The story of the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac, which we read every year on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, is so tantalizingly evocative, inspiring, and troubling. It is a carefully written literary masterpiece. Every year, we find new ways to read it.
“Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test.”
What kind of test is this? Is it pass/fail? Is it a test for which God does not know the answer, or a test meant to impart some lesson?
Maybe it is like the test of the emergency broadcast system. “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. Had the All-Powerful Supreme Ruler of the Universe actually wanted you to sacrifice your son, more information would have followed. This is only a test.”
Or, perhaps it is a test for us – the readers.
Of course, we know it is a test from the beginning. The actors in this drama have no such foreknowledge.
“Here I am.” Hineni.
“Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. V’ha’aleihu sham l’olah on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”
Abraham hears this as “offer him there as a burnt offering.”
Before we get too upset, keep in mind that child sacrifice was not such a far-fetched idea in Abraham’s day. It was a widespread practice throughout the Ancient world, including in the Land of Canaan. We have biblical and other ancient literary references, as well as archaeological remains. As far as humans in ancient times knew, the gods liked it when people offered up their children. It probably did not sound all that strange to Abraham. So he complies with the request.
Without a word, Abraham gets up early, saddles a donkey, enlists two servants and Isaac, and chops some wood to serve as fuel.
On the third day, Abraham looks up and sees the mountain. He tells the servants to wait at the bottom with the donkey. He gives Isaac the wood to carry, and they set off to climb the mountain. He himself carries the firestone and the cleaver.
Suddenly, we hear Isaac’s voice, the only time that the Torah records father and son speaking together.
“Here I am, my son.”
“Here is the fire and the wood; but where is the sheep for the offering?”
“God will see to the sheep for His offering, my son.”
And the two of them walk on together.
No more words are exchanged. They reach the top of the mountain. Abraham, methodically, goes about his business. He lays out an altar. He places the wood on it. He binds Isaac and places him on top of the wood.
He reaches out his hand and takes hold of the cleaver in order to slaughter his son.
And suddenly a voice cries out: “Abraham! Abraham!”
It is an angel of the Lord from the heavens.
“Here I am.” Hineni.
“Do not reach out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him, for now I know that you fear God and you have not held back your son, your only one, from Me.”
Abraham raises his eyes and he looks and ‘Behold! A Ram!’
―with its horns caught in the thicket. And Abraham takes the ram and offers it up as a burnt offering in the place of his son.
Abraham barely speaks throughout this story, and never once to God. Rashi, citing a midrash, imagines that Abraham might have had a few questions that did not make the final edit.
“I will lay my complaint before you,” he begins. “You told me, (Genesis 21:12) ‘through Isaac shall your seed be acclaimed,’ and then you changed your mind and said, (Genesis 22:2) ‘Take, pray, your son.’ Now you tell me, ‘Do not reach out your hand against the lad!'”
Abraham is understandably confused. God has promised that Abraham will be the father of a great nation, descended specifically through Isaac. We read about in just the previous chapter, and we chanted it yesterday.
Then, God seems to change the plan by asking Abraham to offer Isaac up.
Through it all, Abraham goes along.
Now, having done everything God has asked of him, despite the contradictions, Abraham is told not to follow through!?
The Holy One, blessed be He, says to him, [You misunderstood me.] When I told you, ‘Take [your son…,] I did not tell you ‘slay him’ but rather ‘bring him up,’ for the sake of love did I say it to you. You have brought him up, in fulfillment of my words — now take him down.’ (Genesis Rabbah 56)
The miscommunication hinges on the phrase v’ha’aleihu sham l’olah. An olah is a burnt offering. That is how Abraham hears it.
But it also means “go up” or “ascend.” A person who moves to Israel makes aliyah. Someone who is given an honor in synagogue receives an aliyah. In the midrash, God means for Abraham to bring Isaac up to the top of the mountain as an expression of love, not to be a sacrifice.
How could Abraham have misunderstood?
To answer this, we must identify the role of the angel in this story.
Imagine the critical scene in your mind, when Abraham has grasped the blade in his hand, and the angel comes to intervene. Picture it. Where are Isaac, Abraham, and the angel situated?
In almost every work of art depicting the Binding of Isaac, the angel is reaching out a hand and grabbing Abraham to prevent him from slaughtering his son. That image of physical intervention has entered our consciousness.
But that is not what the text says. The only intervention that takes place is verbal. “Abraham. Abraham.”
“Here I am,” he responds.
It is Abraham who holds back his own hand.
There is a vein within the Jewish mystical tradition extending into mussar thinking that understands angels as inert forces in our world. They are unable to act. It is righteous human action, or expressions of will, that activates these inert Divine forces.
