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Can Abraham Pass the Test? Another View

This week’s portion Va-yera concludes with the Akedah of Isaac. It is fitting that as usual the portion coincides both with the dates of Kristallnacht (November 9-10th, 1938), widely regarded as the prelude to ‘The Final Solution’ and the assassination of the fifth prime minister of Israel, Yitzchak Rabin, (November 4th, 1995).  These horrifying and traumatic events have had permanent repercussions in the Jewish world and has involved extreme soul searching, much as the Akedah continues to reverberate in the Israeli psyche. Or in the words of the late Tikva Frymer Kensky who wrote in a concluding paragraph of an article on the Akedah: “in its stark horror and ambiguous statements, the story of the Akedah remains the central text in the formation of our spiritual consciousness.”

AFTER THESE THINGS

In Genesis 22:1 the story begins. “After these things, God tested (nisah) Abraham” and then God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son. With no emotion, Abraham sets out with his son Isaac to do God’s bidding.” The Akedah (Gen. 22:1–19), the binding of Isaac, is considered to be the ultimate spiritual moment, when a man expresses willingness to sacrifice his beloved son to demonstrate fealty to his Lord. This central text has continued to horrify generations, and in the words of the Danish theologian, Sören Kierkegaard (1813-1855) arouses “fear and trembling” (also the name of his book published in 1843).

The Hebrew for a burnt offering that goes up to God is olah (literally, that which goes up) and is used to describe Abraham’s offering of his son. This word used to be translated as holocaust, following the Greek Septuagint, however, in the wake of the Shoah, that translation was considered to be inappropriate for a sacrifice. The Sages understood the test (from the word nisah) to mean a trial, one of many trials—physical and psychological incidents that retarded Abraham’s adjustment in Canaan and endangered his marital status. According to the midrash, fiery associations are among the many obstacles Abraham had in his journey before he got to the point of bringing his son Isaac as an olah.

ABRAHAM LIKENED TO JOB

The Akedah story begins with the phrase “sometime after” va-yechi achar ha-devarim ha-eleh (Gen 22:1). No one knows what ‘time this was after’ refers to, so a back story was invented by the medieval French commentator, Rashi (1040 – 1105) who based his reading on a Talmudic text:

“SOME TIME AFTERWARDS” Some of our Rabbis say (BT Sanhedrin 89b) that this line refers to after the incident with Satan who accused [God] saying “From all of the festive meals that Abraham made, he did not offer You a single bull or ram.” God responded, “Everything Abraham did was for his son. Yet, if I were to tell Abraham to sacrifice him before me, he would not delay.” (Rashi, on Genesis 22:1)

The introduction of Satan here is because of the story in the Book of Job. Is it God being tempted to play with Abraham, as he did with Job? Or is God testing Abraham to see if he gives into the temptation of filicide that may have been widespread in ancient times? One might also ask why God needed to test Abraham and Job and why didn’t he provide some moral guidance to Abraham? What are we to make of a God who submits to a challenge of Satan and plays with people like sport to the flies? Of a God who unfairly puts his people to a test, puts temptation in their way, to see how great is their faith in and their love for Him? From a theological perspective, we can ask: what is worse, the problem of a God who demands sacrifices from his people or a God who tempts people to sin? Fortunately for God, Abraham is provided with an out, the ram, who he is able to offer as a substitute for his son.

SAVED BY THE BELL (THE RAM)

As most of us remember, in the middle of this story there is a deus ex machina, a godly intervention:

They arrived at the place of which God had told him. Abraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. Then an angel of the Lord called to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.” And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw, behold a ram [ahar] caught in the thicket by his horns. So, Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. And Abraham named that site Adonai-yireh, whence the present saying, “On the mount of the Lord there is vision” (Gen 22:9-14).

Clearly sight is very important here. The commentator Moshe Alshich (1507-1593) perceptively asks a very good question about what exactly did Abraham see to know that God wanted him to switch the ram for Isaac.

THE MANY OMISSIONS AND TRANSLATIONS OF AHAR—THE ‘OTHER’ RAM

In the story of the Akedah the word ‘ahar (“after” or “behind”) demands interpretation.  Early on, it seems, an attempt was made to relieve the supposed difficulty by altering the troublesome ‘ahar’ to ‘ehad’ (“one”).

  • Robert Alter in his commentary on verse 13 “a ram” writes: “The Masoretic Text reads “a ram behind [achaR],” but scholarship is virtually unanimous in following numerous ancient versions in reading echaD, ‘one,’ a very similar grapheme in the Hebrew.”
  • Similarly, the Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, translates this as: “When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns.” In the commentary it writes: “’a ram behind [him]’ or a ‘ram, later [caught].’” It points to some manuscripts that say this is “’a single ram’” (ayil echad), which differs by only one similar-looking letter.”
  • Another modern English commentary such as The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, translates this as: “Abraham lifted his eyes: he now could see a ram [just] after it was caught by its horns in a thicket.”
  • But tradition and consensus conserve the supposedly more difficult reading “ahar”. In the Hertz Soncino Commentary, widely used in Orthodox synagogues, the translation reads: “And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns.”
  • Even Martin Luther and the King James Bible, translate it as behind him (meaning Abraham)–אחריו. Of course, it’s a bit funny when we say וישא עיניו וירא והנה איל אחר . Does that mean that Abraham had eyes in back of his head? Most people understand it to mean that he looked around him and saw.
  • According to most of our sources this particular ram had been “behind” a long time, having been created at twilight on the eve of the first Sabbath and ever after had been on the go in order to be ready for his date with destiny, though constantly impeded by the Adversary Samael intent on frustrating the divine purpose (midrash Aggadah/Buber on Vayerah 22). Despite its being hung up in the thicket, the ram managed to stretch a leg to touch Abraham’s robe and caused him to turn around and see the substitute victim.

