Akeidat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac, one of the most challenging stories in Jewish history. A parent is asked to do the unthinkable: to sacrifice his beloved only son, in the name of … what?
It is a script that is all too familiar to many families in Israel.
My first day after finishing my army service was supposed to be a happy one. After four and a half years, I had received my honorable discharge and returned my gear. It was supposed to be my first day of real freedom. No orders to analyze and fulfill, no inspections, patrols, guard duty stints or maneuvers — just a long, lazy day in the August sunshine.
And it was, until I watched the news, and the nightmare unfolded onscreen.
My unit had drawn what was thought to be a ‘good’ station: patrols on the Jordanian border, which was quiet, especially relative to the areas in Lebanon we had been in last time around. Normally, I would have gone with them, but as I was getting out the next day, there was no reason to learn the area.
A Jordanian soldier snuck across the border and ambushed one of the patrols. Ronen, a sergeant from our battalion, was killed.
News like that hits you right in the gut. The next day, instead of a long lazy day, I celebrated my freedom at Ronen’s funeral.
It was very different from the western, Ashkenazi funerals I had attended. In the west, you keep a stiff upper lip, though one hears the occasional muffled sob as the family tries to maintain a certain dignity and keep it together. But Sephardim are different; they let it all out, crying hysterically, even yelling.
I will never forget the sheer tragedy of Ronen’s mother, inconsolable in her grief. Screaming and shouting, she threw herself on her son’s coffin, refusing to let him go, and screamed: “Lama? Lama? Al taazov oti!”
Why? Why? Don’t leave me!
How do you answer such a question?
Akeidat Yitzchak is not some ancient story to merely remember. In every community in Israel there are modern day Avrahams and Sarahs who struggle with it every day. Perhaps a closer look at the story is in order.
G-d presents Avraham with his greatest challenge: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Yitzchak, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him up there on one of the mountains that I will show you” (Bereishit 22:2).
This, then, is the test: Avraham is to sacrifice his only son, Yitzchak, as an offering to G-d, and this is supposed to demonstrate … what? What on earth could possibly be the motivation behind such a test? What are we meant to learn from it?
And most of all: why must this be such an integral part of life? How can a world in which loving parents lower their sons, their only sons (and every son is an only son, because there never was and never will be another son just like him), into the ground, be the same world that G-d describes as being “very good” (Genesis 1:31)?
What is the purpose of all these tests we seem to encounter so often in life?
The Talmud, struggling with the question of human suffering in this world, makes a very challenging statement: “If a person suffers travail, let him review his actions” (Berachot 5a). This damning statement seems to imply that if a person is suffering, he or she must have done something to deserve it!
But elsewhere, in Moed Katan, the Talmud suggests: “A person’s life, children and livelihood, are not dependant on merit, but rather on mazal, luck.” In other words, don’t assume the challenges and suffering a person experiences, or for that matter the joy and reward they receive, have anything to do with whether or not they are a good person. All of this is simply fate.
So which is it? Is our suffering of cause, or simply bad luck?
The end of this story is even more puzzling: Just as Avraham is ready to fulfill this most horrible of commands, an angel calls out: “Do not send out your hand against the lad… for now I know [ata yadati] that you truly fear G-d” (22:12).
What does this mean? How can G-d now know something? Was there something G-d once did not know?
The Ramban (Nachmanides) suggests: “Do not read ‘now I know’ [yadati] but ‘now I have made known’ [hodati].”
In other words, somehow, Avraham achieved something that only G-d knew he was capable of. Until this moment, the Avraham that passed the test existed only in potential. Now it became reality. Many commentaries suggest that this is the basis for our trials and tribulations: through our struggles, we live up to our potential.
But this idea leaves one feeling challenged. Why does G-d have to do this in order to make us grow? Who really wants to live through such an ordeal just to discover who they are after it?
There is a fascinating comment that Rashi makes at the beginning of this story. G-d commands Avraham “haalehu,” offer him up (22:2), to which Rashi says, “It does not say ‘slaughter him.’”
What is Rashi suggesting? What is the difference between slaughtering Yitzchak and offering him up? After all, wasn’t Avraham asked to sacrifice his son, to slaughter him on the altar before G-d? Indeed, the end of this story clearly has Avraham, knife in hand, ready to do just that, before an angel arrives just in time to save the day.
What if Avraham was not sure what G-d really wanted of him? And what if this was the point of the exercise?
Avraham lived in a time when it was the norm to sacrifice children to the gods. Dying for G-d was exactly what the people of his day would have assumed the test to be. But, says Rashi, G-d doesn’t ask Avraham to slaughter his son. Rather, He asks him to offer him up. The challenge of this world, Judaism suggests, is not to die for G-d, but to live for G-d.
Indeed, there are indications in the text that support this idea. At the beginning of this story, it is G-d Himself who speaks with Avraham, but at the end, G-d’s word through the medium of an angel, indicating distance. One might suggest that you cannot pick up a knife to slaughter your son and not end up distanced from G-d, however much it may be a part of what G-d wants you to do.
But one might also suggest that Avraham was distanced from G-d because he misunderstood what G-d wanted. At a time when men were glorifying death in battle and throwing their sons into ritual fires, the world needed to learn, through one incredible individual, that the real challenge is how to live.
Every day, in every moment, we make a choice: a life over death. And it is in that choice that we discover not only who we are, but also all that we can be.
Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.