By Rabbi Haim Ovadia, AJRCA Professor of Talmud and Sephardic Thought
Sciopero Bianco – Avraham’s Italian Strike
Growing up in Israel, I would quite often hear, and experience, the term Italian Strike. Such a strike is carried out when workers are forced by law to show up to work and follow instructions, so they do exactly what is required of them and nothing more. The Israeli version of that strike is called a slow-down strike, in which all tasks are performed by the book but at a much slower pace.
I have always found it very difficult to defend, or even understand, Avraham’s actions, but last year I started thinking that maybe he tried to pull off a Sciopero Bianco.
Avraham, the employee, cannot disobey God, the employer. He is shocked by the demand, yet he cannot tell Sarah because he does not know how to break the news to her. He knows that he must obey, but he takes his time and slows everything down, hoping that God will change His mind. Let’s look at the text:
Gen. 22:3: Avraham rose up early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and split firewood.
Avraham has many servants, two of whom he takes with him on the journey. Why not ask one of them to saddle the donkey and split the wood?
Ibid.: Avraham travels with one donkey. In Gen. 12:16 we read that Avraham had many sheep, oxen, donkeys, and camels. Three adults and one child traveling with only one donkey?
Avraham was obviously stalling for time. The distance from Elone Mamre to Mount Moriah should have taken no more than 12 hours on a donkey, so taking only one donkey gave Avraham about more than two additional days.
Gen. 22:4-9: Avraham sees the place from afar, he tells his servants to wait for him with the donkey, and he goes on with Yitzhak. He then builds an altar and sets the firewood upon it.
Avraham could have continued with his servants to his final destination. That way, the donkey would keep carrying the firewood, instead of the young Yitzhak. Not taking his servants with him meant that Avraham had to build the altar and place the firewood by himself. Leaving the servants behind slowed the process significantly.
Gen. 22:8: Avraham tells Yitzhak that God will choose His sacrificial lamb. We can see these words as a suppressed scream, an indirect supplication to God: Please find a lamb! Please don’t let it be my son!
I can imagine Avraham silently screaming these words during the whole journey, hoping for an answer from God, for some marvelous twist in the plot or a Deus-ex-Machina to solve his dilemma.
Then comes the final moment. Avraham can delay no more, but in verse 10, he is still trying:
Avraham stretched out his hand,
And he took the knife
To slaughter his son…
We should read these words in slow motion. The Torah could have simply written that Avraham took the knife. But no! Avraham stretches his hand, slowly, telling God “See? I am about to do it! Please make it stop! Please stop me now!”
I have learned from my renewed reading of the story several lessons:
- Maybe I should apologize to Avraham for judging him harshly.
- We cannot conclude from that story that the ultimate act of devotion is sacrificing one’s life, or the life of others.
- We should study the biblical texts thoroughly, because we can always find something new.
R. Haim Ovadia