At the beginning of our religious year, during the most important and sacred time of the year, we open the Torah and read the story of the Akedah, The Binding of Isaac. The story is short, only nineteen verses, but it is very intense. A man who has spoken directly to Gd, who has been promised by Gd that his descendants will be as the sands of the shore and the stars of the sky, is told by Gd to take his son and offer him up as a sacrifice. How are we to understand this story, that depicts Abraham our ancestor, and even Gd, in an unfavorable light?
The Torah calls Isaac the son of Abraham’s old age. More importantly, he is the son of Sarah’s old age. Isaac is a miracle, and yet Abraham is given this terrible command.
Not long before, Gd told Abraham that he was going to destroy the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. What was Abraham’s reply then? Abraham told Gd that it was not fair. It was not fair to destroy the good with the wicked. Abraham argued with Gd! “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”says Abraham. And Gd agrees not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if righteous people can be found there. Abraham wins the argument! So what does Abraham say when Gd tells him to sacrifice Isaac?
In the Torah Abraham says nothing. The story is famous for its terseness. Not a word is wasted. Given that, the Rabbis found Gd’s command to Abraham interesting. Gd says: את נא קח יצחק את אהבת אשר יחידך את בנך
"Take your son, your only one, the one you love, Isaac."
Why did Gd refer to Isaac four different ways? According to the Rabbis, this shows that Abraham did try to argue with Gd. When Gd said “Take your son,” Abraham said “I have two sons, I don’t know which you mean.” So Gd had to say “Your only one,” and Abraham replied, ”Ishmael is the only son of his mother, and Isaac is the only son of his mother.” “The one you love,” said Gd. “ I love both my sons,” said Abraham, and finally Gd is forced to break down and say the name Abraham knows is coming, “Isaac.”
There are other words missing here. Does Abraham tell Gd that it is not fair? Does he ask the Judge of the earth to do justly? The next words are “Abraham rose up early in the morning...” Not only did he arise the next day to perform this horrible act, but he arose early in the morning. The traditional Jewish commentators have said that this shows that Abraham was eager to do Gd’s will, which brought him great merit in Gd’s eyes. But how could it be possible that he was eager to do this dreadful thing?
Some say Abraham left early in the morning so that Sarah would not know what he was doing. It seems likely that, although he dared not incur the wrath of Gd, neither did Abraham dare to incur the wrath of his wife.
I believe that Abraham did not sleep at all that night. He may have lain in his tent trying to decide if he would follow Gd’s command or not. He may have tossed and turned, trying not to picture the terrible event that was to take place. He arose early in the morning, shook his son awake and saddled his donkey.
Throughout much of our history, religious Jews have been proud of Abraham’s actions. Gd tested Abraham and Abraham passed the test with flying colors. Abraham loved Gd more than he loved his own son, more than he loved his own future. Abraham followed Gd’s commandments no matter what they were, at any cost to himself. Why do we read about the Binding of Isaac today, on Rosh Hashanah? Because this is the day when Gd is deciding our future, when we are asking Gd to have mercy on us. What better day to remind the Eternal One of the time we Jews were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for Gd? Abraham did what he was supposed to do, and Gd made a covenant with him. The promise that Gd made was that Gd would bless the descendants of Abraham. We are the descendants of Abraham, and so we tell this story to remind Gd to keep Gd’s promise and bless us. Remember the merit of our ancestor Abraham, and how he was willing to follow Your commandments no matter what. For his sake, if not for ours, have mercy on us, take pity on us, forgive us.
Today, many Jews are extremely troubled by this story. We are all too familiar with people who kill for reasons they believe are religious. Today, as we sit in this room, men who are called religious leaders are telling their followers to go and kill, that Gd wants them to do it. How can we trust anyone who kills for that reason? If we condemn terrorists, if we condemn the murderers of ISIS, should we not condemn Abraham who also believed he was doing Gd’s will?
Of course, traditional Judaism would say that Abraham truly heard the Voice of Gd, while the suicide bombers only hear power hungry men trying to gain political advantage. But even so. Even so. Even if Abraham heard Gd’s command, how could he agree to it? Why didn’t he fight, the way he fought for Sodom and Gomorrah? Abraham believed that the Judge of the world must deal justly. What in his previous experience of Gd prepared him for a command like this? Abraham knew Gd as a creator. And a destroyer, but a destroyer of the wicked. Does Gd destroy the innocent as well?
Yes. Unfortunately, yes. We know that good people suffer. We know that sometimes our only ones, the ones we love, are taken from us. It does not happen in this story. This story, central to Judaism, has a happy ending. An angel appears and calls out “Abraham, Abraham! Do not reach out your hand against the boy, and do not do anything to him.” Sometimes an angel appears. Sometimes we are saved us from disaster. But not every time. Scholars say that the story of the Binding of Isaac represents a turning point in religion. Before this moment, it was common to sacrifice one’s children to Gd. From this time on, say Jewish sages, Gd would refuse to accept any human sacrifice. This is not to say that human sacrifice did not go on for many years, and in many parts of the world. People today still sacrifice their children, for honor, for money, and even for freedom. Parents in Israel send their children off to the army every year. We pray that our children will come back safely. But we know, sometimes, they do not.
