Communicating a sophisticated and nuanced message, which resonates with most people and throughout the generations, is no mean task.
Mere words may not be the most effective way to accomplish the result. How powerful would a slogan like “don’t sacrifice the children” be in ancient times, in a world permeated with human sacrifice? The sacrifice of children was a part of the ordinary ritual of worship to pagan deities. In that kind of a society, why would anyone think twice because someone flashed a placard stating don’t?
Media wizards today might suggest using an authoritative figure as a spokesperson. A dramatic and compelling story line would help, especially if combined with strong visuals that grab the attention of the intended audience and stir the imagination.
It should be no surprise that G-d would do no less. In this week’s Torah reading[i], G-d enlists Abraham in this very kind of project. It is commonly referred to as the Akedat Yitzchak (Binding of Isaac) or, simply, as the Akedah (Binding). The title refers to the fact that Isaac was bound, as discussed below. Its primary theme is the absolute rejection of human sacrifice.
The drama depicted in the Bible is authored and directed by G-d. Abraham is cast in a very challenging role. He is renown for his opposition to idolatry and all of the nefarious practices associated with it. He is also the Biblical paradigm for virtuous conduct and graciousness. Yet, in this morality play, he has the part of an awe struck ideologue, intent on sacrificing his very own son, because he believed G-d wanted him to do so. The role contradicts his very being; but that is a part of the heightened dramatic effect Without G-d’s direction, Abraham would never have conceived of doing what the script prompts him to do. In another ironic twist, G-d says to Abraham, please, bring his son Isaac along, to play the part of the child.
The action in this intriguing drama begins with a message from G-d that is ambiguous. G-d directs Abraham to bring his son up upon the mountain he would show him. G-d does not expressly say sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering, as some might suggest. The one and only true G-d prohibits[ii] human sacrifice. Why would G-d ask Abraham to sacrifice any human being, let alone his son, in order to worship him[iii]? Indeed, the Midrash[iv], Rashi[v] and the Ibn Ezra[vi], each point out that G-d didn’t mean for Abraham actually to slaughter his son Isaac, as a human sacrifice. Rest assured, as the Talmud[vii]reports, G-d never intended to harm Isaac[viii]. Is the apparent misunderstanding a way to heighten the suspense? Could it be that Abraham might actually sacrifice his own son? Like any good mystery, we are compelled to read on to the climactic conclusion.
What about Isaac’s role in this drama? He was 37 years of age[ix], at the time. Was he a willing participant? The Talmud[x] reports that Isaac may have precipitated his being cast to play this part. It seems that Isaac and Ishmael had a contretemps. Ishmael claimed he was the better man because, while Isaac had been circumcised, involuntarily, when he was 8 days old, Ishmael had done so voluntarily, at 13 years of age. Isaac’s response is noteworthy, because it exhibits his character and force of personality. He doesn’t take Ishmael’s challenge lying down; he responds in kind. Isaac asks, rhetorically, if Ishmael thinks he can provoke and intimidate him with just one organ. Because, Isaac declares, if G-d were to say to him sacrifice his entire body, then he would do so.
Isaac’s role in the ensuing drama is also a study in contrasts. Abraham, his elderly father, has waited so many years to have a miraculous child with his aged wife, Sarah. He loves his son Isaac and would do almost anything for him. Isaac is the blessed child, who G-d promised[xi] would inherit Abraham’s mantle, fortune and right to the land of Israel. He is to be the next stage of development of the nation, which Abraham founded. Is the good, gentle and kindhearted Patriarch of the new nation now supposed to sabotage all his dreams and blessings by killing his own wonderful son?
Isaac, like Abraham, must similarly act totally out of character. He is not the one who is supposed to go gently into the night. He is the strong one, who believes in strict justice and restraint[xii]. He is willing to fight and sacrifice himself for a just cause. As the Bible[xiii] later describes him and some of his exploits, he is a very successful farmer, cattleman and businessman. He is unyielding in the face of wrongdoing and does not back down. When the Philistines, who are jealous of his success, bury the wells that his father Abraham dug, he digs them up again. Is he now just to be docile and lay down and be sacrificed by another? It would appear so, because Isaac even helps his father tie him up so that he doesn’t involuntarily become unyielding at the last moment.
Father and son with characters that are so different and actual personalities, which are so at variance with the roles they are called upon to play. The irony is palpable and the scenario is memorable. For three long days, they travel together to one of the mountains in the Land of Moriah, which G-d will select, where a sacrifice is to be made. Abraham brings along the wood, the fire and the ritual knife. Isaac notices and asks, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering. Abraham says G-d will provide the lamb for the burnt offering. Will they clash? Will Isaac try to save himself? After all he is a strong man in his prime and could easily overpower his aging father. It’s a heady mix of dramatic devices and that’s the point. We are compelled to know; how will it end?
