Yossi Feintuch

That ram – what a flawed offering to God!

“The real hero of the Binding of Isaac [the Akedah] was the ram” — not Abraham, or God, or Sarah — writes Yehudah Amichai in his poem about the preeminent episode of this weekly Torah portion Vayera, (if not of the whole Torah). Abraham takes that ram that was caught in the brambles by its horns and sacrifices it for a substitute offering in lieu of Isaac – “instead of his son.” Or in Amichai’s wording, the ram “was volunteered to die instead of Isaac.”

To glorify and iconize the event, a midrash explains that the ram’s two horns that were of different sizes — though nothing about it is found in the text itself — were made into shofarot — or as Amichai has it: “they made those horns into shofars when he [the ram] was slaughtered.”

Hence, centuries later, the smaller one was the shofar that was booming at Mount Sinai when God revealed the Torah to the people of Israel. Indeed, the blasting of the ram’s horn at the time of the Torah’s Revelation was so paramount that it “grew continually much stronger — [so] the entire people saw… the sound of the shofar.” The second or larger and thus more powerful horn will, according to the midrash, herald the coming of the messianic times, symbolized by the great blast at the conclusion of the Yom Kippur service.

Now, let’s step back into the actual story in Chapter 22, where, in the nick of time, God’s messenger commanded Abraham holding his sacrificial knife over the bound Isaac to freeze and nix the (fake) command that God made to him. The angel did not even allude to offering an alternative offering. God did not need it because the whole episode was a trial on blank, rather than a divine desire for a burnt-offering.

But Abraham decided on his own to slaughter an animal as though to make up for the Isaac sacrifice that God did not want to begin with, and as such, no substitute for it was needed at all. Why, the only time when God commanded Abram to make a sacrifice was in order to ritualize the Covenant between the Pieces that they had entered. And there, and only there did God say to Abram: “Take to Me.” But when God tested Abraham in regard to making Isaac into a burnt-offering, the words “Take to Me” were not voiced. But Abraham failed to notice the absence of these words, which would have turned the sacrifice of Isaac had it been carried out – the angel needed to call ‘’Abraham’’ twice because Abraham did not even hear his name called out the first time in the frenzy of his action — into a meaningless thing, and not at the behest of God.

At the end of this unrivaled biblical drama, Abraham offers a random ram, a stray one (“a delayed”) ram on the same altar that he had built for sacrificing Isaac. The animal had been entangled in a bush, and was unable to join its flock, which had already moved on and belonged to another shepherd. As such, Abraham slaughtered a ram that did not belong to him; with Mt. Moriah being a three-day walking distance from Abraham’s domicile in Beersheba, the ram was not his property to offer it! And it would disqualify the offering for this reason.

All in all, this effectively pilfered substitute sacrifice was not only uncalled for but flawed if only because Abraham violated the (future) requirement to do one’s utmost and return a lost livestock animal to its owner (Exodus 23:4, Deuteronomy 22:1-2). Clearly, God neither requested Abraham to slaughter the ram, nor accepted it as a sacrifice in retrospect, and, therefore, God would never allude to it.

And while Isaac went on willingly with his father to become God’s offering — “so they went both of them together” – Amichai is correct to note that the ram “was volunteered to die instead of Isaac,” as Abraham did not solicit it for its opinion on the matter of its imminent and gratuitous demise.

No wonder that Abraham failed his test; Sara moved out before he returned to their home in Beersheba and relocated to Qiriat Arba – they would never again exchange a word with each other. Isaac for his part did not join his father, as the latter went back home to Beersheba, and these two too would never be quoted by the Torah to have talked to each other again. Nor would God ever speak to Abraham as well!

About the Author
Ordained a Rabbi by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994; in 2019 this institution accorded me the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa. Following ordination I served congregations on the island of Curacao, in Columbia, MO. Currently serving a congregation in Bend, Or. I received academic degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (B.A. in International Relations and History), New York University (M.A. in History), and Emory University (Ph.D. in U.S. History). I am the author of U.S. Policy on Jerusalem (Greenwood Press), and numerous articles on biblical themes in various print and digital publications. I have taught in several academic institutions, including Ben-Gurion University (Beersheba, Israel), and the University of Missouri (Columbia, MO). A native of Afula, Israel. A veteran of the IDF.
Related Topics
Related Posts