Akeidah by Lloyd Bloom[1]

Parshah Va-Yeirah (Gen. 18:1-22:24) takes its title from the first word in the Hebrew: “Va-yeirah eilav” – “And [G-d] appeared [Va-yeirah] to him …”.  It includes the continuation of the “Avraham” narrative that had been begun in the previous parshah, “Lech L’chah.”  Its most important theme is his unquestioning obedience to even the most extreme command of G-d.

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. Upon reaching the designated site, he 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, or 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.”

Although 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!”

(In fact, the view of worship later found in the Talmud, Christianity, Islam and elsewhere is that true worship has little or nothing to do with shedding blood — human or animal — at all.)

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.
[1] painting of the Akeidah (Binding of Yitzhak/Isaac) by Yitzhak (Lloyd) Bloom