Maimonides[xiv] analyzes the Biblical text and concludes it speaks to people in a language they can understand. This is a critical insight. He characterizes the entire presentation as a form of morality play. It is not so much about the story itself; rather it is about its being a vehicle to communicate the message intended to be conveyed. It would appear to have been a most effective one because here it is 4,000 years later and we’re still talking about it. Consider how powerful it was to cast Abraham in the role of the father willing to sacrifice his child. Most discussions about the matter begin with questions. How could G-d ask Abraham to sacrifice his child? How could Abraham have thought to do so? Why didn’t Abraham question G-d, like he did with the decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah? Isn’t the whole story antithetical to our traditions? But that’s the point; it’s about generating this kind of interest and reaching the conclusion of the story. G-d didn’t want Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and Abraham didn’t do so.
Maimonides explains that this is the sole object of this so-called trial of Abraham, depicted in the Biblical text. It is designed to teach mankind what is proper conduct and worthy of belief. It is not about testing Abraham. G-d already knew what was in Abraham’s heart. G-d did not need a test to confirm this[xv]. Rather, Maimonides notes the meaning of the phrase “to know” used in the Biblical text[xvi] means so that all people may know. Human sacrifice is wrong. This is so whether it is in the name of idolatry or the one true G-d[xvii].
There are also subtler aspects to the lesson. There are limits to what may be done in the name of love or awe of G-d. Maimonides cautions that false prophets may arise preaching messages that are inconsistent with this principle and he urges don’t believe them. This message is particularly poignant in our times. G-d does not desire the faithful to drive a truck into innocent pedestrians in order to kill or maim them, in his name or otherwise. Proclaiming Allahu Akbar, while doing so, doesn’t change this basic truth. Anyone who says otherwise is not speaking in G-d’s name; don’t be misled.
Rav Yosef Ibn Caspi[xviii], further develops the theme of the Akedah expressed by Maimonides. He too explains that it was not a test to prove Abraham’s mettle. Rather, it was a means of publicizing the principle that G-d did not want human sacrifices. The Akedah was designed to inform the world of this fundamental principle of faith. In modern parlance, it was a teachable moment. It was designed to uproot, undermine and weaken the established, albeit mistaken, belief, embedded in the hearts of the people, that it was noble to sacrifice children to their deities.
Has the world changed so much since then? Boko Haram and Isis are enslaving children, brain washing them with an ideology of violence, akin to idolatry and coercing them into being terrorists. Is that any less a form of human sacrifice? An even more glaring example is the modern suicide bombers and their mentors. They not only do not treasure life, they operate on the assumption that killing people, in the act of so-called martyrdom, is the quickest and surest way to enjoy heavenly delights. There are those who honor them and celebrate the taking of innocent lives. Don’t they understand that G-d abhors human sacrifice? Even more mystifying are the educated and cultured individuals, who should know better and yet sometimes justify or otherwise condone these terrorist acts. Don’t they appreciate they are helping to perpetuate the canard that this form of human sacrifice is somehow acceptable? Is the ethic of a life well spent performing good deeds for the benefit of mankind no longer a virtue? Is the lesson of the Akedah lost on them?
Abraham and Isaac were of one mind in this mission to publicize the Torah’s message of restraint and the value of life. When it comes to human behavior, there are boundaries that should not be crossed. The primary purpose of the Akedah was to prevent human sacrifice. The Midrash[xix] explains that when they approached Mount Moriah, Abraham asked Isaac whether he saw what Abraham saw and Isaac answered yes. Their united devotion to the mission was symbolized by their walking together, as one.
The Shaarei Orah[xx] points out that it took both Abraham and Isaac, acting together, to bring this message home to the world. Abraham’s character is associated with kindness and compassion, which is equated to the divine attribute of mercy. Isaac’s character is associated with strength, which is equated to strict justice. The Bible relates how Abraham grabbed hold of the fire and the knife. These were Isaac’s weapons of war. In essence, Abraham was, symbolically, tempering Isaac’s innate strength and the power of strict judgment, by softening it with kindness and mercy. Unbridled strength that is not tempered with goodness is not a virtue. The world cannot function based only on ruthlessly enforced judgments, because if this were the case then it would have been destroyed long ago. The attribute of mercy is what keeps so many alive and able to repent and earn forgiveness. The combination of these virtues is represented by Isaac assisting Abraham to tie him up. Their walking together represented the symbiosis they achieved, which better enabled them to face the world and overcome its challenges.
It is about self-control, boundaries and balance when it comes to the exercise of strength and power. It is suggested that it is also about applying those same standards to virtues such as kindness. This is because even an excess of kindness can be harmful. In medicine, it is sometimes necessary to inflict some pain in order to cure a life-threatening malady. Allowing a terrorist to continue a murderous spree instead of shooting the terrorist, because of concern about his life, is not a virtue. There are so many things in modern life that require a balance between strict justice and mercy. This is especially so in the way we bring up our children.
