Nothing is more frightful than the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, and nothing is more difficult than recounting it. We have been commanded regarding our history, "You must tell it to your child (literally, 'your son')," but just what shall we tell our sons and our daughters? That the test of faith according to Judaism is parents' readiness to murder their children as a supreme expression of their reverence for God?
On the surface, the story is a simple one. God, it is written, "tested Abraham." Abraham passed the test and was declared a God-fearing man because he did not hold back his son from God. In a test between reverence and love, reverence won. Abraham preferred reverence for God over love for his son, as one can see both from what is told in the story and what is hinted at there. Before the Akedah, Abraham is told, "Take your son, your only one, whom you love," while afterward he is praised as one who "did not hold back your son, your only one, from Me." No more "whom you love."
It is without Isaac that Abraham returns with the servant lads to Beersheba, while his wife Sarah, Isaac's mother, dies alone in Hebron. The Bible does not expand on this, but it is not difficult to imagine, on the basis of this version, what Isaac felt toward this father, nor what Sarah felt toward Abraham when he was prepared to sacrifice her son, her beloved son, the joy of her withered old age.
The story is shocking and difficult to digest. More important, it stands in profound contradiction to early stories in the Torah. Does God's command to Noah that "whoever sheds the blood of a human--by a human his blood will be shed" not apply to instances when one must appease God? Did God, who decreed punishment for Cain son of Adam because of his brother's blood that cried out from the ground, really put a father to the test of shedding his son's blood on the altar?
Furthermore, Abraham's silence and obedience are at odds, too, with his way of dealing with his God prior to the Akedah incident. If Abraham, God's serial interlocutor, was worried that God would in fact cause harm to Isaac, wouldn't he at least have interceded with Him? Wouldn't he have pleaded to God on behalf of his son, the apple of his eye, as he did for the questionably righteous people of Sodom, where his close relative lived? Would he not have given voice to his pain and his love for Isaac, at least as much as he had done when God hit him with the command to send away his other son, Ishmael? Would he not have reproved God for shedding human blood? Would he not have insisted on sticking to the terms of the covenant that God had made with him regarding Isaac? Would he not have demanded the privilege and obligation written in the Torah, where distinctions of earlier and later are erased, to "choose life"?
If so, perhaps the story of the Akedah is not about reverence for God over human life at all. Perhaps Abraham's test was one of faith in a God who sanctifies life. Perhaps the Akedah was the pinnacle of a mutual process between God and Abraham about trust, faith, and the sanctity of life. Like a parent educating a child through various experiences, so was God with Abraham. He wanted Abraham to internalize profoundly, by trial and reflection, his Torah, which sanctifies life, so that "he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right." And Abraham is not at all a passive player in this process. Like a child vis-à-vis his parents, he too is testing God, sometimes even rebuking Him, and is a partner to God in establishing values and limits.
If God had not wanted the human as a partner, for what purpose did He create him in His own image and why, despite what He had said earlier, did He leave the human alive after he ate from the Tree of Knowledge? And for what reason did he base his relationship with Abraham on a covenant, and why did he issue the command to Abraham to "go forth" only after Abraham had already begun to head toward Canaan with his father? And what is the meaning of God's statement that "the human has become like one of us, knowing good and evil" if not that humans have become partners with God in matters of good and evil?
Thus, from the beginning God lets Abraham in on his intent to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. He puts before him the challenge of life's sanctity and yields lovingly to Abraham's pleas on behalf of Sodom's righteous residents and even to his challenges, "Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?" and "Shall not the Judge of all the earth act justly?" In His response to Abraham, God agrees to save the righteous people and, for their sake, the entire city.
Faith in God attains completion
After Abraham interrupts his negotiations at 10 righteous people, God saves the four righteous people in Sodom, as if hinting to Abraham: you did not have to stop at ten; the lives of just four people are sacred, too. Afterward came another test--the demand to send away two people, two who were even closer to him than Lot and his family: his son Ishmael and Ishmael's mother, Hagar. And Abraham, now already after the story of Sodom, fears for the life of his son and appears unwilling to cast him out: "The matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned a son of his." God promises He will protect his son, but proceeds immediately to educate him regarding his omission of Hagar from his earlier concern: "Do not be distressed over the boy or your maidservant, " as if to tell Abraham: even the life of one lone man or one lone woman, even if she is a servant, is sacred.
And now God and Abraham ascend to the very summit of the immortal discourse between God and humanity about faith and life. It is not faith trumping human life that is the subject of the Akedah's test, but rather faith in a divinity that sanctifies human life. Abraham asks himself: could it really be that the God whom he had chosen, the One who had rescued Noah, who had heeded his rebuke and taken pity on the good people of Sodom, who had heard the stirring of his heart and taken pity on Ishmael, the same God who had made a covenant with him and promised to sustain it through Isaac, would instruct him to do harm to his son, his only one, whom he loved? He deeply believes that God cannot in fact desire human sacrifice. And so, when Abraham ascends Mount Moriah, he speaks honestly when he tells his servant lads, "You stay here with the ass. The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you." Not "I will return," but "we will return," because he is certain that Isaac will return with him. And as he approaches the sacrificial site, Abraham answers Isaac's question honestly and directly: "God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering, my son." He is convinced that in the end, God will provide the ram, as in fact happened.
Nonetheless, could Abraham have been absolutely certain of that? What should I do?--he asks himself: shall he once again take up a case with God at the level of theory, or shall he go on to actually experience, together with God, the climax of their shared test regarding reverence and life?
Abraham chooses to hold his tongue. He goes up the mountainside, builds the altar, arrays the logs, binds up Isaac and places him on those logs. And when everything is ready, he extends his arm, picks up the knife, closes his eyes, and waits for a moment that seems to last longer than the exile foretold to him by God in the Covenant of the Pieces. Will God let him down, or is he correct in placing his faith in God? Will he have to contend with his God again, or have they already achieved a full understanding of the meaning of their covenant? And then, with Abraham's sword suspended above his son, his heart pounding, and his ear inclined, ready to hear, the voice of the angel comes from heaven: "Do not raise your hand against the boy."
At that moment, Abraham's faith in God attains completion, comprising as it does his complete trust that God does not desire human sacrifice. And God, who had educated Abraham and tutored him, knows that his student had withstood the test, had reached the pinnacle of faith, which includes the sanctity of the life created in God's image, and now He can send him on his way, to teach and bequeath his Torah to the generations to come. Nearly ten times, God converses with Abraham, from Haran to Mount Moriah. Once he reaches that pinnacle, there is no further need for conversation between the God of "Thou shalt not murder" and Abraham until his dying day. His God trusts him, and he, trusting in his God, sets off independently on his way, on their way.
It was not faith at the price of life that was the test of the Akedah, but rather the sanctity of life at the heart of faith. Together they stood the test, God and man. Together they have exalted one another, and together, in a wondrous dialogue from Sodom and Gomorrah to Mt. Moriah, they have brought the world the value of human life, exalting it as they did the sanctity of God.
Sallai Meridor, in dialogue with his daughters No'omi, Ayelet, and Adi
- Follow Ynetnews on Facebook