Who was testing whom at the Akeda?

Interior of Machzike Hadath Synagogue, London c.1935
Interior of Machzike Hadath Synagogue, London c.1935

The story of the Akeda, read on the second day of Rosh Hashana, is neither very long, nor very detailed, but it ranks as one of the most controversial narratives in the Torah. While one could certainly examine it through the eyes of Isaac and Sarah, most of the commentaries see the Akeda as Abraham’s story – a triumph of his faith in God, even when asked by God to commit filicide. And yet, to many of us, this brand of blind faith is extremely disturbing. How could Abraham agree to kill his own child? Why didn’t he challenge God, as he did when God told him He was about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah?

Elie Wiesel offers a brilliant insight into this episode – an insight only a Holocaust survivor could conjure up and get away with. The Akeda may have started out as God testing Abraham, he says, but Abraham quickly turned the tables and tested God. As soon as Abraham fully and enthusiastically complied with God’s instructions, it was as if he was saying: “I defy You, Lord. I shall submit to Your will, but let us see whether You shall go to the end, whether You shall remain passive and remain silent when the life of my son — who is also Your son — is at stake.”

Wiesel suggests that in the final analysis, there were three victories for Abraham as a direct result of the Akeda. The first was that Abraham forced God to change His mind, as it were, and spare Isaac. The second was that Abraham forced God to involve Himself in the Akeda endgame, by rejecting the agency of the angel messenger. And the third was that Abraham compelled God to allow this story to be invoked whenever his descendants erred before Him, as a reminder of what had happened, and to ensure His mercy.

On Rosh Hashana we acknowledge God’s control over every aspect of our lives and we declare ourselves to be totally in His hands. By doing so, we deliberately emulate Abraham’s calculated blind faith at the Akeda, reminding God that He doesn’t really want us to suffer, just as he didn’t want Isaac to die. The paradox of Abraham’s compliance, is that by leaving his son’s fate in God’s hands, he was challenging God to come to the rescue. As it turns out, it was exactly this blind faith that turned him from being a helpless victim into someone who was assured of God’s help even in the darkest moment.

 

 

 

 

About the Author
Rabbi Pini Dunner is the Senior Rabbi at Beverly Hills Synagogue, a member of the Young Israel family of synagogues. He lives with his family in Beverly Hills, California.
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