There brings to mind another dimension of concern. It is a more subtle and nuanced forms of sacrificing children. It happens so casually as to be almost ignored. We strive so hard to bring up our children well and to assure they are successful in life. Educating our children, with a dual curriculum in day schools devoted to combining a Jewish and secular education, is a priority. But, then, inexplicably, many peremptorily end the formal Jewish education of their children, at age 18, in order to send them to a wholly secular college.
Why, at a critical juncture in their maturity process, throw children, who are unprepared to meet the challenges, into the harsh and unforgiving environment of the university campus life and culture? How can they be expected to deal with the juggernaut of antisemitism, in the form of BDS and anti-Israel movements, bullying, the culture of permissiveness and no boundaries, alone and away from the nurturing environment and support of home?
Living the life of classic Judaism, as a part of society, requires a modicum of sacrifice. Our life, at its best, is a study in limitations and boundaries that cannot be crossed. We live within walking distance of synagogues, don’t violate the Shabbos (including erecting an Eruv to enable us to carry) and eat kosher. Why all of a sudden is this not important for our kids? After striving so hard and spending so much treasure to enable our children to live, grow up and be educated in these traditions, why, suddenly, at age18, is it off to college and fish or cut bait? Come on! What kind of life are we providing for them on campus? We’re certainly spending a fortune for the privilege; but is it well spent? Are we not casually consigning our children to another form of the proverbial fiery furnace and to what end? How can they be expected to resist the urge to join with their erstwhile friends at frat parties on Friday nights or sports events on Saturdays? It’s not something we would condone at home. However, it is a prevalent and eminently endearing facet of campus life. Are we, together with our children, ensnared, like the ram in the Akedah?
How do we break out of this trap and confused way of thinking? There has got to be a better way. Perhaps, there is and it’s grounded in the same principles of boundaries and balance, which are a fundamental part of classic Judaism. There are very fine colleges, like Yeshiva University, which are dedicated to this same balanced approach to life. We all want a better life for our children; but in the process we can’t sacrifice them. Let the kids learn a little more, mature and really grow up. A bachelor’s degree is just the beginning. There’s time to think about the best graduate and professional schools.
Our guiding principle must be, don’t sacrifice the children.
[i] Genesis 22:1-19.
[ii] See Deuteronomy 12:31. See also Leviticus 18:21 and 20:3 and Jeremiah 7:31 and 19:5.
[iii] See the Chizkuni and Haemek Davar commentaries on Deuteronomy 12:31. See also Sifrei Devarim 81:6.
[iv] See Bereishit Rabbah, Chapter 56.
[v] In his commentary on Genesis 21:1.
[vii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Taanit, at page 4a and Rashi commentary thereon. In this regard it should be noted that the ram caught up in the thicket by its horns (Genesis 22:13), which was ultimately sacrificed by Abraham, was a part of G-d’s master plan of creation (see Avot 5:6).
[viii] Rav Yosef Ibn Caspi, in the Gevia’ Kesef, noted below, points out that Abraham never lit the fire for the sacrifice, as a precaution, so that the smoke wouldn’t accidentally suffocate Isaac.
[ix] See Bereishis Rabbah, Chapter 55, which states that Isaac was age 37 at the time of his argument with Ishmael, noted above. The Akedah occurred thereafter. See also Genesis 23:1, which records that Sarah was 127 years of age at the time of her passing on, after hearing about the Akedah. Since, as noted in Genesis 17:17, Sarah was 90 years of age at the time of Isaac’s birth that would make him approximately 37 years of age at the time of the Akedah. The Targum Yonatan on Genesis 22:1, though, states Isaac was age 36 at the time of his argument with Ishmael.
[x] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at page 89b.
[xi] Genesis 17:19.
[xii] These are definitions of the term “Gevurah”, a quality, which is ascribed to Isaac. See Zohar on Parshat Lech Lecha, in Volume 1, at page 39a, of the Aramaic/Hebrew edition, by R’ Yehuda Yudel Rosenberg.
[xiii] Genesis 26:12-15.
[xiv] Guide to the Perplexed 3:24.
[xv] See Rabbeinu Bachya commentary on Genesis 22:1.
[xvii] See Sefrei Devarim 81:6. See also Chizkuni and Haemek Davar commentaries on Deuteronomy 12:31.
[xviii] In his work, Gevia Kesef, Chapter XIV (Page 217, et. seq. of the translation by R’ Basil Herring, published by Ktav in1982).
[xix] Bereishit Rabbah, Chapter 56.
[xx] A kabbalistic work by Rav Yosef Gikatillah, in the Fifth Gate, Sixth Sefirah, 54.