Today we read about the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. It’s a terrifying and difficult reading, that begins with a difficult verse (Genesis 22:1):
וַיְהִ י֗ אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה וְהָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים נִסָּ֖ה אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֑ם
And it came to pass after these things, G-d tested Abraham
What does this mean? It’s easy to understand on a simplistic, narrative level: God wants to know if Avraham has enough faith, or love, or fear to sacrifice his son Isaac who he loves. But when we start to look below the surface, even the idea of God testing is strange and confusing. Doesn’t God already know what Avraham will do?
What does it mean that G-d tested Avraham? And what can we learn from this from our own lives? God willing, no one will ask us to sacrifice our children directly, but we might find ourselves being asked to sacrifice them indirectly- to continue with business as usual despite our knowledge that it will make the world they live in when they are adults a very difficult one. Or to force them into the mold of our own dreams and beliefs at the expense of who they are.
There are two traditional explanations of why God tested Avraham and why God tests people in general. The first explanation, suggested by the Kuzari and Nachmanides, is that God tests us so we will learn what we are capable of. We might have thought that we would never be able to push ourselves to do something very difficult but very important and good. God tests us to stretch us and help us grow in our ability to do good. According to this explanation, you could connect the Hebrew word for testing, Nasah, Nun Samech Hey, with the word Nes, Nun samech, miracle. As in, “It’s a miracle that I made it through two years of Netivot Shalom board meetings without screaming.”
The second explanation, advanced by Maimonides, is that God tests us so that we can be an example to others. Others will hear the story of how we did something difficult and important, and be inspired to be better people themselves. Maimonides connects this explanation with another meaning of the word Nes: flag. A righteous person is like a flag for the world, which people can see from afar, rally around, and be inspired by. Greta Thunberg and many of the young people at Netivot Shalom are examples of this kind of person- they skipped school and made many personal sacrifices to protest inaction on climate change, inspiring millions to participate in an international youth climate strike.
So God may be testing us to help us grow and to inspire others. But how do these goals fit with the nature of God’s tests? Why would God ask Avraham to sacrifice his beloved son Yitzchak?
The Akedah is often described as a display of Avraham’s incredible faith. God has told him that his offspring would become a great people as numerous as the stars, and that the peoples of the Earth would be blessed by them. And then, as we read over the two days of Rosh Hashanah, God instructs Avraham to send away his son Ishmael into the desert, and then to sacrifice his son Isaac. Avraham will be left with no children to whom he can pass on his blessings and his beliefs.
Being childless is what prompted Avraham first to question God. In Genesis 15:1, God tells Avraham “Fear not, Avram, I am protecting you. Your reward is very great.” But Avram responds “Adonai Elohim, ma titen li vaanochi holech ariri?” “What can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless.” In our story, years later, after God has blessed him with two sons, he is being returned back to that place.
At the same time as God is stripping Avraham of his children, God has not rescinded the promise that he will be a great nation, with progeny as numerous of the stars. What is Avraham to make of this? Will the promise somehow be fulfilled? Has God changed God’s mind? And is this still the God that Avraham followed from his homeland, the God of justice who values every human life? Avraham is living in a place of complete uncertainty.
This uncertainty is what characterizes another instance of testing in the torah, that of the manna. When Bnei Yisrael, the Children of Israel, begin their journey through the desert they are immediately faced with the eternal Jewish question: what are we going to eat? They complain to Moshe, and God responds by sending down manna each morning. They could collect just enough to eat that day. Anyone who tried to collect more and save it up found that it would go bad, “Vayarum tolaim vayivash”, literally, “it was filled with worms and it stank!” Ichsa! The only exception was on Friday, when they collected a double portion, which miraculously stayed good over Shabbat. For forty years, God fed us in this way with manna in the desert.
The manna is described as a test and an affliction in two places in the torah, Exodus 16:4 and Deuteronomy 8:2-3. But why is it a test and an affliction to have food rain down from the sky for you each day, so that you just have to go out and collect it? Nachmanides explains the manna as a test of Bnei Yisrael’s ability to live in a state of uncertainty, unable to store up food to feel secure that they would have something to eat the next day, forced to rely on God and have faith that the manna will continue to be there. Maybe the reason they were allowed to collect manna for shabbat on Friday was not just to avoid the work of collecting it, but to spare them the uncertainty of wondering whether it would be there, to give them one day a week when they could be at peace.
