“You have sacrificed nothing, and no one!” This powerful statement came from Khizr Khan, a patriotic American immigrant from Pakistan who reveres the US Constitution, and who with his wife stood up in a national forum as grieving parents whose 27-year old son Captain Humayun Khan was killed in action in Iraq defending his unit. Mr. Khan’s anguish was matched by his righteous indignation, and his words reverberated for days. They may have been the most enduring political words uttered all summer, in a season of stump speeches and political conventions.
Mr. Khan declaration was directed at Donald Trump, but in fact, it also stands as a challenge to many of us. What have we sacrificed? What do we owe to those who have sacrificed more?
Here in this room there are many people who have sacrificed for others. I don’t want to ask people to raise their hands or make a statement, but I expect that among us are those who have taken great risks for others—in the military, as police and fire fighters, or as spontaneous volunteers who with no warning or training, simply jumped into action to protect others. Beyond such dramatic actions, many of us have willingly sacrificed time, effort, comfort, money and even safety in order to protect family, neighbors and strangers. Still, for many of us, Mr. Khan’s question remains personally challenging. I have not served in the military—even as our country has been at war for the past 15 years. Worse, in our daily lives we can often forget that battles are being fought, and lives destroyed, while we worry about the minor dramas of our lives. On this second day of Rosh HaShanah, we look at the example of Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah, and we hear once again the words of Khizr Khan. What have I sacrificed?
While we frequently think of sacrifice in terms of patriotic duty, the truth is that Judaism, like other religions, also sets up self-sacrifice as a religious value. We call this mesirat ha-nefesh, handing over one’s life. One of the most famous Midrashim on the Akeidah says that the binding was Isaac’s own idea. He was impressed by the example of his big brother Ishmael who submitted to circumcision at age 13, and in a moment of enthusiasm, offered his entire life for God.
תלמוד בבלי מסכת סנהדרין דף פט עמוד ב
רבי לוי אמר: אחר דבריו של ישמעאל ליצחק. אמר לו ישמעאל ליצחק: אני גדול ממך במצות, שאתה מלת בן שמנת ימים ואני בן שלש עשרה שנה. אמר לו: ובאבר אחד אתה מגרה בי? אם אומר לי הקדוש ברוך הוא, זבח עצמך לפני – אני זובח. מיד – והאלהים נסה את אברהם.
In fact, this concept of self-sacrifice became part of the Jewish concept of martyrdom, most famously with the example of Rabbi Akiva:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף סא עמוד ב
רבי עקיבא אומר: בכל נפשך אפילו נוטל את נפשך.
By the middle ages, the concept of Mesirat HaNefesh became a normal part of Jewish spirituality. The Zohar taught that when saying the Shema, at the final word Ehad one should visualize his own death for the sake of God.
It is not that Judaism teaches us to take the value of our lives lightly. Quite the contrary, the rabbis emphasize וחי בהם, that the mitzvot are for living, but they did set up three cardinal rules that would call for self-sacrifice. No one aspires to reach such a moment, but during Hadrianic persecutions of Roman times, during the Crusades and also during the Shoah, some Jews have drawn comfort from the idea that their courageous sacrifice would be rewarded by God.
Indeed, we read the Akeidah today, and also blow the shofar as a way of saying that God should remember the terrifying moment of self-sacrifice by both father and son on Mt. Moriah—and give us credit for what they endured.
So we respect self-sacrifice, but we also dread it. The Rabbis amplify the ambivalence that Abraham must have felt—God said, Take your son, and Abraham said, I have two sons. Take your special one. Each boy is special to his mother. Whom you love. I love them both! Isaac. In contrast to the eerie compliance of the Torah reading, the rabbis add ambivalence to Abraham, and they also have God reluctant to make the horrible request. This strikes me as a more palatable model of sacrifice—reluctant even if willing.
But there are moments when the entire model of sacrifice begins to break down. For many Jews in the past century, the Shoah was that breaking point, when God could no longer be trusted to protect us, and therefore God was no longer entitled to demand sacrifice from us. Rebuilding that trust has been a slow process, and for some Jews, it is not in the cards. I have been inspired by survivors like Hazan Larry Vieder, with whom I worked in Michigan, and by his neighbor from Sighet, the late Elie Wiesel, עליהם השלום, who were able to articulate a middle position—not of a simple faith that God would always protect, but also not a broken faith that there was no longer reason to believe and to sacrifice.
Such a middle position is hard to articulate in religion, and also in our life as citizens. For me, the social contract of America is intact—I feel safe, respected, and protected. And I am willing to give more of myself to share these blessings with others. But my experience, perhaps our experience, does not typify what so many others endure. For many Americans the social contract is breaking down.
The assumption that sacrifice for country is 100% positive has been challenged in America. The most visible sign is the refusal of some athletes to stand for the national anthem. They are exercising the constitutional right of expression. But this is not just a little individual protest. These athletes are expressing the broad frustration that America is not valuing their lives—black lives—equally, and therefore America does not deserve the absolute devotion implied by standing for the anthem, and serving in the military.
