The Talmud of Gaithersburg
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah I posed a question to my congregation and invited them to send me their response by e-mail. I’m now expanding the discussion by sharing my question, their responses, and my responses to the responses. You are invited to add to the discussion by commenting at the end of this post.
Rabbi Charles said: For over thirty years I have read the story of the Binding of Isaac on Rosh Hashanah and I still don’t think I understand it. I know that the Torah wants to teach us something by means of this story but I don’t know what it is. What is the plain meaning (pshat) of the text? What does the Torah want to teach us?
Dee responded: I believe that the question regarding Abraham’s following G-d’s direction to take Isaac to the mountain, bind him on the altar….. without hesitation or challenge tells us
that even though a parent’s love for his/her child is the strongest bond possible, Abraham demonstrated total trust in G-d and further demonstrated his own belief that G-d knew/knows
the depth of this devotion and chose this as the most intense test of Abraham’s faith and devotion to G-d.
Because Abraham did follow G-d’s order, G-d deeply felt Abraham’s loyalty and spared Isaac. Not only did he spare the life of Isaac and the horror Abraham would know had he killed his own son,but he blessed Abraham with his promise that Abraham would, in fact, become the father of the people of Israel and there would be generations of his descendants for time immemorial.
While I am strengthening my own faith more and more each day, I don’t believe that I would ever rise to the stature of Abraham’s trust or of G-d’s blessing of that magnitude. However, I know that
over the past several years, my faith has surely and sorely been tested. Having said that, I hope it is really true that G-d hopes and waits for the sinner and the wayward to return to him and I have.
Rabbi Charles replied: My quibble is that God had already promised Abraham descendants as numerous as the skies. In fact there is a Midrash which discusses Abraham’s use of the phrase נֵלְכָה עַד-כֹּה; “we will go yonder” where the word כֹּה is the same word as is used in Chapter 15, “so shall thy seed be” כֹּה יִהְיֶה זַרְעֶךָ. In other words Abraham, though acceding to God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, is reminding Him of the promise that through Isaac Abraham would have many descendants.
Bruce responded: Maybe a lesson we could take from G-d’s refusal to accept Isaac as a sacrifice is that G-d is not a law of nature that can be brought under our control. We’re entering a time of year that demands we engage in intensive personal introspection and change but, in the tradition, would culminate in an open miracle following elaborate rituals by the Kohen Gadol. Reading Vayera today might simply be a quick way of reminding us of our need to focus on our own personal work during these days of repentance and not to look ahead to the promise of Yom Kippur. If G-d rejected even a perfect offering then we could never count on G-d’s acceptance of the Kohen Gadol’s goat. Although rituals change, the tension between our individual responsibilities and our collective future remains the same.
Rabbi Charles replied: I like this a lot. There is always a temptation for us to see rituals as magic and the prophets in particular insisted that rituals “work” only in conjunction with proper ethical behavior. Having said that, I am not sure that this is the plain meaning of the text, but rather a cogent explanation as to why the Sages chose this as the reading for Rosh Hashanah. Sometimes the choice to read a text on a specific day is itself a commentary on the text.
Stuart responded: It’s all about belief in the existence of G-d. Rather than a fear of him – a trust and respect of him. When G-d speaks unto Abraham that he should gather his favored child and prepare for him to be sacrificed, the message builds in clarity to a degree which cannot be dispelled. G-d was building a test in which he had chosen Abraham to partake in what would become the singularly greatest moment in Jewish history, whereby Abraham’s descendants and the multiple of tribes derived thereupon would honor a true leader who witnessed the instruction of Hashem. In the face of his instruction trusted and believed in him to the degree he was more than just willing to draw the blood of his seed upon a rock in the wilderness. The test was monumental, as we learn G-d recognizes Abraham’s utmost trust and respect, and directs him to forgo the sacrifice of his son, and instead sacrifice the ram seen in the thicket. The lesson learned is combination of the key pillars of faith – trust, leadership and the willingness to make no exception of one’s self in the eyes of G-d, and in the eyes of our community. These pillars and recollection of the story enabled Moses, King David, Judah Maccabee, Theodor Herzl, Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meir and countless others to lead based on trust of a leader, rather than by fear -- and as a result our religion and our culture continue to thrive, not just survive. From the lesson of Genesis 22, those of us who understand are better equipped to lead by example – rather than by dictation.
Rabbi Charles replied: It’s easy to believe in God when God speaks directly to you. It’s much harder since God no longer does that. But your reading of the story has God not so much “testing” Abraham (since we presume God is omniscient) but using him as an exemplar of leading by deed rather than simply by word -- which is another theme that emerges in the classic commentaries.
Billy responded: I have always found the Akedah both perplexing and aggravating. It is always presented that Abraham was such a model of submission to God’s will. Grrrr… to me that is just wrong all around. God should not have asked, and Abraham should not have (almost) done it.
I was thinking about it in shul and I think Abraham failed God’s test. I think it was Issac who passed. If, as it says in some things I have read, Issac was an adult when this all happened, then as a strong young man, he did not have to submit to being bound on that altar by his aged father. But he did. So I think the fact that the world is blessed by Abraham’s descendants is because Abraham’s descendant Isaac honored his father by allowing him to bind him.
At least honoring your father is a lesson I could live with.
Rabbi Charles replied: Wow!
