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Controlling One’s Emotions in Order to Become a Better Person -- Yaakov Bieler

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The “Binding of Isaac” (Genesis 22:1-18) is an iconic event in the Bible, and has transcended its religious context, to become part of the corpus of the classics of Western literature. While it is read annually as both part of the cycle of weekly Tora portions (Parashat VaYeira) as well as the reading on the second day of the Jewish New Year (Rosh HaShana), the story of the “Binding of Isaac” has also been incorporated into the daily morning service, and is meant to be read immediately after the opening blessings. (A similar paragraph appears in the special Siddur for Rosh HaShana, as part of the Zichoronot [remembrance] section of Mussaf [the additional prayer recited in the morning].)
The meaning of the story concerning Abraham being called upon to sacrifice Isaac has always been considered elusive and highly problematic, and for these reasons, has been closely studied by many scholars down through the ages. However, in a paragraph that was inserted in the Shacharit (morning) liturgy that follows on the heels of the recitation of these verses from Genesis, based upon a Rabbinic homiletical interpretation, a very specific interpretation is offered, which reflects a basic ethical and moral value of Judaism:
Master of the Universe! Just as Abraham, our father, suppressed his compassion to do Your will wholeheartedly, so may Your compassion suppress Your anger from us, and may Your compassion prevail over Your other attributes. Deal with us, Lord our God, with the attributes of loving kindness and compassion, and in Your great goodness, may Your anger be turned away from Your people, Your city, Your land and Your inheritance. Fulfill in us, Lord our God, the promise You made in Your Tora through the hand of Moses Your servant, as it is said: (Leviticus 26:42) “I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham, I will remember and the land I will remember.”
Typically, human beings are called upon to reflect the “Image of God” with which each member of mankind has been endowed (Genesis 1:27), and strive to overcome his natural, base inclinations in order to emulate God’s more exalted example whenever He interacts with the inhabitants of this world (Deuteronomy 28:9). But the Siddur’s understanding turns this assumption on its head, suggesting that it is God Who is to learn from the exemplary behavior of a human being. Typically, the qualities of “Din” (judgment) and “Rachamim” (compassion) are placed in tension with one another. Although living in accordance with “Din” may be more in keeping with God’s desires for the world that He created, man is imperfect, and more often than not, requires being treated with “Rachamim” in order to be given additional chances in order to try to get right what is expected of him. And based upon “Rachamim,” a parent could never bring himself to overcome his deep paternal/maternal feelings towards his/her children, and do something to them that would be detrimental to their lives and welfare. Yet the story of “Akeidat Yitzchak” depicts just such an instance, where Abraham is described as being prepared to sacrifice Isaac, if that is God’s wish. The fact that in the end, such a sacrifice is not practically demanded, does not take away from Abraham’s readiness to subjugate his nature “Rachamim” to the Divine “Din.” In the Ethics of the Fathers (4:1), among the truisms that Ben Zoma imparts, is: “…Who is a mighty individual? One who conquers his own inclinations…” and this is certainly exemplified by Avraham’s example. Consequently, if man is capable of altering his nature in order to be able to do the “right thing,” then one would expect God to be “able” to do the same, moving in the opposite direction, and preferring “Rachamim” to “Din.”
Turning aside from the theological thrust of this prayer in order to focus upon what someone might take away from such a formulation with regard to everyday living, it could be said that we all react naturally and viscerally to certain situations and stimuli. However, our initial tendencies might not be in the best interests of others or even of ourselves. Instead of reveling in our readiness to respond “unfiltered” to whatever we may like or dislike, perhaps our very humanity is best realized when we take the time to think about how we wish to respond, and sometimes assume the “unnatural,” “counterintuitive” position in the interests of the best long-term outcome, rather than continuing to be overly concerned with our first impressions for the short-term.  
 
Rabbi Jack Bieler was ordained at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University in 1974. He has been an administrator and faculty member of Orthodox Jewish day schools for over forty years. He is a Jerusalem Fellow and has published and lectured widely on the philosophy of Modern Orthodox Jewish education. He has served as Rabbi of KMS since 1993, retiring in 2015. Rabbi Bieler's daily blog can be found at https://yaakovbieler.wordpress.com. 
 
Rabbi Bieler has been a Panelist for Jewish Values Online for several years, responding to questions. You can find his answers by visiting Jewish Values Online, selecting the ‘View all panelists’ link, and clicking his name. A link will appear with his bio to show all answers he has submitted.
 
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