Central to the Rosh HaShanah liturgy is the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac (Gen. 22). It is one of the great classics of literature: a short but highly effective fifteen verses of unparalleled artistry.
In Judaism it forms the culmination of the Abraham saga: its theme, God’s call to Abraham for a great task and the patriarch’s demonstration of his fitness.
In Christianity it symbolises a claim that God’s “son” gave his life for the sake of humanity. (In the Koran it was Ishmael who was bound on the altar, happy at being martyred.)
But it is not only non-Jews who read too much into the story and speak of the Sacrifice of Isaac. Within Judaism, some regard Isaac as the paradigm of the historical Jew, often sacrificed on the altar of God and His Torah (some aggadic interpretations say that Isaac was sacrificed and reduced to ashes and later resurrected to enable him to marry Rebekah).
Yet the story in the Torah text denies that there was a sacrifice. Isaac survived, though not unscathed; Abraham survived, though probably subdued and changed. The story relates a test, not a murder; a willingness for martyrdom, not martyrdom itself.
When the text says, “God tested Abraham”, rabbinic commentary cited by Rashi puts into God’s mouth the words, “I implore you, stand by Me in this trial so that people will not say the earlier trials had no substance”.
Tradition speaks of ten trials which tested the patriarch. As enumerated in Avot D’Rabbi Natan, chapter 33, the earlier trials were: Abraham’s move from Ur (Gen. 12:1), his move to Egypt in time of famine (12:10), his casting out of Ishmael (21:10), his statement that Sarai was his sister (12:11), his casting out of Hagar (21:10), his war with the kings (14:13), the covenant “between the pieces” (chapter 15), the events in Ur (15:7) and the covenant of circumcision (chapter 17).
Why was it necessary to try Abraham again and again?
The rabbis said that as a potter tests not his worst but his best products, so God tests the righteous, because from them He expects the most (Psalm 11:5; B’reshit Rabba 54).
But it seems to push all normal ethics aside when Abraham is asked even to contemplate child murder: in academic jargon, the teleological suspension of the ethical.
From God’s point of view there is a plot, a rhythm, but no plan to cause an actual killing. But from Abraham’s, and from Isaac’s?
Maybe they recognised that God was pushing them hard but would hold back from requiring a death. Since tradition believes that the patriarchs kept the whole Torah even before it was given, they were already aware that Lev. 20:1-5 forbids child sacrifice.
The rabbis were highly exercised about the problem. According to Pir’kei D’Rabbi Eliezer, Abraham’s two “lads”, whom the Midrash names as Ishmael and the servant Eliezer, were discussing who would inherit the patriarch’s estate when Abraham came back from sacrificing Isaac.
A voice from above said, “Neither of you will inherit: the heir will be the rightful owner of the inheritance” – a prophecy that Isaac would not lose his life but would return from the mountain with his father.
One should also note Avot 5:9, which states that from Creation the ram offered in Isaac’s place was always in existence, suggesting that the Almighty never intended the sacrifice to take place.
But our generation cannot look at any part of Scripture, any rabbinic text, any historical model, without relating it to the Holocaust.
How can we go along with the arguments in the previous paragraph? Does not the destruction of the six million shatter the symbolism of the story and disprove the claim that no sacrifice took place?
We dare not minimise the six million, but can we refuse to recognise that the Jewish people as a whole survived and Judaism continues to live? The generation of the Sho’ah were severely tested, we are all still severely shaken, but Isaac has survived. We weep, but we rejoice.
Another subject of debate is why God needed to test Abraham. An all-knowing God must by definition be fully aware of the nature of His creatures.
One view is that it is the nations of the world who needed to know Abraham’s merits; they would not be convinced by God praising the patriarch’s virtues unless Abraham publicly demonstrated his own determination and quality (Yalkut Shim’oni, Lech L’cha 62).
This view interprets the word nissah (God “tested” Abraham) as if it were ness – God made him into a banner to unfurl before the nations.
Others say that it was Abraham who needed the test: unless subjected to a serious trial he would not realise his own spiritual and personal strength.
There is also a line of thinking that Abraham had let God down by making a covenant with Avimelech that would have given away some of the promised land, and so God threatened him by saying, as it were, “If you give away land promised to your children, you may end up without children”.
Some criticise Abraham for going along blindly with what God commanded.
What should he have done? As the one who pioneered the tradition of confrontation with God when he said, “Shall the Judge of all the earth not act justly?” (Gen. 18:25), he should have argued with God and insisted on a rational explanation of the Divine will.
The text says that Abraham was tested, but did Isaac have no say? The reiterated words, “And the two of them went together”, is a hint that Isaac realised he was part of some heavenly test of his father. The son did not object, because for him the test was whether he was sufficiently loyal and obedient to his father (N’tziv, “Ha’amek Davar” 22:1). Hence while God tested Abraham, Abraham tested Isaac.
Apart from being the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh HaShanah, the Akedah is linked with the blowing of the shofar.
Rabbi Abbahu said, “Why do we blow the horn of a ram? Said the Holy One, Blessed be He, ‘Blow the horn of a ram before Me, in order that I shall remember for you the binding of Isaac the son of Abraham'” (Talmud RH 16a).
There are a number of Akedah Selichot (penitential poems). The Akedah is mentioned in the Zichronot section of Musaf. The Midrash associates Tashlich with the Akedah, suggesting that Satan, wishing to obstruct Abraham, changed into a river and barred his way, but Abraham jumped into the water and went on.
Other Akedah practices include the S’fardi and Chassidic customs of reading the Akedah daily (among Ashkenazim it is optional), mention of the Akedah in the Tachanun supplications on Monday and Thursday, and, in the Egyptian rite, lying on the ground during Tachanun like a lamb about to be slaughtered.
The story is complex, with many layers; its infinite variety remains an inspiration.