Mussar understands the expression of the human will as it acts in the world to be our yetzer. The yetzer can be tov – good, or it can be ra – evil.
When we allow it to flow out of us, the yetzer is tov. But when it is stopped up inside, it becomes ra.
To expand on this―when my focus is external; when my concern is for the other; when the question I ask myself about the person before me is “what does this person need from me?”―That is when my soul opens up, and my yetzer flows out.
But when I am self-absorbed; when I am concerned for my own needs; when I am wrapped up in my own suffering― then I am unable to recognize the needs of the person facing me. My soul is stopped up, and my yetzer works its evil, rotting inside of me.
All that God or the angel can do is speak. Only Abraham can act to change the course of events in this story.
In the beginning, God calls out to Abraham and asks him to raise up his son in love. But Abraham, in this moment self-absorbed in his devotion to a god who might just be a projection of his own ego, hears the message differently. The yetzer hara has taken hold. Can Abraham break out of his self-absorption and release his yetzer hatov?
Abraham has other moments of greatness, when his yetzer tov flows out into the world. When he runs out of his tent to welcome three angels disguised as travelers, when he argues with God on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah―these are moments when Abraham has set aside his own self-concern to serve others, and in so doing, to activate God’s Presence in the world.
In this story, however, Abraham’s yetzer is stopped up. He is not able to activate the Divine potential that lies dormant. He does not see the suffering of his son.
Something happens on top of the mountain. The angel calls out twice. Abraham looks up. Not only does he see the ram, he sees his son, perhaps for the first time. That is the test. And he passes. He saves his son, substituting the ram.
Only then does God bless him.
We live in an epidemic of self-absorption. In former times, people lived in close quarters. It was not uncommon for three generations to reside under the same roof. We were thrown against each other in such a way that it was nearly impossible to find privacy, even in our own homes. Facing each other’s needs was inevitable.
Now, we are so spread out. Most households today have just one or two generations living under the same roof. Plus, the distance between our homes has grown, so we are farther away from our neighbors.
The membership of our synagogue is spread out over many square miles. We’ve gone to the opposite extreme. We have so much private space that we now find ourselves alone much of the time. If we want to be with other people, we have to actively do something to make it happen.
The internet offers the promise of connecting with each other across the physical divide. But how do we use it?
I might snap a selfie, or post the silly thing that my kid said. I’ll take a picture of my lunch and share it with the world. And then I’ll check to see how many “likes” I’ve received. Is this really connecting with other people, or might this perhaps be a manifestation of my self-absorption?
There is an inverse relationship between the amount of time we spend “connecting” online and the amount of time we spend “connecting” in person. It is getting steadily worse as the number of screen devices in our lives increases.
Our tradition teaches us that holiness is encountered in the relationships between people. The three dimensional relationships. God, as a latent force, is activated when we care for another person, placing that other person’s needs before our own.
And believe it or not, quantity matters.
The question is asked―If I have a thousand gold coins to give away, is it better to give all thousand coins to one person, or should I give one coin each to a thousand people?
I might think that it does not make a difference. What matters is the bottom line. The tax deduction is the same either way. Or, I might say that one coin is not going to do anyone any good, but one thousand coins will surely make a difference in someone’s life.
But that is not what our tradition says. It is better for me to give a thousand coins to a thousand people. Why? Because of the impact of one thousand face-to-face interactions on me.
The word v’natnu, meaning “and you shall give” is the longest palindrome in the Torah―vav nun tav nun vav. This teaches us that the blessings of generosity flow forward to the receiver and backward to the giver.
What are those blessings? Increased consciousness of the other. Holiness. Awareness of God.
What will it take for us to be less self-absorbed? Deliberate effort. We have got to train ourselves if we want to be able to resist the forces that drive us towards increased alienation. And just like the thousand coins, quantity matters.
It is one of the reasons why our synagogue is so important. Involvement in a religious community offers many ways to break out of self-absorption and see the other: attending Shabbat services, where we pray side-by-side, and then share a meal together; learning together at a Limmud La-ad, Lifelong Jewish Learning, program; taking time out to comfort a mourner by attending a funeral or a shiva minyan; delivering a meal and visiting with someone in our community who is ill; helping to serve lunch at a homeless shelter.
In this new year, let us each identify individual actions that we can take that will change the question from “what do I want?” to “what does the person before me need?”
The accumulation of many such actions can eventually unstop our hearts, release our yetzer tov, connect us with others in a world of increasing alienation, and activate the Divine Presence in our world.
Like Abraham, who at the critical moment, heard the Divine Voice calling, and woke out of his narrow-minded self focus to see his bound son suffering before him – we too can wake up.
Thanks to Rabbi Ira Stone for providing ideas that went into this D’var Torah.