Benjamin Rubin

Provocative Contemporary Reading of the Binding of Isaac

Walls of Jerusalem as seen from Yemin Moshe. Photo by B. Rubin

This week’s Torah reading Va-Yera contains two famous ancient narratives that are totally relevant to today’s headlines.

The first is Abraham arguing with God to spare the destruction of wicked Sodom and Gomorrah if there are a minimum of 50 innocent people living there.  God agrees in principle. Then the very first Jew Abraham bargains God down to promise to spare the cities if there are even 10 righteous people. And God promises.  But there are less than 10 righteous people.  Only Lot and his two unmarried daughters escape the cataclysm.

The second ancient narrative is the famous harrowing story of “the binding of Isaac”. God asks Abraham to sacrifice the long-promised son of his old age, Isaac. And Abraham agrees.  Through last minute divine intervention, Isaac is spared, and a ram is sacrificed in his place.

I thought I’d share this powerful, insightful and sadly relevant teaching of Rabbi Ed Elkin, the rabbi of my traditional egalitarian Toronto congregation, First Narayever.

Here is R. Elkins’ Dvar Torah:

This week’s sedra includes Akedat Yitzhak – the story of the binding of Isaac by his father Avraham. This narrative is one of the most important in the entire Torah, up there with the Exodus and the Giving of Torah as foundational moments in the history of our people and its faith. And yet it is not entirely clear what we are supposed to learn from the Akedah story. What are we supposed to do with a story in which the first Jew is put in a position where he must choose between his God and his son?

Some contemporary interpretations maintain that Avraham just got it wrong. The test was to see whether Avraham would in fact stand up to God over this cruel demand, as [earlier in the very same Torah portion] he had stood up to God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. When Avraham did not protest, he actually failed the test.

The problem with this interpretation is that at the end of the Akedah narrative, God declares to Avraham “Because you have not withheld your son, your favoured one, I will bestow my blessings upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands of the seashore…” (Gen.22:16-17). So the text indicates pretty clearly that Avraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son was in fact meritorious. Generations of Jewish readers of this story have understood it this way – in fact, the tradition says, Avraham’s zechut (merit) for the Akedah extends to his descendants down to our own day.

But if Avraham did pass the test when he bound his son to the altar, we’re still left with troubling questions. What is the lesson of this story?

In a fascinating article entitled “Bound to the Akedah”, Rabbi Susan Laemmle offers several ways of reading this text which yield lessons for our own time. As the Akedah text is provocative, so are some of these lessons.

Rabbi Laemmle says that one lesson of the Akedah is that family cannot be the final, highest value. Our love for our families is of course most precious. But we do live within concentric circles of relationships, and our nuclear and extended families are only the first ring beyond ourselves.

“If it takes a village – or a synagogue – to raise a child, then adults who care about their children need to devote themselves not just directly to those children but also to building the village, synagogue community, neighbourhood, country, and world within which their and other people’s children can thrive…If God represents our ultimate concern, then Abraham’s being called upon to serve God more than he serves his family can be taken to mean that in the great scheme of things we cannot put our families first.”

Jews are rightly raised to believe that Judaism prizes family as a core value of our tradition.

But family is not the only Jewish value. We pray to be spared the necessity of choosing between our core values, but sometimes such choices have to be made. We are living in a time right now when all kinds of values we believe in seem to clash – our belief in peace, our belief in justice, our belief in compassion, our belief in redemption of the captive, our belief in the security of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, our belief in humanitarianism.

This interpretation of the Akedah does not shy away from understanding it as a conflict between two core values in Jewish life — God and family. We may or may not like where this story points in resolving this conflict.

We pray for the strength to do what we need to do for the sake of all the relationships in our lives and for all the values we maintain, and not to have to choose between them. But if we do have to make excruciating choices, may God grant us wisdom and humility as we do so.

Rabbi Ed Elkin
הרב אשר זאב בן הלל וגולדה

About the Author
Benjamin Rubin was Chair of Limmud Toronto 2018, elected to Zionist Congress, and VP of Canada-Israel Chamber of Commerce. Under his pen name eBenBrandeis, he composes YouTube poems, translated from Hebrew a pre-war Pinsk biography, edited and published a book of contemporary Jewish humour, and created, a Zionist conceptual art project. Since retiring from the practice of law, he and his wife split their time between Toronto and Tel Mond. He has an abiding interest in Israeli contemporary music, the Golden Age of Hebrew poets from Andalusia, and the Muslim-Christian-Jewish convivencia of Spain. Writer, producer and director of the Zoom teleplay series, “Golden Age Travel”, about 12th century Hebrew poet and Arabic Jewish philosopher, Yehuda HaLevi, travelling through time. Episodes of the series have been performed online at Limmud Festivals in Toronto, Boston, Seattle and Winnipeg. GAT episode VI, "Berlin 28, Paris 38, Jerusalem 61" was premiered at Limmud Toronto November 2021.
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