[Sermon] What Can We Learn from the Akeidah?

Rabbi Yuval Keren – Erev Rosh Hashanah 2018/5779

There is no doubt that the story of the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, is one of the most dramatic stories in the entire Tanakh – the Jewish bible.

  וַיְהִ֗י אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה וְהָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים נִסָּ֖ה אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֑ם

    After some time – God tested Abraham!

The Akeidah is the cruellest test that can be devised. God is asking Abraham to take his most precious possession he has, his only son, the son that God Himself had promised him, the one that he and Sarah waited for nearly 100 years to hug. For Abraham and Sarah this would have been worse than their own death. Perhaps this is why Abraham kept Sarah in the dark. He knew that she would not pass the test.

How many of us would have passed it?

Yet, Abraham, the man that showed in the past that he could stand-up for others, does not challenge God this time, and he shows no hesitation, and no emotions throughout.

In complete silence he rises up in the morning to execute God’s order, and he follows God’s instructions to the last moment until he is stopped by the cry:

“Abraham! Abraham!… Do not raise your hand against the boy”
It seems from the conclusion of the test that Abraham passed it with flying colours. He receives the most powerful Heavenly blessing from the angel who stopped him at the last moment:

“I will bestow My blessing upon you
and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven
and as the sand on the shore;
and your descendants shall seize the gates of their enemies
and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed by your descendants.”

You couldn’t get a better blessing than that. Yet we have a big problem here, and not only with Abraham, whom we know is kind and hospitable. How can the good, just and merciful God devise such a cruel test?

Perhaps it will help if we remember that when we judge the story we cannot help but be biased by the context of time, place and society within which we live.

It is no surprise then that every generation had to grapple with the moral and theological questions raised by the Akeida and understand it in the context of their time.

The book of Jubilees retells the story of the Akeidah. The book was originally written in Hebrew during the 2nd Temple Period, and survived in manuscripts of the Ethiopian Church. Jubilees is faithful to the story in Genesis but it adds another interesting element. The book claims that the cruel test was devised by the Satan who wanted to prove that Abraham was not as righteous and faithful as he appeared to be. Satan seems to be working as a power independently of God, something that the Bible and Judaism utterly reject. Even though we know that it was popular in its time. Jubilees was likely to have been rejected from the Jewish canon for this very belief in dualism.

The biblical account tells us nothing about Isaac’s age. However, when we imagine Isaac being bound at the altar we imagine a little helpless boy. Josephus Flavius lived 300 years after the author of Jubilees in the Land of Israel. He was a leader of a force who fought the Romans during the Jewish rebellion. He was eventually captured and swapped sides with the Romans. He spent much of his life writing to the Romans about the Jews. One of his stories was the Akeidah. Josephus claims that Isaac was 25 years old. At that age he would have been much stronger than his 100+ Year Old father and he could have easily overpowered his father and resisted the binding. Instead, Josephus describes him as an accomplice who is fully aware of his father’s intentions. Isaac chooses to remain and actively help his old man with the construction of the altar.

According to Josephus, when the altar is finally ready Abraham said to Isaac:
“My son! I prayed so many times that I might have a son like you. When you came to the world there was no-one as happy as I was. There was nothing that made me happier than seeing you grow and become a man. Yet, it was God who enabled me to be your father, and it was God who is about to take you away from me.”

Josephus turned Abraham from the heartless father of the Bible into a loving parent. In his story both father and son had to make the sacrifice to God.

Josephus who wrote his books for a Roman readers, tried to explain to them why so many young Jews were willing to sacrifice their lives during their hopeless fight against the mighty Romans. Tens of thousands lost their lives during the war against the Romans.

Now, jumping to Medieval Europe and to the time of the French Torah and Talmud scholar Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as RASHI. He claimed that the whole episode was a misunderstanding between God and Isaac. Rashi claimed that God did not tell Abraham to slay Isaac the Hebrew for sacrifice is ‘olah’, an offering ascending Heavenwards. Rather, God told him to bring him up to the mountain to make him “oleh” – a pilgrim. God then intended to tell Abraham to bring Isaac down.

Rashi, who lived at the time of the Crusades, did not wish to associate God with the heartless cruelty of the crusaders. Rashi perhaps used this as criticism of Abraham the zealot who did not quite listen to god and misinterpreted God’s instructions. Perhaps for him the senseless killings of the Crusades, who were just as extreme and cruel as today’s ISIS, were a misinterpretation of God’s instructions.

It is time to bring the story of the Akeidah to our world today, and give it a rational and progressive interpretation.

In Biblical times, and in other cultures of the area human sacrifice, and especially sacrificing your nearest and dearest. In the book of Judges, Jephtah is called to fight the mighty Ammonites. Jephtah is worried about the outcome of the battle and is therefore vowing to sacrifice the first one that comes out of his house. He later sacrificed his one and only daughter. The bible also tells us of two of the kings of Judah, Ahaz and Manasseh, who sacrificed their children.

The reason for these sacrifices was the belief that sacrificing the most precious for a king could save a kingdom from destruction.

Yet the Torah and the Prophets attack this ritual. Ahaz and Manasseh are described as evil kings who did not follow God’s ways. The book of Deuteronomy warns us that those who throw their sons or daughters in the fire could bring the wrath of God upon all.

The message is clear. The test of Abraham was designed to tell him and us that the ram, found in the thicket, was the substitute for Isaac.

Therefore, animal sacrifice was considered a higher form of worship, and the old and cruel customs were to cease.

Animal sacrifice continued as a form of worship from Abraham’s days and for over 1,500 years until the destruction of the 2nd Temple.

The Rabbis of the time responded to the trauma of destruction and exile by decreeing that animal sacrifice would cease until the Temple is rebuilt. They also decreed that daily prayer was to be introduced in place of sacrifice.

Yet in many ways prayer is superior to Temple sacrifice:

  • It can be performed everywhere and not just at the Temple, not even a synagogue
  • It can be individual or communal
  • It can be routine or ad-hoc
  • You can pray aloud or in your heart
  • Both men and women can pray
  • And we all become a nation of Priests

And the advantage for us during these Ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is that we do not need to rely on the High Priest to atone for our sins. We now all have a Do-It-Yourself atonement kit.

So Abraham our father had to sustain this cruellest of tests. We can agree that he certainly passed the test of faith. He was willing to go all the way and sacrifice the one thing that was most precious to him.

Yet Abraham failed the test of understanding the nuances of God’s instructions. We had to wait a long time to finally find out what God desires from us. With the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts we can have personal communication with The Almighty, everywhere and at any time.

I would like to think that there is never going to be a return to any of the lower forms of communication.

Perhaps as Progressive Jews we are yet to determine what will be the shape and form of the future Messianic Age…

Yet there is little doubt that it will involve no third Temple and no animal sacrifice – or worse.

Shanah Tovah.

Share this Thought for the High Holy Days