WAS THE RAM ISAAC?

According to the 14th century Midrash Ha-Gadol, the name of the ram was Yitzchak!!! According to Rashi, Abraham raised his eyes and saw the ram the instant it was snagged. The ram was in front of Abraham and did not need to nudge him from the rear to get his attention. In the split second that Abraham raised the knife to slay Isaac, the angel spoke to stay his hand, and at the same moment the ram’s horns were caught in the bush. “The Ram” that was created by God at the cusp of creation (bein hashemashot) and was named Yitzchak was there ready for the quick switch.

It is also possible to read ahar as ahar kach or aharei (after or afterwards). Rashi is one of these and many sources agree with Rashi. The statesman and bible commentator, Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508) reads it as “another ram”. There was one ram wandering around and another miraculous ram that God sent to be caught in the thistles, ready for Abraham. The nineteenth century exegete Malbim (Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser) writes that Abraham was debating who or what God would command him to sacrifice, when suddenly he saw a ram that was not there before; and then right after that he saw the ram which was caught in the thicket and knew that this ram was sent to be the sacrifice instead of Isaac. Thus, the argument continues: Is it Isaac? Another? Two rams? Right after?

A DIFFERENT (ACHER) READING OF THIS PHRASE (pun deliberate)

In my own personal reading, God does not tell him to sacrifice the ram instead of Isaac (tachat b’no). It is Abraham who SEES the ram and has a click moment.

The Hebrew hints at this magnificently by using the word “achar”—in fact the cantillations over this word, zakef gadol, זקף גדול  emphasize it and we can vocalize it as ah-ch-ah-ah-ar. Abarbanel also points to the cantillations (teamim) to show that the meaning is NOT acharei, but achar!

There is another way! “Vayisa Avraham et-einav, va ya-ar, v’hinei, ayil ACHAR ne-echaz bas’vach b’karnav” (Gen. 22:13). Abraham makes a physical effort (vayisa) to raise his eyes; and then he SEES (va ya-ar) an alternative (achar). There is another way. There is an out; he can truly see what is in front of him. Despite the hinted complication of the word (bas’vach, also a maze), it suddenly seems very simple. The ram (ayil) is for him. The “hinei” is representative of the two mentions of hineini (Here I am) in the text when he was willing earlier to slavishly follow God’s demand.

Abraham is truly here, now, in this new moment of truth, as is the ram, the substitute for his son. He says, “I can stop the cycle of violence.” Even though God has demanded proof of his love, he does not have to burn his son as a sacrifice. He has something else to offer, “ACHAR”; and this strange usage offers the reader closure by taking us back to the beginning of the story, achar ha-devarim ha-eleh. It is something different, pointed to him by the Angel, something new that can lead into a more promising future—when there will be no longer a need to sacrifice. His greatness is that he does not have to be a repeat offender engaging in sacrifice.

At the decisive moment when he SEES the ram, Abraham, of his own volition, chooses to sacrifice it rather than his son. Abraham has two potential models of God. One is that of an unswerving worship in Maimonidean fashion: an obsessive worship of God as a lovesick man. But God does not tell him to worship Him that way, and Abraham chooses to follow the second command, the Angel’s. The Angel, is the ACHER, the one who gives him a way out. He is also divine, but His message is that it is okay to sacrifice the ram, and not the son. So even though it is the only action Abraham takes on his own initiative with no specific command from God, it is because he has been able to decide on his own that some of God’s commands do not have to be obeyed literally and can be carried out symbolically. The ram is tachat b’no, in place of his son, but that is Abraham’s decision.

MODERN POETRY

Wilfred Owen (1893–1918), who died in action during World War I on November 4, 1918, hints in one of his most powerful poems, “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” that Abraham actually “slew his son.” It is true that there are midrashic sources that hint at Isaac’s slaughter at his father’s hand, but these are not mainstream (see Shalom Spiegel, The Last Trial: On the Legends and Lore of the Command to Abraham to Offer Isaac as a Sacrifice : the Akedah, 1967).  However, in his poem “Heritage, written when he met with Holocaust survivors at DP camps, Hayim Gouri concludes “while Abraham did not slaughter Isaac, in the end, we are “born with a knife in our hearts.”

Heritage (yerusha) by Hayim Gouri (1960)

The ram came last of all.

And Abraham did not know

That it came to answer the boy’s question—

First of his strength when his day was on the wane.

The old man raised his head. Seeing that it was no dream

And that the angel stood there—

The knife slipped from his hand.

The boy, released from his bonds,

Saw his father’s back.

Isaac, as the story goes, was not sacrificed.

He lived for many years,

Saw the good, until his eyes dimmed.

But he bequeathed that hour to his descendants.

They are born

With a knife in their hearts. 

[For Hebrew go to: https://teachgreatjewishbooks.org/3-poem-heritage-yerusha-hayim-gouri-1960]

Abraham is a complicated human being, for morally speaking, he can argue with God over the fate of Sodom, yet can be morally neutral about sending Ishmael away and be willing to slaughter Isaac. Once he has been willing to overstep the boundary of being a moral human, God never again addresses Abraham directly. Abraham now becomes more sensitive to others. He marries Keturah, has more children, provides for them during his lifetime, and sends Eliezer to arrange a marriage for Isaac and Rebekah. Thus, Abraham serves as a quintessential exemplar of humanity and the cycle of stories about him illustrates human complexity in dealing with trauma. In this sense, there is recovery.

The continuing question is how we can preserve memory of this suffering and at the same time recover from the very memory of this and other traumatic events. We need to figure out how to live lives that have meaning, nourish generations to come and help them in turn deal with the complexity of our lives and a seemingly remote and at times absent or quixotic God.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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