A friend of mine who is a rabbi believes that Gd tested Abraham, and Abraham failed the test. That what Gd really wanted was for Abraham to refuse, to say no, to say to Gd that this is not what You Yourself have taught me. I will not sacrifice my son.
Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz imagined Abraham refusing, and Gd saying good work Abraham! You have passed the test! Now I know you are worthy to be the father of the Jewish people! That would have been nice, but that is not the way the story goes.
It would nice to think we will never have to make a sacrifice. Perhaps there will come a time when no one will have to send their children to war. As Jews, we are obligated to believe that such a time will come, and to strive to bring it into being. But that time has not yet come.
According to the Bible, Abraham passed the test. As the Torah says “...the Lord declares, because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only one, I will greatly bless you...” 1
One of my teachers, Rabbi Michael Chernick, suggests a different way to read this passage. Yes, Gd was testing Abraham. But also Abraham was testing Gd!
Abraham is not asking if the Judge of the world would deal justly, he wants to see with his own eyes if the Judge of the world will deal justly! Abraham does not believe that Gd will go through with this human sacrifice, so he pretends to go along. Abraham is sure that Gd will pass the test, and refuse to let him go through with this terrible sacrifice!
This is why, when Abraham leaves his servants at the foot of the mountain, he tells them " We will return to you." This is why, when Isaac asks where the lamb for the sacrifice is, Abraham confidently tells him that "Gd will provide a lamb for the sacrifice."
When Isaac is bound on the altar and Abraham takes the knife in his hand, an angel cries out ‘Abraham Abraham!’ When Abraham heard his name called the first time, he knew that Gd was backing down. Gd was intervening to make sure that Abraham does not kill Isaac. The midrash says that Abraham decided to make the test a little harder, so he pretended that he had not heard his name called the first time. So the angel had to call a second time.
Abraham replies “ הנני , Here I am,” and the angel says, “Do not reach out your hand against the boy, and do not do anything to him...” Again, why the repetition? Why did the angel say ‘do not do anything to him’ if he had already said ‘Do not reach out your hand against the boy?” There are no wasted words in this story! The midrash explains that when Abraham was told ‘Do not reach out your hand against the boy,’ he decided to test Gd a little further. He said ‘Oh, so that means I shouldn’t use my hands to strangle him? Well, don’t worry, I have a knife. I’ll just cut his throat.’ So the angel was forced to go on and say ‘do not do anything to him.
’ And then Abraham said ‘Ok then. You tell me what I am doing here. You tell me why I had to climb this mountain. You told me to offer Isaac up as a burnt offering. You also told me that I was to become the father of a great nation through Isaac. Which one of those things is true? Because it cannot be both.’
At that point Gd is forced to come down and speak to Abraham. I have to go to the Hebrew here. Gd’s command was “Ha’alehu sham l’olah,” which means “offer him up there as a burnt offering,” but the literal meaning of the word ‘olah,’ burnt offering, is ‘the one who goes up.’ And the literal meaning of ‘ha’alehu,’ offer him up, is ‘send him up.’ So the Hebrew translation could also be read more literally as: “send him up as one who goes up.”
So Gd comes down and says to Abraham, “You weren’t listening carefully. Did I ever say ‘kill?’ Did I ever use the word ‘knife?’ I said ‘Send him up the mountain.’ Okay, you’ve passed the test. Now send him down again.”
We learn something very important from this understanding of the story. The Torah has a great deal of flexibility. It has to have meaning for the Israelites of three thousand years ago, the residents of Judea two thousand years ago, the Jews of the diaspora a thousand years ago, and for us as well. The Jews of Biblical days may have been comfortable with the idea of human sacrifice. It may have been common at that time. But the rabbis of the Talmud, some two to three thousand years later, were not comfortable with it. They were forced to seek a different meaning to this story, and so are we.
We learn not to be so quick to dismiss the Torah when it seems to be saying something that does not apply to us. It may be that five or six thousand years ago, human beings had a different view of violence, of racism, of hatred than we do now. But when we read the Torah, if it seems that Gd is telling us to hate, if it seems that the Torah is saying something that contradicts the message of justice, mercy, equality, and love that we need today from Judaism, then we are not listening carefully enough.
May it be Gd’s will that in this coming year we learn to listen a little more carefully. If Gd decides to test us, may it be not too hard of a test. May we remember love, and justice, and mercy, so that we too may pass the test, and be remembered by the Eternal for good. Amen.