Rosh Hashanah, Second Day
20 September 2009 / 2 Tishrei 5770
The Akedah is one of the Torah’s most difficult parshas for me to understand. It elicits confusion, frustration, and even anger when I read midrashim praising Avraham for passing Hashem’s oh so difficult test—sacrificing his son. The Akedah has been called the greatest test of Avraham's life: Doing that which seemed unreasonable and contradictory. Giving up the child that Hashem had given him, the child Avraham and Sarah had want for so many years. This was the child who needed to play such a central role in the future of our religion, a future that Hashem Herself had promised us.
I have never been able to accept that, by his willingness to slaughter this very special son, Avraham could have passed and test Hashem would have given him. Taking care of our children is such a central tenet in our religion. Recognizing that they are our future, and must be protected and loved. How could Hashem have wanted His protégé, the leader of His people, to be ready and willing to kill Yitzchak, the next leader of our people? Perhaps: Hashem did not want this, but hoped for something very different from Avraham.
One thing I love about Torah is that some of its most profound lessons come from when great people make very serious mistakes. The Torah is not a book about saints. People in it are human. They sometimes rise to difficult challenges and do wonderful, unbelievable things. But at other times, they make terrible choices. Is it possible that the whole point of the Akedah story is to learn, not from the great thing Avraham did, but rather from the worst mistake he ever made?
Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman of Jerusalem mused in his writings that maybe Hashem’s test of Avraham was exactly opposite to what is so often written: Hashem wanted Avraham to refuse to take the knife to his son, refuse even God, whom Avraham loved fiercely. I wonder of the point of Hashem’s test was for Avraham to prove his moral autonomy, his natural sense of right and wrong, his willingness to stand up and resist when this was violated. Such actions would not have been new to Avraham. When Hashem planned to destroy the city of Sodom, Avraham challenged Him, argued with Him, even tried to bargain with Him. But Avraham was a much younger, and perhaps very different, man then. Avraham loved his son Yitzchak, but at the Akedah -- Avraham did not exhibit the moral courage or inner power to defend his son against Hashem’s decree. Avraham only exhibited obedience.
Rabbi Paul Kipnes approaches the Akedah from a different tack, asking us to consider whether Hashem really did command Avraham to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering. Drawing from the Midrash Tanhuma, he focuses on one word in the Akedah: olah. In the Akedah, Hashem said to Abraham: v’haaleihu sham l’olah, bring him (Isaac) up as an olah. This word traditionally refers to a sacrifice–a ‘burnt offering’--an act representing submission to God’s will. But olah comes from the root Ayin-Lamed-Hey, “ascension,” the same root from which aliyah comes. Must olah refer to a burnt offering here, as in the smoke of the sacrifice rises up? Perhaps olah could mean, in the case of the Akedah, a spiritual uplift.
God literally said, lech l’cha el eretz hamoriah (go to the land of Moriah, the area where the Akedah was to take place), and v’haaleihu sham l’olah (take him (your son) up there for an olah). An olah was traditionally sacrifice that represented complete surrender to God. The entire offering was given up to Hashem; no part of it was used afterward.
I wonder if Avraham may have misunderstood Hashem’s true intention--for complete spiritual surrender; NOT corporeal surrender. Offering up Yitzhak in a spiritual sense.
RASHI comments on another choice of words in the Akedah. Hashem said to Avraham, ha’aleihu l’olah—bring him up for an olah. God did not use what may have been a more logical phrasing, should He have really wanted Yitzchak sacrificed: sh’chateihu l’olah slaughter him for an olah. The command sh’chateihu comes from the same root as shochet, a slaughterer of animals. Why did Hashem not use the latter form of the command, but instead said for Avraham for bring his son up to Moriah? I wonder if Hashem was giving Avraham a hint as to his true intent regarding Yitzchak. Bring up your beloved son, raise him up toward me that I might know him better, this person who will be the next patriarch of my people, then bring him back down.
In preparing this drash, I talked about the Akedah with another powerful authority--my mother. I asked her, if you were Avraham, would you have listened to Hashem? The moral outrage that was transmitted through 100 miles of phone line was amazing. With tremendous moral outrage: WHAT???? Never, never, never, never --- I could not believe in God if commanded me to do such a thing.
My mother felt totally justified in exercising her moral autonomy when she knew something was right or wrong. Not even God could sway her in this. And that perhaps was just what Hashem was hoping for from Avraham. That may have been the essence of the Akedah test. If his whole being told him that sacrificing his son was wrong, he needed to resist even Hashem.
