Of all the episodes in Avraham’s life, the import of the “Akeidah,” the “binding” of Yitzhak (Isaac), is supreme. In it, G-d “tests” (“niesah;” Hebrew root: נסה) Avraham, telling him to sacrifice his son in a place yet to be indicated.
At other times (the destruction of Sodom, for example), Avraham showed himself willing and able to disagree, even “negotiate” with G-d. Now, he begins the preparations immediately and departs — with his son, his servants and his supplies — the following morning. He travels for 3 days and, upon reaching the designated site, immediately takes his son up Mt Moriah. When Yitzhak asks why they have wood and fire, but no animal for a sacrifice, Avraham answers, “G-d will provide Himself with a lamb…” At the summit, Avraham binds Yitzhak on an impromptu altar. As he lifts his knife to perform the fatal cut, an angel abruptly stops him. The angel then tells him that G-d only wanted him to demonstrate his willingness to obey completely, a test that he has now successfully completed.
It was not necessary, nor even desired, that Avraham actually sacrifice Yitzhak. Avraham then sees a ram entangled in some branches, and sacrifices it instead of his son. Because Yitzhak was bound on the altar, but not actually sacrificed, this episode came to be called the “Akeidah” – the “Binding” – or the “Akeidat Yitzhak” – the “Binding of Isaac.”
How horrific the story seems to some – perhaps to many – even today. In a song, “Highway 61 Revisited,” Bob Dylan used that “horror” for satirical purposes: “G-d said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son.’ Abe said, ‘Man, you must be putting me on’…” I, too, as a high-school age dramatist, imagined a one-act play of the “Akeidah,” in which Avraham’s knife was a prism. As he raised his hand for the cut, I wrote that a light should shine through the prism, breaking up into colors — to symbolize that all evil comes from following orders without question.
On the other hand, ours is an age – not the only one – in which the killing of another human being in, or for, G-d’s Name and Glory, is defended; even lauded.
But if we now live in times when religion – any religion – is used to rationalize brutality and murder, we shouldn’t misunderstand this “perek” (chapter) as justifying such things. Rabbi J.H. Hertz, whose commentary on the Chumash was the standard in Orthodox, Conservative and Reform synagogues for over 60 years, wrote: “In [Avraham’s] age, it was astounding that Avraham’s G-d should have interposed to prevent the sacrifice, not that He should have asked for it. A primary purpose of this command, therefore, was to demonstrate to Avraham and his descendants… [one must add: “to the entire world”] that G-d abhorred human sacrifice with an infinite abhorrence…it was the spiritual surrender alone that G-d required.”
It is a lesson that the world has yet to learn.
Rabbi Morris Silverman, in his commentary to the mahzor (High Holiday prayerbook) that became the standard for the entire Conservative movement, wrote, over 50 years ago: “[By G-d interrupting the sacrifice of Yitzhak] Judaism taught that the G-d of Avraham prohibits human sacrifice…Mankind has yet to learn that G-d condemns the shedding of human blood!”
A miniscule amount of text is allotted to the story. The entire episode is told in only 19 out of the 24 verses in chapter 22 of Sefer B’reishith (the Book of Genesis), which chapter itself is only 1 out of the 4 that comprise this parshah. Yet, it lies at the very heart of Judaism. The Stone Chumash, quoting Abarbanel, says, “[The Akeidah] epitomizes the Jew’s determination to serve G-d no matter how difficult the circumstances, the very reason for Israel’s existence.”
Although Torah, even TaNaCh, hardly mentions this episode again, the rabbis found in it the devotional act par excellance. The Midrash Rabbah, noting that Torah says that G-d here “tested” (“niesah”) Avraham, takes an alternative derivation of the Hebrew root “נסה,” as a “flag or banner (נס – “nes”),” and says that G-d made Avraham a “banner” for all people to follow, just as an army follows a banner or standard. To follow Avraham as a “banner” means to emulate his attitude of obedience; his spiritual surrender. The Midrash gives no greater accolade to a person than this.
This episode is the main “k’ri’yah” (Torah reading) for Rosh ha-Shanah: It captures the central theme of the Holiday and of the Jewish world-view. The Midrash (Pesikta Rabbotai) says that the “Akeidah” took place on Rosh ha-Shanah, as if to say that by commemorating it on Rosh ha-Shanah, we’re symbolically re-enacting the “Akeidah” ourselves. When we declare G-d as “King,” we are acknowledging G-d as infinitely wiser, more benevolent and more powerful than ourselves – as did Avraham in unhesitatingly obeying the command to sacrifice his son. The blowing of the ram’s horn – the “shofar” – likewise commemorates, among other things, the sacrifice of the ram in place of Yitzhak, and therefore the Akeidah as well.
We’re expected to infuse our daily lives with this attitude during the entire year. In many traditional siddurim (daily prayer-books), even if the recitation of the 10 Commandments is excluded, the self-reflective reading of the Akeidah can still be found in the preliminary section of Shachrit – the Morning service. We’re meant to begin our day with this in mind.
To hear the traditional Rosh Ha-Shanah “leining” (Torah reading): http://virtualcantor.com/ykLaining.htm
(Discussion of the Akeidah continues in the next post.)
 Dore, Gustav; Abraham and Isaac Climb Mt. Moriah; etching, 1866