In our post-World War II world there is no aspect of the story of the Akedah (the Binding of Isaac) that is not jarring and disturbing. We ask, how could any father agree to slay his own son on God’s command and claim this as essential to faith?
This Torah portion (Vayera) confronts our relationship with God as none other in our tradition. In this age of skepticism, doubt and tentative belief we ask what kind of a human being was Abraham who was prepared to kill his son? Did Abraham “hear” God correctly, and if so, could any of us have said “Hineni” (Here I am) as Abraham did when God called him to demonstrate how far his faith would take him?
The mystics tell us that Abraham’s willingness to do God’s will reflects an ideal man of faith, that there are times when (per Kierkegaard) we have to suspend the ethical and nullify completely the individual ego, even if it means destroying everything we love and our future. The 20th century Israeli scholar and thinker Yeshayahu Liebowitz has written that we are not supposed to extract an ethical message from Abraham’s behavior. In effect, he says, human beings are not commanded by the Torah to be ethical; they are commanded to serve God!
I wonder. My understanding of the Torah and prophetic traditions is that a covenant of justice and compassion is what God requires of us, not heartless self-destruction.
The key Hebrew command relative to Abraham’s near slaughter of his son reads: Kach na et bin’cha, et y’chid’cha, asher a-hav’ta et Yitzchak v’lech l’cha el eretz ha-Moriah v’ha-a-le-hu sham l’olah al echad he-harim asher omar elecha (“God said, ‘Take your son, your only one, the one you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him there as a burnt-offering, on one of the mountains that I will show you.” (Genesis 22:2).
One midrash says that Abraham’s understanding of the event was wrong from the start and based on a mistaken perception of the original order. Abraham should have tried to find out, the midrash argues, what God wanted of him and not do anything until he was certain about what he was being asked to do.
Rashi explained that Abraham did not, in fact, understand God’s words and command. God didn’t say “slaughter your son – v’tish’chat et bin’cha.” He said, “Lift up your son to the service of God – v’ha-a-le-hu sham l’olah.”
Yes, the word “olah” can be rendered as a burnt offering; but it literally means “that which is lifted up.”
Recall Kunte Kinte from the 1977 TV Mini-Series “Roots” as he, following his tribal custom, took his son to the top of a mountain and lifted him in thanksgiving and dedication to the spirit world. Recall, as well, “The Lion King” doing the same by presenting his son and future King to his spiritual relatives among the stars.
In the Genesis story, just as Abraham lifted the knife to slay his son God sent the angel rather than speak directly to Abraham to stay his hand. God never spoke to Abraham again. Was God devastated by Abraham’s mishearing of his call to dedicate his son? Did Abraham fail that tenth and most crucial final test of faith? Did Abraham really understand the meaning of the Divine-human partnership?
The end of the story is clear. God did not want human sacrifice and we do not have to give up our humanity to serve God. What Abraham did earlier at Sodom and Gomorrah and what Moses did at the sin of the Golden Calf – namely, challenge God to live up to God’s own standards of justice and compassion – that is the lesson of the Biblical tradition. That is our Jewish legacy!