“The Akeida”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

After four years of preparing d’vrei Torah on the weekly parasha, I’ve finally decided to bite the bullet and discuss the challenging issue of the Akeida, the binding of Isaac, which is found in this coming week’s parasha, parashat Vayeira.

In Genesis 22, the closing chapter of parashat Vayeira, we learn that G-d tests Abraham. He calls out to Abraham (Genesis 22:2) and says: “Kach nah et bincha, et y’chid’cha, asher ah’havta et Yitzchak, v’lech l’cha el eretz ha’Moriah, v’ha’ah’lay’hu sham l’olah al ah’chad heh’hah’reem asher oh’mar ay’leh’cha.” Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, even Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you of.

Abraham gets up early in the morning, takes his two young men and Isaac with him, and, on the third day, arrives at the mountain. There he binds Isaac, places him on the altar, and lifts up the knife to slaughter him. Thankfully, in verse 11, an angel of G-d calls out to Abraham from heaven, and in verse 12 the angel says: “Lay not your hand upon the lad, neither do anything to him, for now I know that you are a G-d fearing man, seeing that you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Abraham lifts his eyes, sees a ram caught in the thicket by its horns, and offers up the ram as a burnt offering instead of his son, Isaac.

The incident of the Akeida is one of the most notable portions in the Bible, and one of the most enigmatic. The Akeida has played a role of great influence on the Jewish people, one that has profoundly reverberated throughout Jewish history. For the people of Israel, the Akeida represents the Jews’ preparedness for unconditional surrender to G-d and the possibility of martyrdom. The well-known Chanukah story of the martyrdom of Hannah and her seven sons, recorded in the Second Book of Maccabees, refers to the Akeida. In one version, Hannah says to her youngest child, “Go to Abraham our father and tell him that I have bettered his instruction. He offered one child to G-d; I offered seven. He merely bound the sacrifice; I performed it.” And so the Ramban concludes that the test of the Akeida is not for the benefit of the tester, but for the benefit of the testee. G-d will only test those who He is sure can succeed. It is in this same vein that the Abarbanel says that the word nissah, which is often translated as tested, really means a banner here. It is G-d who attests or provides testimonial to the world through the actions of Abraham and Isaac.

The devotion shown by Abraham when asked by G-d to perform the Akeida was extraordinary. When confronted with the possible destruction of the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham protests passionately, but here, Abraham is silent. He accepts G-d’s request without a word of protest. Obviously, he could have said to G-d, “Yesterday you told me (Genesis 21:12), ‘Ki v’Yitzchak yikarei l’cha zera,’ that through Isaac your seed will be known.” Instead, Abraham performs G-d’s bidding thoroughly out of love. G-d didn’t tell him to rush to perform the Akeida immediately, and yet (Genesis 22:3) “Va’yashkem Avraham ba’boker,” Abraham gets up early in the morning and starts out on this painful mission. All this, despite the fact that Abraham was well aware of the profound suffering Sarah endured as a barren woman. Both he and Sarah had yearned so desperately for a child. It was then, under duress, that Abraham agrees to take Hagar as a concubine, all for the sake of being a father. Now, the likely death of his beloved Isaac, leaving Abraham without a proper heir, would render all Abraham’s labor in vain. All meaning in his life would be lost.

The Akeida proclaims a new and vital message to the world. Once and for all, the Akeida puts an end to the acceptance of the abominable act of child sacrifice, especially performed in the name of G-d, which was rife among the ancient people. Writes Rabbi Joseph Hertz: to the ancients it was astounding that Abraham’s G-d should have interposed to prevent the sacrifice, not that He should have asked for it. The primary purpose of the Akeida is to demonstrate to Abraham and his descendants after him that G-d abhorred human sacrifice with an infinite abhorrence. It was spiritual surrender that G-d wanted, not physical sacrifice. It is therefore profoundly telling and revealing that in the biblical story of the Akeida G-d instructs Abraham to sacrifice his son, while a lesser power, an angel, overrides G-d’s instructions and tells Abraham (Genesis 22:12) “Al tishlach yadcha el ha’naar, v’al ta’as lo me’uma,” lay not your hand upon the lad, neither do anything unto him.

Can we possibly conceive of a more powerful means of proclaiming the message of the sanctity of human life than the Akeida?

May we, the Jewish people, never be called upon again to make these ultimate sacrifices. Let us say to the angel of G-d: “We’ve proved the point, now let us just live in peace.”

May you be blessed.