“The Akeida
(updated and revised from Vayeira 5762-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

It took quite a few years of preparing weekly Torah messages for me to work up the courage to finally bite the bullet, and address the challenging issue of the עֲקֵדָהAkeida, the binding of Isaac, which is found in this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeira.

In Genesis 22, the closing chapter of parashat Vayeira, we learn that G-d tests Abraham. He calls to Abraham (Genesis 22:2), and says: קַח נָא אֶת בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר אָהַבְתָּ אֶת יִצְחָק, וְלֶךְ לְךָ אֶל אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה; וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם לְעֹלָה עַל אַחַד הֶהָרִים אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ, “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.”

Abraham gets up early in the morning, takes with him his two young men, and Isaac, 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, (Genesis 22:11-12), an angel of G-d calls out to Abraham from heaven and 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 narrative of the Akeida, is one of the most notable portions in the Hebrew Bible, and one of the most enigmatic. The Akeida has had a 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 readiness for 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 certain can succeed. It is in this same vein that the Abarbanel says that the word נִסָּה –nissah, which is often translated as tested, here really means a banner. It is G-d who attests, or provides testimonial to the world, through the absolute devotion of Abraham and Isaac.
The commitment shown by Abraham when asked by G-d to perform the Akeida was truly 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), כִּי בְיִצְחָק יִקָּרֵא לְךָ זָרַע, “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 immediately rush out to perform the Akeida. And, yet, (Genesis 22:3), וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר, Abraham gets up early in the morning, and starts out on this most painful mission. All this, despite the fact that Abraham was well aware of the profound suffering that he, and especially his wife, Sarah, as a barren woman, had endured waiting for this child. Both he and Sarah had yearned so desperately for a child. It was only then, under this profound 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 of 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 practice of child sacrifice, especially when performed in the name of G-d, which was rife among the ancient people.

Writes Rabbi Joseph Hertz:

In that age, it was astounding that Abraham’s G-d should have interposed to prevent the sacrifice, not that He should have asked for it. A primary purpose [of the Akeida], was to demonstrate to Abraham and his descendants after him that G-d abhorred human sacrifice with an infinite abhorrence…
It was the
spiritual surrender alone that G-d required, [not physical sacrifice].
(The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, Genesis, additional notes, p.201)

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), אַל תִּשְׁלַח יָדְךָ אֶל הַנַּעַר, וְאַל תַּעַשׂ לוֹ מְאוּמָה, “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 proven the point, now just allow us live in peace.”

May you be blessed.