Sacrifice & Protest: Meanings of the Akedah

In the name of God a father comes a blade’s breadth away from sacrificing his own son in the name of God. And not any father, but Abraham, the Father of the Jewish People. Tomorrow we will read The Akedah - the binding of Isaac – which the rabbis chose as the central motif for the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading. The symbol of this entire season of return is the shofar, a reminder of the ram caught in the thicket and offered up in place of Isaac. What are we to make of this familiar, yet persistently shocking narrative? What lessons are we to draw about the Jewish New Year?

Jewish tradition generally accepts G-d’s command to Abraham as a test – the final test of a series of ten, which Abraham has passed so far with flying colours. These include leaving his home and family and offering himself as a martyr by passing through Nimrod’s fiery furnace.

But what kind of a test is this: asking a father to sacrifice his son? What kind of a G-d demands such a horrific act? And if G-d is All-knowing, and indeed Abraham has already proved himself in the preceding trials, then why is this additional trial necessary?

Rashi, the eleventh century French commentator, paints an unambiguous portrait of Abraham as Faithful servant of G-d. Abraham’s unhesitating response when G-d calls with the command to take up his beloved Isaac as an offering is: ‘Hineini; Here I am,’ – the Torah’s codeword for being willing and prepared. Abraham hurries to rise early on the morning of his departure and saddles the donkey himself demonstrating, according to Rashi, his dutiful eagerness to carry out the mitzvah.

Abraham makes his three day journey with Isaac to ‘One of the mountains which I will tell you,’ (an unmistakable resonance with G-d’s first call to Abraham to set out from his homeland to an unknown destination ‘Which I will show you’). Here Rashi sees Isaac, too, becoming an active participant in the chilling drama as it unfolds. When Abraham answers his son: ‘G-d will provide the lamb for the sacrifice,’ Rashi sees this as the turning point for Isaac, who now understands that it is he himself who will be sacrificed. And yet: ‘Va yelchu yachdav– they walked on together.’ The son, like his father, has chosen unquestioning submission to God’s will.

Rashi’s portrayal of love through obedience comes to a climax in the moment of the binding itself. Quoting the midrash, Rashi details a macabre exchange between father and son where Isaac pleads with Abraham to bind him tightly by the hands and feet so that he shouldn’t accidentally struggle and cause the knife to slip, thereby causing a blemish which would invalidate the sacrifice. At this very moment the angel calls from heaven, commanding Abraham not to touch the lad: ‘Ki ata yadata ki yerei-elohim atah; for now I know that you are a G-d fearer.’

It was the medieval rabbis who developed the Akedah as a prototype of martyrdom as they themselves suffered persecution at the hands of the Church. The midrash presents both Abraham and Isaac as unflinchingly obedient and submissive to G-d’s will, prepared to give up life itself for love of G-d. Thus the Akedah became a powerful inspirational motif for the Jews of Ashkenaz in the Middle Ages who chose death rather than conversion to Christianity in places such as Mainz and Worms. Rashi himself witnessed the horrors of the first Crusade.

There may have been challenging times in the lives of many of us, who have been  comforted and sustained in the belief that there was some Higher purpose for our pain; that our suffering was a test designed to make me stronger and bring us greater understanding – make us better fit for God’s plans for us. Like steel forged in the furnace, like Abraham and Isaac surviving the sacrificial flames atop Mount Moriah, we would emerge, eventually, more resilient, more empathic human beings.

By contrast, Tikva Frymer- Kensky – a modern Bible critic, challenges Rashi’s emulation of religious obedience with a searing critique of Abraham’s submission:

‘If Avraham had faith in the ultimate goodness of G-d, why did he not argue for his son as he argued for Sodom: “Will G-d have me kill my innocent son? Will the judge of the world not act justly?”

Is this ‘G-d –fearing?’ she asks. By comparing Abraham to Job, who challenged G-d and argued for a moral order and that G-d do justly, Frymer-Kensky suggests that this could have been Abraham’s test: to challenge G-d on the moral justice of child sacrifice – and that perhaps Abraham failed.

Frymer-Kensky looks at the verse in which G-d seems to justify his command: ‘Ki ata yadati ki yerei elohim ata’; traditionally translated as, ‘Indeed I know that you are a G-d fearer because you have not held back your son from me,’ and suggests that it be translated more accurately, ‘Indeed I know that you are a G-d fearer – but (now) you have not held back your son from me.’

“This crucially ambiguous sentence leads to utterly different conclusions – one, that binding Isaac for sacrifice is a mark of Abraham’s special virtue and fidelity; and the other, that binding Isaac was a failure of Abraham, who was after all only human and missed his opportunity to rise in defense of justice. The first explanation places a value on submission, the second on G-d wrestling.’

Frymer-Kensky concludes that ultimately, the story is ambiguous. We must ourselves adopt the role of ‘G-d wrestlers’, struggling with the meaning of the text and struggling with G-d in those areas of our lives and in the world which seem challenging and unjust. This was the stance adopted by the Chasidic masters. Levi Yizchak of Berditchev was known for berating God on a regular basis and shaking his fist at Heaven. In a world where children – in their thousands upon thousands - continue to be sacrificed at the hand of war and famine and violence – perhaps we should all be shaking our fists at Heaven whilst we ourselves take a stand to end abomination and injustice.

Here then, are messages for the New Year. If we are enduring painful challenges in our lives, it is possible to draw comfort and meaning from our suffering, emerging stronger, sustained by a sense of God’s purpose working in our lives. And there are also times when we should protest – wrestling with our text and our tradition, wrestling with God and protesting the injustice of the world.