Vayera: Sacrifice

For anything worth having one must pay the price; and the price is always work, patience, love, self-sacrifice — no paper currency, no promises to pay, but the gold of real service. — John Burroughs

In the middle of the synagogue service, a man quietly walks up to his rabbi who is sitting at the front of the synagogue and admits to having committed a horrible, highly embarrassing sin, and that he is now seeking to repent. The rabbi looks at him, thinks, and then tells him to go to the middle of the synagogue, bang on the table, and publicly declare to the entire congregation his sin.

“Here? Now?” the man asks, his face ashen.

“Yes,” the rabbi declares firmly. “It’s the only way to repent.”

The man looks incredulous, but he trusts his rabbi and he deeply needs to repent. He walks to the middle of the synagogue as if it were a death sentence. He is about to bang on the table when a hand grabs his shoulder. It’s the rabbi.

“That’s far enough,” the rabbi tells the man. “That’s all you need to do. You needed to demonstrate that you were willing. That’s your repentance.”

For me, one of the more theologically challenging narratives in the Bible is God’s apparent command to Abraham to bring his son Isaac as a sacrifice. The Sages throughout history have praised Abraham’s complete devotion to God and willingness to sacrifice his long-sought and beloved son.

Nonetheless, there remain troubling aspects. Did God truly desire Abraham to kill Isaac? It doesn’t seem likely. Did Abraham misunderstand such a significant divine communication from God? Also, hard to imagine. Did God never intend for Abraham to carry through with the sacrifice but purposely mislead Abraham? It’s not clear from the plain text.

The Bechor Shor on Genesis 22:12 suggests that there was some level of purposeful misdirection on God’s part. He explains that God knows the heart of every person and He knew very well that Abraham was so completely devoted to God, that he would even sacrifice his son, the very son God had promised him, if that was God’s command. But it seems that not only did God want Abraham, Isaac, and us, their descendants to see that he was willing to make such a sacrifice to God, but He also wanted the nations of the world to realize Abraham’s commitment to God.

The misdirection comes in the Hebrew word that God used here for “sacrifice” – Olah. In the common language of sacrifices, an Olah, translated as an Elevation Sacrifice, is an animal sacrifice which is completely consumed by the fire of the Altar. However, in its simplest meaning, Olah means to elevate. The Bechor Shor suggests that God never intended Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but He did want him to think that He wanted him to sacrifice Isaac. It was a test that Abraham passed with flying colors. God wanted Abraham to elevate Isaac, to bring him up to the altar he built on Mount Moriah without harming him, but He also wanted Abraham to demonstrate his willingness to follow God’s directive, as excruciating, as incomprehensible, and as sacrificial as it might seem.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the engagement of our son, Elchanan, to Zavi Lava. Mazal Tov!

About the Author
Ben-Tzion Spitz is the former Chief Rabbi of Uruguay and a candidate for the Knesset for the Zehut party. He is the author of three books of Biblical Fiction and hundreds of articles and stories dealing with biblical themes. Ben-Tzion is a graduate of Yeshiva University and received his Master’s in Mechanical Engineering from Columbia University.
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