Another thing that bothers me about the Akedah--It is about an intimate interaction between Hashem and Avraham, an interaction that will have a dramatic effect on Yitzchak. But nowhere in the parshah is the impact on Yitzchak ever considered. Here’s how I imagine Yitzchak himself might have explained his experience of the Akedah, perhaps to his wife years later:
You have to understand that I adored my abba in those days. I thought he sat next to Hashem himself, and trusted anything he said. And he . . . shattered that trust.
When my father spread firewood on the summit of Mount Moriah and laid me on top, I had no doubt that he must have had an excellent reason for doing this.
When he first lifted that long, shiny knife that he used to slaughter lambs, I was still not worried. But when he looked at me and I saw he meant to kill me, I finally understood.
In that moment, my illusions about him vanished. It was like a mask fell off his face to reveal the real person within.
My father had dedicated his life to pleasing Hashem, no matter what the cost. It was his conceit that he was the one man who would do anything the Ein Sof asked. Anything.
But in his zeal to please Hashem, he forgot one thing. To have any compassion for what I felt. A terror such as I had never known. In that moment when the father I revered prepared to stab his knife into my heart, my world, everything I believed in was shattered.
I stopped believing in my father, and I stopped believing that Hashem was a compassionate God.
Never, never did my father consider what his actions had done to me. He may have passed God’s test, but he failed his son. He acted with no feeling for me whatsoever.
Richard Ellis [U of Mass.] points out that after the Akedah neither Ishmael, the banished son, nor Isaac, the almost sacrificed son, ever speaks with Avraham again anywhere in the Torah. The next time that father and sons are together is at Avraham’s funeral. This and other aspects certainly point to the Akedah being a turning point in Avraham’s life. For instance, Sarah dies after the Akedah, and some midrashim suggest that she dies when she hears what her husband plans to do to her son.
Prior to the Akedah, each encounter between Hashem and Avraham occurs in direct one-on-one conversations. Afterwards, Hashem never again speaks directly to Avraham. All further communication is passed through an angel.
The angel does let Avraham know that Hashem has blessed him and will multiply his seed ‘as the stars in the heaven,’ but why are Hashem’s messages suddenly coming through an intermediary?
What seems most reasonable to me is Hashem considers Avraham to have simultaneously passed and failed His test. Avraham showed absolute devotion to God, yes, but was ready to employ violent means to pursue that love. He was ready to kill the son who was the future of his people, without even a word of protest! The use of an intermediary--the angel--may have proclaimed a message: Avraham wasn’t really listening to Hashem’s teachings of compassion, and She was not very happy about this.
Or perhaps, Hashem saw that the aging Avraham had lost his edge. He was no longer the fiery idol-smasher he had been when young. He no longer had the moral compass to challenge even God, as he did regarding Sodom. Now, he was simply about obedience, and no longer the best one to lead our people. It was time for him to go into retirement and pass the torch to someone more fit—his son Yitzchak.
At its heart, the Akedah is about how we as Jews should act. Should we ever take the path of blind obedience? Perhaps we must instead respect our own moral compasses enough to act upon them, even if such actions appear to oppose the powers that be.
The Akedah is about handling responsibility. Avraham in essence sluffed off responsibility for his son onto Hashem’s shoulders. Is such an action, which Kierkegaard called the “suspension of the ethical,” ever a right action? Avraham’s ‘faith’ constituted a surrender of his own judgment of right and wrong in favor of unconditional acceptance of God’s apparent will. Avraham separated religious faith from moral judgment.
I personally prefer to follow the example of the young, defiant Avraham, who smashed idols and had the moral autonomy to challenge Hashem’s plan for destroying the city of Sodom, rather than follow the older Avraham’s example of docile obedience and transference of responsibility.
The very beginning of the Torah gives a hint as to what Avraham’s right path might have been in the Akedah. Near the beginning of Braeshit, it is written that we were created b’tselem elohim—in Hashem’s own image. This cannot mean an image such as a photograph or painting of God, since we never have found out just what She looks like, or if she can even be defined in an image. B’tselem elohim is an ‘image’ in a deeper sense—we were created to be, as best as we can, like God. To act, as much as our natures will permit, like God. In other words, during our best moments, we can have a similar nature to that of Hashem.
So to answer the question, what should Avraham have done during the Akedah, we can ask, what would God have done in that situation? And we know what God did: She saved Yitzhak from harm. That’s exactly what Avraham should have done. That’s what Hashem had hoped he’d do, and because he did not, he failed the most important part of Hashem’s test.
If we are truly made in the image of God, we must definitely NOT be unquestioning followers, but beings with a sense of right and wrong and justice. And in order to be b’tselem elohim, we can never forsake our innate sense of what is right and just. We can never lay that task on Hashem’s shoulders or a leader’s shoulders, or anybody else’s shoulders.
That, to me, is the meaning of the Akedah, and the only way that it makes sense.