October 11, 2010
Did Abraham Fail his Final Test? By Rabbi Hyim Shafner
Over Rosh Hashanah I thought a lot about the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, since the story is so central to Rosh Hashanah. The most important questions that are asked about the Akedah are what gave Abraham the right to offer his child without asking Sara, since Isaac is her child also? As the Talmud tells us there are 3 partners in everyone’s creation - a father, a mother and God.
Second, why did Abraham not speak up to protect the innocent as he did in the case of Sodom, where God made clear that he expects it of Avrohom as He says, “Avrohom is the one who will teach justice and mercy to his children”.
And third, what are we to do with the depiction of God at the Akedah that so contrasts with the God of the Torah who does not want us to hurt the innocent but protect them? Why is Abraham praised for his willingness to obey God instead of protecting the innocent and weak? Wouldn’t that be a better way of showing one’s love and fear of God?
Many classic answers are given but none that do not generate many more questions. For instance, some sages claim Abraham somehow knew both promises would come to be, that Isaac would be his seed and that he would also have to offer him up. Or in another version, that God did not tell Abraham to kill his child, only to bring him up as an offering, but of course in either case, it is no test. Or, that God’s word trumps all, but then we are left with the questions we asked above and indeed we know (from the story of Sodom earlier in the parsha) that Abraham is not someone who believes that God can
Every 5 or 10 years it is reported in the news papers that someone sacrifices their child because of a command from God. Usually we chalk these up to insanity, but every few years one runs across such a story in which the father indeed is not crazy and never was, yet kills the child at what he believes is God’s command. For Jews, after the giving of the torah, halacha trumps God’s command, so an observant Jew would not be permitted to sacrifice their child or commit any other sin even if they were sure it was the command of God. However, it does beg the question of Abraham who knew from the story of Cain and Abel that killing was forbidden.
In addition as some of the anthropological writers ask, what does it mean to live in a world in which a large portion of the world’s inhabitants, Christians and Muslims, both see a story of sacrificing one’s child for God as foundational?
I concluded that none of the apologetic paths were satisfactory and that the real test was for Abraham to confront God as he did at Sodom, thus teaching his children “righteousness and justice” and ultimately to say “no” to God. Perhaps, on some level in the narrative of the Akedah, Abraham failed the test. I would suggest this is why God never speaks to Abraham after commanding him to take Isaac as a burnt offering. In the end of the story an emissary angel speaks to Abraham - but where is God? Why doesn’t God just speak directly to Abraham?
Indeed midrash after midrash depicts just such a counter narrative, Abraham crying, the angles crying and arguing with God and ultimately, Sara’s cries when she hears of the Akedah that according to the midrash are the source of the shofar’s sound.
Perhaps if we begin to see the Akedah as a test in which the right answer is to protect an innocent child rather than sacrifice him in obedience to God, our world might be a bit different, perhaps for the better.