Sign In Forgot Password

The Message of the Akeda 

11/12/2019 02:13:35 PM


Jesse Davis

I think it’s fair to describe the Akedah as one of the most difficult passages in the Torah.  It’s hard to find anything redeeming in the story of a man who takes his son up on a mountain to murder him, who takes a boy away from his mother under the cover of a lie.  There are a range of rabbinic interpretations.  Some applaud Abraham’s willingness to put his obedience to God over the love of his son. Others resolutely condemn Abraham for his willingness to simply follow orders.


All I know is that every time I read the story, at each step of the way, I find myself begging Abraham to turn around, to set Isaac free and just go home.   As a father, the whole time I’m reading, I want to scream, “How can you do something this awful to your own child?  What’s wrong with you?”  


I lean more toward condemnation.  It’s really easy to judge Abraham as an awful person.  And that’s what I do every time I read this text.


And that’s not to let God off the hook… every time I read this passage, it fills me with doubt - it describes a God who is either too terrifying or too ridiculous to believe in. 


I’m left wondering, why did the Rabbis choose this passage for this sacred and holy day?   Rosh Hashanah is the New Year.  Everywhere we go we wish each other Shanah Tova u’metuka. There is frankly nothing about this story that is good or sweet.   There is nothing justifiable about this story to the naked eye.


But maybe that’s exactly why the Rabbis chose it.  


Rosh Hashanah is Yom ha-Din - the Day of Judgment.  We’re sitting here saying prayers envisioning God as King and Judge, prayers that beg God to be written in the book of life for another year.  Most of us probably assume that things will be fine in the upcoming year, that the Divine Decree will come down in our favor. B’ezrat Hashem, it will for all of us.  


Perhaps the message of the Akedah is that maybe it won’t, though.  It’s hard to imagine anything worse than facing the death of a child, it’s unfathomable to imagine that the God who you trusted in, who you left home for, who supported you and inspired you and promised an unbelievable future to you and your children would demand that you take the life of your own child.   It’s impossible to imagine the Divine Judgment coming down against a person in a more soul-wrenching way.  The horror of this is only amplified by that Abraham, who is so comfortable with God that he argues with Him over wiping out Sodom and Gomorrah, is completely silent and passive when God tells him to murder Isaac.  He’ll beg God to save potential innocents in a city of rapists, but not his own son.  


I judge this fact endlessly.  But as I’m writing this, I’m starting to wonder if maybe silence is the most human response.  If Abraham was strong enough and confident enough in his relationship with Hashem to argue with Him for the sake of strangers, maybe the reality of losing his son was enough to shatter Abraham on the inside.  I always imagined Abraham as some bloodthirsty fanatic, a victim of the pagan culture that he was raised in, imagining that God wanted human sacrifice.  What if that’s completely wrong? What if he was silent because he was too full of pain to know what to say.  What if he followed through with this sick plan because he had trusted in God for so long that the inertia of that trust carried him wordlessly through the motions?


Torah teaches us that when Moses asked to see God’s glory and he was told to hide in a fissure in a mountain.  Once there, God would send His goodness before Moses and will shelter Moses until His face passes by.  Then and only then would Moses be able to perceive God - not His face, but His back.  He will perceive God indirectly because God’s face is death to behold.  


Perhaps the Akedah is the embodiment of this truth.  Perhaps God’s face was in the terrible judgment that had just been leveled against both Abraham and his son. Maybe the man who was strong enough to stand up to God over the possibility of collateral damage in Sodom and Gomorrah died when the Divine Decree came down against someone that he loved so dearly.  It’s easy to stand up for strangers; it’s much harder to manage when tragedy hits closer to home.


From that point of view, Abraham’s silence seems only natural.


So what if the Akedah isn’t supposed to be justifiable?  What if it’s simply meant to be a description of the world that we live in.  Let’s face it, we live in a world that tests our faith.  We spend each day on a speck of dust circling a nuclear furnace in a vast, empty expanse.  Terrible and inexplicable things happen to the good and the innocent all the time. Like it or not, the Akedah is our world. And if we look at the world that way -terrifying in its immensity and in its arbitrariness - and that’s where we find the face of our Creator, it may well destroy any of us.


But the Torah tells us to not look for God in His face.  But why?  Does it want us to lie to ourselves? To not see God as He truly is?  Or is it something else?


I think that we get a hint in Kings.  In Elijah’s experience with the glory of God, when God approaches there are whirlwinds strong enough to shatter mountains, there are earthquakes and fires.  But God is not in the destruction.  What we imagine to be the face of God, what we imagine to be the divine decree coming down against us, really isn’t the divine decree at all.  It’s just the broken, fragile world that we live in. When we’re in the midst of our pain, sometimes there’s nothing left to say.


When God’s terrifying majesty passes by, Moses sees the glory of God indirectly - that is from another point of view.  He hears the voice of God proclaiming a vision beyond mere judgment.  “The Lord, The Lord, God, Compassionate and Gracious, slow to anger, abundant in kindness and truth... maintaining love to generations without number, but not excusing the guilty…”


Maybe that’s what happens to Abraham.  Broken and silent, he starts off on his journey.    Somewhere along the way, Abraham’s understanding shifts. He starts to realize that human sacrifice can’t possibly be what God wants.   When Isaac questions him about where the sacrifice is, Abraham says,” God will provide the lamb.”   Some might say that with those words, he was calming his son or that he was simply resigned to fate. But what if Abraham really believed what he was saying?  Perhaps he knew that God is not in whirlwinds, or earthquakes, or even in the Divine Voice demanding his son’s blood. What if Abraham knew that God is not in the destruction, but in the mercy that comes after?


We learn in Pirke Avot that God Himself has a prayer - “May my mercy overcome my judgment.” It would be easy to read a story like the Akedah and lose heart.  We all will face our personal Akedah.  When that day comes, may we find God in mercy and may we, in turn, bear His mercy to those who need it the most. Shanah Tovah.

Sat, January 16 2021 3 Shevat 5781