There is certainly a modern trend of more liberal readers to maintain that Abraham failed the test. Emotionally I am tempted to agree with this since we see Abraham demanding justice of God in other situations. But if Abraham indeed failed the test, then why does he get rewarded? Your answer is the only one I have seen that manages to maintain that Abraham failed and yet account for the promise of blessing without being self-contradictory, since as you point out the emphasis is indeed on Abraham’s descendants and not on Abraham himself.
David responded: I believe the real "lesson" is not about the so called "test" for Abraham as I believe Abraham had already established a pretty good relationship with G.... by this point. After all, by the time of this "test," G.... and Abraham had been communicating rather often and directly, I don't think G..... had any question about Abraham's commitment to Him and needed a test to cement their relationship (or vise versa). After all, Abraham and Sarah gave birth to a son at a rather old age, certainly the first and main step to demonstrate to Abraham to believe in G...'s word. In addition, I am not aware of any question that G..... did not trust or feel that Abraham was the proper vessel for his word. It isn't like the back and forth dialogue (and negotiation) that we read about with Moses and G...... In fact, you could argue that the 10 plagues were in fact a "test" for Moses. Therefore, respectfully, you can't convince me G.... had to, or was in the process of testing Abraham.
So what does the lesson demonstrate? I believe that the answer lies in the line, "On the mount (Moriah) of the Lord there is vision." The lesson is meant to be for Isaac (not Abraham) to demonstrate that if you believe and fulfill the covenant with our G..... (as does Abraham) then all will be ok, you will have "vision" and guidance by the Lord the rest of your life. Isaac certainly does this as instructed by his father and is in fact granted the life promised by the Lord.
I think most people may not ask about what Isaac must have been going through during this "test" - the scripture indicates that at one point Isaac notices that all preparation is made for a sacrifice........EXCEPT THE RAM??? Wonder how Isaac must have been feeling as his father "wraps him with wood and asks him to lie on the alter........?" I would bet he might have figured out what was in store for him, but he trusts his father (and hence G....) and doesn't seem to want to run away, struggle or argue about what is happening. I would bet that during this "test" it was about a father's lesson to his son to "trust in our G......" and you will have vision (meaning everything will be ok).
Lastly, I am the father of a boy that is probably of Isaac's age at the time of this story and I also understand that just telling my son to do something is lot less powerful than teaching him a lesson (and demonstrating) that might cost him his life. I would argue that this is a lesson that Isaac would never forget (and of course, in fact doesn't).
Rabbi Charles replied : You and Billye are on similar tracks here. To strengthen your point it helps to know that the word we generally translate as “test” or “prove” is נִסָּ֖ה which some commentators connect to the word “nes” which means a sign. So in this reading God did not “test” Abraham but rather held him up as a sign for future generations.
Allen responded : While the text indicates that because Abraham was willing to follow the command of G-d even though that meant sacrificing his favorite child, he and his family were rewarded, I think that the ram caught in the thicket is a significant part of the story.
Abraham did not anticipate that he would be told to sacrifice the ram, and, of course, he did not know the ram would be nearby. This illustrates that even if a person thinks that he or she understands what is to be done, and what will occur, often they are not accurate. Our real perception is limited, and we often fail to understand (much less anticipate) Divine purpose or design.
From the human perspective, it is crucial to determine what is "right," and to attempt to accomplish that "right." We understand that we may be limited, and that the outcome may be different than anticipated, but we must do what we believe is appropriate. We hope that like Abraham, we can learn and gain insight from our own rams in the thicket.
Rabbi Charles replied: Abraham’s eyes were opened by God to see the ram which had been there all along. In the very prior story, the one we read the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Hagar’s eyes are opened by God to see the well which had been there all along. Sometimes the answer is right in front of our eyes but we need divine help to see it.
Adam responded : I read about Jonathan Sacks' opinion on this topic and his interpretation deals with the viewpoint of ownership over children as this directly contrasts with Pagan beliefs (willingness to sacrifice their own sons to earn personal benefit from the gods). The Torah teaches that child sacrifice is the worst of all possible sins. In the Judeo-Christian tradition a child is God's child and the biological parents do not have ownership over children, rather they are entrusted with a gift from God. From this perspective there would be no personal benefit associated with child sacrifice, since the child's soul is God’s in the first place or looked at another way a child is his/her own person and not a commodity. So when God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, he is asking him to demonstrate that he has fear of God and is willing to return his own son (which was clearly a blessing given to him from God since Sarah was unable to have children) to God. The same perspective would apply to ownership over land, since land ownership does not come easy to the Jewish people in the early bible and Abraham was instructed to give up his own land and his descendants did not arrive at the "promised land" until many generations later. Land, like children, is a gift from God and therefore we cannot really own land, but rather are just temporary tenants of the Earth and responsible to keep it in good condition for it's real owner, God.
Rabbi Charles replied: I of course agree with the point Rabbi Sacks makes about us not owning our children, or the land, and contrasting this with pagan perspectives. Yet, I remain mystified at how exactly this story proves what Rabbi Sacks wants it to prove. I think this is a case of eisegesis (reading something into the story to fit our preconceived notions) rather than exegesis (explaining what is actually there). Not that there is anything wrong with it, we all do it all the time, but I just don’t see what Rabbi Sacks sees.