And what is Bnei Yisrael’s response to this test? Do they accept the manna and do what God tells them? Yes, more or less, but immediately after the passage with the manna, the people test God in return. They come to a place that will be named Masah u’Merivah, Testing and Contention. There is no water for them and they cry out “Ma nishteh? What will we drink?”. Moses berates them saying “Mah tenasun et Adonai?” “Why do you test God?” The torah tells us they tested God to see if God was truly in their midst. But God is not upset with the people, and simply instructs Moshe to bring forth water for them from a rock. It is only after these passages of reciprocal testing that we come to Sinai, where we can enter into a lasting, covenantal relationship with God. Maybe this is the third reason that God tests us, in order to be in a relationship with us, and to teach us that it is okay to test each other within that relationship. We can ask for what we need, we can protest, we can make demands, but we can remain together, committed to one another, and still love each other.
I haven’t experienced much difficult testing in my life- just a little from my kids. When my kids were born, I wanted to be a good father, and my heart told me that the way to do that was to help them achieve their dreams. When they really wanted something, I would do whatever I could to help them achieve it. When my older kid Zeke, who uses they/them pronouns, was 9 or 10, they were very into the Animorphs books, which are about a group of teenagers that can turn into animals. Zeke told me, “Aba, I’m going to turn myself into a hawk.” I told them that wasn’t possible. They said that they had it all figured out. They just needed to get some hawk DNA, inject it into themselves, and then they would be able to turn into a hawk. So I explained to them about developmental biology, genetic expression, and gene silencing and promoters. But they told me, “No, Aba. I have this all figured out. I just need some hawk DNA and I can make this happen.”
I didn’t want to say no, so I stopped by the street trees near our house where there were some Cooper’s Hawks nesting and brought back a feather.
“Here’s a hawk feather,” I told Zeke. “It should have some DNA in it.”
“OK,” said Zeke. “What’s our next step?”
“Well,” I said. “You would probably want to extract the DNA from the feather with a DNA extraction kit, and then you would probably want to amplify it, make a bunch of copies, so you would have enough DNA to work with. And you would probably want a PCR machine for that.”
“Great,” said Zeke. “Can we get an extraction kit and a PCR machine?”
“They’re pretty expensive,” I said. “But I know some people who are geneticists. Maybe we can use one of their labs.”
So I went to talk to Elad Ziv, a geneticist here at Netivot Shalom. And I said, “Elad, my kid wants to turn into a hawk. Can we borrow your lab?”
Elad just looked at me. I don’t think he even said anything, he just stood there. So I went back to Zeke and told them that they weren’t going to be able to turn into a hawk. They had tested me, and I had finally tested them back a little, and our relationship had survived. And they gave up on being a hawk, at least for the time being.
Returning to the Akedah, how does Avraham respond to complete uncertainty? Does he test God? No, Avraham responds by immediately following God’s command without question. Maybe this is a failure. But what redeems Avraham for me in this story is the way he behaves towards Yitzchak. For me, the most poignant passage of the Akedah is the brief exchange between Avraham and Yitzchak in the middle of the story. Let’s read it together.
Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Yitzchak. He himself took the firestone and the knife; and the two went together. Then Yitzchak said to Avraham his father, “Father!” And he answered, “Here I am, my son.” And he said, “Here are the firestone and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” And Avraham said, “God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together. This is the only recorded conversation between Avraham and Yitzchak in the Torah, which is sad but significant. The conversation starts and ends with the phrase “Vayelchu shneihem yachdav.” “And the two of them went together.”
Abraham responds to Yitzchak the same way he responds to God “Hineni” “Here I am,” a response that indicates truly being present and ready to respond to another’s needs. Their exchange is cryptic and brief but at the end, Yitzchak seems to understand something of what’s going on, and amazingly, is still together with his father. I think this is the redeeming part of the story. Despite being in a situation of complete uncertainty that threatens Yitzchak’s life and Avraham’s dreams, they don’t retreat from or blame each other.
As we enter this New Year, uncertain about what the future holds for us as individuals and as a society, let’s learn from Avraham and Yitzchak. Let’s be present with each other even when it’s hard. And let’s also learn from Bnei Yisrael in the wilderness: let’s not be afraid to test God when God is testing us. And let’s also learn from the end of the stories we read yesterday and today. When the angel comes to Hagar, God opens her eyes and she sees a well. And when the angel stops Avraham from sacrificing Yitzchak, he looks up and sees the ram. So when we find ourselves in a situation where we feel like there is no good way out, let’s open our eyes and lift them up. Maybe we’ll find that we can turn into a hawk. Or at least we might see a well that will allow us to make our way across the wilderness. Shana tova.