I wish that we could dismiss this protest, but how can we? How can we ignore the experience of so many people of color? The premise of patriotism is that citizens offer their property and even their lives for our country that values and protects their property and their life. Once that premise breaks down, then so too does the patriotic consensus. I know that we have been here before—patriotism was openly mocked by the end of the Vietnam war. But in the 8th year of the Obama administration, it is hard to believe that here we are.
This summer I performed a lovely wedding in the NY Botanical Gardens in the Bronx. It was on Thursday, July 7—a rainy but warm evening where we celebrated the love of a young couple. Afterwards, I called an Uber car to take me home—one nice thing about the service is that the driver knows your name, and you know theirs. He asked, how are you tonight, Danny? I said, fine thank you, how are you Steven? As we drove he asked me whether I had been following the news. I had—on Tuesday, Alton Sterling had been killed by police officers in Baton Rouge. On Wednesday, Philando Castile was shot by an officer, an incident narrated and filmed by his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds. And even as we drove back to Manhattan, 5 police officers were shot in Dallas. Within days another 3 officers would be killed in Baton Rouge, and it felt like the entire country was coming apart.
My driver Steven was African American, and I asked him about his experience driving all day. He said that when he gets pulled over, he lowers the windows, turns on his dome light and puts his hands on the wheel to try to stay alive. He is afraid that even a flinch could cost him his life. He told me that the crazy thing is that his brother is currently serving in the US Army in Iraq. Over there the rules of engagement were incredibly strict—US personnel are not permitted to discharge a firearm unless they are already under fire. Why, he wondered, isn’t it the same on the streets of our own cities? Steven worried for his brother’s life, but his brother worried about him. Something here is profoundly wrong.
We have a vision problem in America. We are having trouble seeing each other. We see skin, not souls. And as a result, we are relating to each other in the most crude and cruel fashion. And with this breakdown of relationship, we have a dissolution of social bond, and an unwillingness to sacrifice for one another.
What we need is the ability to look at one another more carefully, to see the blessings and the challenges of each person and to respect the many ways in which our own experience is not universal. We need to look and truly see each person, their sacrifice and remember this the next time we speak.
The Akeda story ends to our relief with a substitute sacrifice. Instead of his son, Abraham offers God a ram. And then Abraham says something peculiar:
בראשית פרק כב, יד
(יד) וַיִּקְרָא אַבְרָהָם שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא יְקֹוָק יִרְאֶה אֲשֶׁר יֵאָמֵר הַיּוֹם בְּהַר יְקֹוָק יֵרָאֶה:
We don’t actually know how to translate the text since the vowels are a late addition, and the crucial verb, to see, is given in two forms, active and passive. Either it means that on this mountain, God could finally be seen. Or that on this mountain, God could see. There is a clarification—maybe God could not see Abraham before now, and maybe Abraham could not see God. Their actions were crude and even destructive, but fortunately clarity came before calamity.
A midrash in Mekhilta connects this passage to the story of the Exodus, when God instructs Israel to place blood on the doorposts. God says, “I will see the blood.” Rabbi Ishmael asks, doesn’t God see everything? He answers that this image connects us to the image of Isaac, and that allows God to regard us as a people who are eternally devoted, ready to sacrifice, and worthy of love and protection.
We have much to learn from this Midrash. Sacrifice is not sufficient—we need to learn how to see one another—to see the sacrifices that others have made, to appreciate their innate human dignity, and work together to rebuild the trust required for a healthy social fabric.
In the end, I hope that Khizr Khan’s charge can become true for everyone—that we not be called upon to sacrifice anything and certainly not any one. But for that time to come, we need to rebuild the connections between us, so we see each other in our distinction, and we recognize in each other the shared valued of being created in the divine image and worth of divine love.
 מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בא – מסכתא דפסחא פרשה ז ד”ה וראיתי את הדם. היה ר’ ישמעאל אומר והלא הכל גלוי לפניו שנ’ ידע מה בחשוכא ונהורא עמיה שרא (דניאל ב כב) ואומר גם חשך לא יחשיך ממך (תהלים קלט יב) ומה ת”ל וראיתי את הדם. אלא בשכר מצוה שאתם עושים אני נגלה וחס עליכם שנאמר ופסחתי עליכם. אין פסיחה אלא חייס שנאמר כצפרים עפות כן יגן יי’ צבאות על ירושלם גנון והציל פסוח והמליט (ישעיה לא ה): ד”א וראיתי את הדם רואה אני דם עקדתו של יצחק שנאמר ויקרא אברהם שם המקום ההוא יי’ יראה וגו’ (בראשית כב יד) ולהלן הוא אומר ובהשחית ראה יי’ וינחם וגו’ (ד”ה =דברי הימים= א’ כא טו) מה ראה ראה דם עקדתו של יצחק [שנאמר ה’ אלהים יראה לו השה].