The story of Akedat Yitzchak — the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 18:1- 22:24) — is read, according to tradition, just twice a year: on the second day of Rosh Hashanah and on Parshat Vayera, seven weeks later. Having struggled with the Akedah story for years, I spent time during this High Holiday and Sukkot season studying many analyses and explanations, with the idea of writing about it before the second reading. Made it by a week.
For those not be familiar with the tale as told in Genesis 22:1-19, here’s a brief recap. God tested Abraham by commanding him to take his beloved son Isaac — the son of his and Sarah’s old age, whom God had designated as Abraham’s heir, prime descendant, and progenitor of nations — and sacrifice him on a distant mountain. Abraham takes Isaac to the mountain, builds an altar, and binds and places him on it. As Abraham picks up his knife to sacrifice Isaac, an angel appears, directs him not to do so, and commends him for not withholding his favored son from God. Abraham then sees a ram caught in a nearby thicket by its horns (hence the connection to Rosh Hashanah through the shofar made from a ram’s horn) and offers it as a sacrifice in place of Isaac. The angel reappears and blesses Abraham.
What a riveting, puzzling, and disturbing narrative. Many have grappled with this tale over the centuries. Rabbis and scholars, theologians and philosophers, the midrash and video projects, writers and poets, students and just simple Jews engaged in Bible study, all have parsed its words and sought to understand its meaning. Ancient and modern, Jewish and not, famous and unknown, from Rashi and Rambam to Kant and Kierkegaard, from the Rav, Yeshayahu Leibovitz, and Moshe Halberthal to David Shatz and R. Jonathan Sacks, from local shul rabbis to the many others too numerous to mention, these serious thinkers and great minds have struggled with this almost incomprehensible tale about our first patriarch.
One article I read categorized various problems with God’s actions under five headings: absurd (can the creator of all be hungry for the little lone ewe of aged parents?); unethical (can a God of justice command the killing of an innocent lad?); cruel (can a benevolent God command a loyal servant to murder his only beloved son?); inconsistent (can a dependable God contradict his commandments against unjustified shedding of blood and child sacrifice?); and unreliable (can a truthful God renege on his promise to Abraham that his descendants will be named through Isaac?). To which I’d add unnecessary (can an all-knowing God need to test the loyalty of Her adherents?)
And then there are the questions about Abraham’s actions and inactions. Abraham, who confronted God over the proposed destruction of Sodom with his thundered rhetorical question “Shall the Judge of all the earth not deal justly?” (Genesis 18:25), was silent in the face of God’s command. Could not, should not, Abraham, a prince of justice, have uttered a word, asked a question, whispered a hesitant “why?,” or at least offered a plea for mercy on behalf of his son?
His silence was puzzling beyond God. Isaac had another parent whose love for him was no less than Abraham’s. Yet there’s not a word from Abraham to his wife Sarah as he prepared to wrest from her not only her present connection to this precious miracle child but also her dreams for the future promised by God. And when Abraham was confronted by his son’s question “I see, father, the wood and firestone but where is the sheep for the offering?,” he silently elides over God’s actual sacrificial command and simply says “God will see to the sheep.” (Genesis 22:7-8.)
In addition to these questions of silence, there are questions of theology. One example. The midrash teaches that Abraham used rational thinking to reject his father’s idols and idolatry because they made no sense. (Genesis Rabbah 38:13) So why not use that same rational thinking in rejecting, or at least questioning, a God who seems to act in the six seemingly irrational ways discussed above?
Many propound serious and thought-provoking answers to these, and the numerous other, questions raised by this tale. The story’s a paradigm for the future sacrifices and martyrdom that Jews would endure through the centuries, we’re told; it’s a lesson that children are not the property of their parents; it’s a teaching that humans cannot always expect to be victorious and sometimes must experience defeat. For some it’s a tale of faith in, for others love of, God. Some look at the Akedah story as “the problem of choice,” while others see it as “the problem of hearing.”
Still others posit that perhaps Abraham failed the test, or passed the test but failed as a father, or even misunderstood God’s command. One writer, a physics professor, used the language of quantum mechanics to explain this conundrum. (While the actual quantum mechanics language could just as easily have been written in Yiddish for all I understood it, I wonder about using a mathematical framework developed in the 1920s to explain a millennia-old text.) And many Jewish scholars, following Maimonides’ dictum of “accept truth from whoever says it” (Introduction to the Eight Chapters), adopt the “knight of faith” concept originated by the 19th-Century Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. And on and on the answers proliferate.
But the lesson that resonated with me as I immersed myself in this material was one I learned from a respected Bible teacher and which was recently reiterated by my shul rabbi: when there are many answers to and explanations of a difficult question or text, most often none are fully satisfactory. Because if one were, all would agree on that answer.
And that’s how I felt here. Some answers clarified God’s actions but not Abraham’s; others the opposite. Some elucidated the text but not the ethics; others vice versa. Many posited serious and thoughtful moral and theological lessons derived from the narrative, without, however, dealing fully with underlying problems. Some focused on the angel’s stopping the sacrifice, while ignoring that Abraham, unlike us, did not know the ending as he raised his knife.
I had no aha moment in reading these answers and explanations, and I suspect the same is true for many others, even, perhaps, some of those propounding them.
So what are we to do with this text? Here are four suggestions.
First, we shouldn’t make it into a Bible story for young children. Just as other texts are deemed age inappropriate (e.g., Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38) and Amnon’s rape of another Tamar (II Samuel 13:1-22)), the Akedah also shouldn’t make the cut.
Second, we should carefully choose the age when to begin teaching it to children in school. I’ll leave the specifics to professional educators and school psychologists, but my general sense is it should be when they would no longer ask their parents in a naïve, innocent, and frightened way (as opposed to a teenager’s snark), “Would you sacrifice me if God commanded you?”
Third, teachers, speakers, and writers about the Akedah should not present their conclusions as answers. Rather, they should be offered as reactions, lessons, insights, messages, approaches, and suggestions, while acknowledging that questions remain about a still puzzling text.
And fourth, while we should banish the Akedah from the children’s Bible story canon, we must not banish it from the biblical canon. Difficult or not, it’s part of Torah and thus must be taught, studied, struggled with, and delved into for religious and moral teachings, even if all our questions are not resolved.
And as part of the canon it must be read, as will happen in many of our shuls next week, when we reach the seventh section of our Torah reading (shevi’i) and the ba’al koreh begins chanting “vayehi achar ha-devarim ha-eleh, ve-haElokim nisah et Avraham” (And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham) (Genesis 22:1). As I wrote in an earlier column (“Who Questions Much, Learns Much”), we’ll listen to a tale about God, a father, a test, a son, an angel, a knife, a ram; a difficult, perplexing story. But it will be read and we will listen.
And through our reading and our listening and our learning we’ll be rewarded; as the Talmud teaches in another context (Sanhedrin 71a), derosh ve-kabel schar (expound upon it and receive a reward). The reward won’t be an ultimate answer to our questions, though. Rather, we’ll be rewarded with the voice of Torah, with the study of Torah, with the complexity of Torah, and with a sublime connection to Torah, our sacred text.