This is a hopefully daily series of short reflections in English on the daily chapter of Tanach in the (wonderful, wonderful) 929 Project. The initiative, and the ideas and opinions expressed here, are my own. If you haven’t heard of 929, you can learn more at 929.org.il
Sacrifice is something of a dirty word nowadays, and all the more so when speaking of sacrificing someone else based on your own religious convictions. And rightfully so. We’re living in a world in which that sense of human sacrifice takes lives on a daily basis, and faith communities must be especially horrified at this corruption of religion. So what do we do with the command to sacrifice Yitzchak in chapter 22? It’s a challenge that readers of Torah have grappled with for thousands of years, offering countless responses, and it’s far beyond the capacity of these short lines to even scratch the surface of that literature.
But any reading that wants to be fully faithful to the text needs to at least recognize the religious import not only of the Divine call to sacrifice at the beginning of the chapter, but equally of the Divine call to desist at the story’s end. It may have been just as much of a test, and perhaps even a greater one, to listen to that second call. At the end of the day, what was demanded of Avraham, was the willingness to sacrifice everything, not the act of sacrifice itself. To demand that Avraham be willing to sacrifice his son is to send a message that survival, continuity, existence- these are not concepts that are inherently meaningful. They do not justify themselves. And our world also suffers when societies lose this message, when they lack the commitment and the strength of a transcending vision.
The paradox of the two Divine calls of chapter 22 is that the only way to live a life of meaning is by committing to a transcendent value for which we’d be willing to sacrifice for that life, and even to sacrifice life itself. But the call of the Torah is ultimately to live that paradox, not to die or kill for it.