the gasoline?

How do we speak to the Palestinian Authority, calling on them to pursue their most decent vision of themselves through vigorous nonviolent action? For we must also be responsible to say to the Palestinians that precisely because we understand their rage, we believe they must express it in nonviolent ways, if their rage and Israeli fear are ever to be resolved in a decent peace.

How do we speak to the American government, saying that Jews do not support a mindless idolatry of possession of that rock? Do not support the smashing of Palestinian homes and the cementing of Palestinian farmland?

As we move from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, we remember that Yom Kippur is intended to be a day for confirming our commitment to choose life. As the Prophet Isaiah said in a passage that we read on Yom Kippur itself, fasting alone is not the point. The point is to act on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned.

And perhaps there is still a deeper meaning to this story that we not only read but live. Many readers today see the story of the Binding of Isaac as the story of a "paradigm shift" in the religious life of Canaan, 3500 years ago. Perhaps a culture that believed the sacrifice of first-borns was a necessary, profoundly religious obligation for the sake of a fruitful future, filled with children, at this "moment" became convinced that child sacrifice is forbidden, not required, and began to offer animals instead.

No doubt this shift took not a moment, but an agonizing struggle over years.

Today, from the death of Rami Aldura and all the other dead, perhaps we must learn a new paradigm shift in our religious lives:

Till now, Judaism and Islam have each insisted that one people alone had a sacred relationship to this land where Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah walked, where Ishmael and Isaac were born.

Now God calls out to us for another paradigm shift:

Each of the families of Abraham, at this moment in our history and the history of the planet, must affirm that both of us have a sacred relationship to the Land.

So each of us must — not reluctantly and grudgingly, but with joy and celebration — welcome the other as well into a peaceful sojourn in the Land. Each of us determining our own lives, within a context of honoring each other's choices.

Why does God call out to us at this moment? Because we have the opportunity to model together what all the nations of the world must do. In this generation when all nations must learn to share the great unboundaried earth or in our failure shatter life upon this planet, our two peoples can model how to share a single land.

And so we ourselves will become the messengers of the Most High, calling out to ourselves and to each other and to all nations —


Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center Website - and the author of many works of Jewish renewal. Godwrestling — Round 2 (Jewish Lights, Woodstock VT, 1996; winner of the Benjamin Franklin Award) addresses in greater depth the questions that arise from the Torah's stories of brothers' struggling.