When we tell the story of the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac, how do we tell it?
Do we dare question the God who commands the unthinkable? Do we allow the text which portrays God this way to push us completely away from faith, rejecting the troubling image? Do we hold Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only remaining son, his entire future, as admirable? Do we see and acknowledge Sarah’s absence from the narrative ? Do we discuss God never speaking to Abraham again after the Akeidah? Do we point to Isaac’s complicity in the story? (He is old enough to hold the wood for the sacrifice on his back, and so he is strong enough to resist, we suppose.)
So many questions. And it is so important to us, to our world, that we ask them.
Too often we fall into apologetics (“God was only testing“, “Abraham knew it was a test“, etc… ) but we lose the awfulness, the compelling tension, the struggle of the story when we do not confront the questions that demand these responses in the first place. Abraham is willing to question God’s justice during the Sodom and Gemorrah story, so why not here?! He is willing to risk God’s wrath for the more-distant other but not for his own son, his own soul? When we forget our own worth, what does advocacy for the other truly represent? This literal self-less-ness is a confused goodness at best. Halacha, Jewish tradition, teaches us that tzedakkah begins in the most immediate geographic and familial range and then emanates further. In contemporary terms: How can I help Syrians if my unattended home crumbles?
What is the story of the Akeidah? What positive direction might we gain from encountering it over and over?
There is an incredible soul-song, a meditation before prayer, found in the Book of Tremblers (Sefer Chareidim), that reads:
“In my heart I will build a dwelling-place to amplify the Glory of God,
And in that dwelling place I will make a place for the flowings of God’s Beauty.
And as the eternal light I will take for myself the fire of the Binding,
And I will offer as the sacrifice my soul- my only soul.”
The words of this poem suggest that the fire from the Akeidah is the light of a spiritual life. And while we believe and teach that seeing beyond (“sacrificing”) the self is crucial to authentic spiritual journeying, this is not – must not be – the Eternal Light of a faithful path. A healthy Judaism, a healthy Jewish relationship with God, demands engagement, not surrender. We are God-Strugglers, the very meaning of the name Yisrael. We argue, contest, reach, and grow as strong partners with God.The Torah teaches of a God as a Learning Creator, One who regrets every failed generation of humankind (Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the Flood, the Tower of Babel), who mistakenly measured the success of Creation by the horrible demand of Abraham to give it all up. Who called Abraham to suspend his sense of what is right (for a second time, including sending Hagar and Ishma’el into the wilderness) out of obedience. This is a Cosmic Parent who sees the measure of success in the conformity of the child. This is a God who doesn’t know what will come next, who is emotionally engaged with – and therefore vulnerable to – the decisions and fate of humankind. This is a God who needs us.
This is the Torah’s view. What is ours? What fire belongs in our holiest of places, basking in the Eternal Light of the Jewish soul? Is it the fiery devotion of obedience when the command is wrong? Is it the sense that God’s command overrides human morality? Is that fire so manifest that I can absolutely know what God demands of me? In a careful read of the Torah’s text, can an image of a Vulnerable God invite us back into an honest, healing, relationship?
The fire of our souls, of authentic Jewish identity in living, growing relationships with our Divine Partner in Creation, demands that we acknowledge the wrongness in Abraham’s choice, in God’s command, in the Torah’s text. This story demands brave hurt and determined healing.
The Akeidah calls us to reaffirm and establish our faith in a just world, in our trust that God has learned the pain from this story and demands a healthy, maturing spirituality.
May that world come to be through our loving, passionate work in the wider world, and in our own, worthy selves.