TEST ME – Questioning the Akedah – a Rosh Hashana message by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
Another New Year calls on us to repeat the story of Abraham almost sacrificing Isaac. Traditionally read on the Second Day, or in Reform congregations on the First and only day of Rosh Hashana, this section tells of the narrow escape of young Isaac from becoming a human sacrifice. No matter how many times we retell this story, it still shocks us. And indeed it should.
The Akedah – literally the Binding of Isaac – even shocked the rabbis of the Midrash. One text tells of G-d asking Abraham: “Did I tell you to slaughter him? I told you to bring him up!” (Using the word “ha-a-leyhu”in the sense of elevating him, not in its other meaning of offering him.) “You brought him up and bound him on the altar. Now take him down again!”
So Abraham misunderstood the Divine commandment. That error nearly cost him his and Sarah’s only son. And presumably all that son’s descendants, namely us. Not that many of those descendants did not actually become human sacrifices – victims of violent hatred, not sacred offerings. But their death was no Divine commandment. And, says the Midrash, neither was the near death of Isaac.
The Torah describes the Akedah as a test. G-d was testing Abraham’s loyalty. What would he withhold from G-d? That theme gets played out beautifully in the last-minute message from the angel: “Do not raise your hand against the boy, nor do anything to him! For now I know that you fear G-d and would not withhold your only son.” And lo and behold, here is a ram caught by his horns in a thicket, just in time to replace Isaac on the altar. So we sound the ram’s horn to celebrate Isaac’s rescue – and our new year. And if we go along with the Midrash, none of this would happen if Abraham understood the commandment.
Human error has its value.
Another question to the Akedah story concerns the behavior of Isaac. According to Biblical chronology, Isaac was not a child at this time. He was over 30. Does a 30-year-old man walk placidly to his own death at the hands of his father? Does he submissively carry the firewood for the altar, and only innocently ask“where is the lamb?” Granted, Isaac’s personality as described in the Torah was less forceful than that of his father Abraham or his son Jacob; he served as a positive link between great generations. But did he effectively cooperate in becoming a human sacrifice? The command did not come to him, only to his father. Nowhere does anyone tell Isaac what to expect. In fact, throughout his life Isaac almost never hears from G-d directly. Yet he cooperates in the act of risking – and nearly losing – his life for G-d.
The real answers to these questions lie within each of us. We need to make a major effort to understand the requirements of our religion. Back at the dawn of our history father Abraham just might have barely missed making a fatal error for his son. And no matter how good our intentions may be, let us not follow blind custom or misguided leaders. We could lose it all. Thank G-d Isaac survived. We should hope to do as well.