The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana , begins the High Holy Days—a 10-day period of penitence and reflection on the meaning of life and death, when God decides who shall live and who shall die. The Torah reading for the second day is the story of the binding of Isaac, the Akeda .
In this perplexing story, God says to Abraham, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you” (Gn 22:1-2). Abraham obeys. He is about to sacrifice Isaac when an angel intervenes and tells him not to slay his son.
The story raises deep questions. How can a God of love command Abraham (chosen to be a blessing to all people) to sacrifice the son he loves? How can Abraham agree without a word of protest? And how can he be certain he is hearing the voice of God? Why does Isaac, already a mature man according to many Talmudic rabbis, submit to his ancient father?
Although it appears that neither Abraham nor Isaac deserved to go through this ordeal, a predominant Talmudic interpretation is that where there is suffering, there must be sin. In this view, both sinned: Isaac, by bragging to his brother Ishmael that he was the more virtuous; Abraham, by showing insufficient gratitude to God for the miracle of Isaac’s birth. The rabbis put these words in Abraham’s mouth: “I have rejoiced and given joy to others, but I have never put aside for God a single bull or a single ram” (Midrash Rabbah Gn 55:4).
The rabbis also point out that the command to sacrifice was not really a test of Abraham, for God knew that Abraham loved him with a perfect heart. God did not doubt Abraham, but knew that humanity might. If Abraham were to demonstrate his own unconditional faith in God, however, the world would note his greatness and no longer question why God had singled him out for a special destiny. This interpretation blunts the accusation that God’s actions in the Akeda were capricious or reckless.
Some rabbis also ask, What really took place on Mt. Moriah? The Bible says Abraham returned from the mountain alone. Where was Isaac? Is it possible, as the ninth-century Jewish text Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer asserts, that Isaac was sacrificed and resurrected? Is it possible the angel arrived too late, or that Abraham did not listen to an angel because the demand to sacrifice Isaac came directly from God?
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel movingly describes the experience of a 7-year-old who hears the Akeda for the first time:
Isaac was on the way to Mount Moriah with his father; then he lay on the altar, bound, waiting to be sacrificed. My heart began to beat even faster; it actually sobbed with pity for Isaac. Behold, Abraham now lifted the knife. And now my heart froze within me with fright. Suddenly, the voice of the angel was heard: “Abraham, lay not thine hand upon the lad, for now I know that thou fearest God.” And here I broke out in tears and wept aloud. “Why are you crying?” asked the Rabbi. “You know that Isaac was not killed.” And I said to him, still weeping, “But, Rabbi, supposing the angel had come a second too late?” The Rabbi comforted me and calmed me by telling me that an angel cannot come late.
If anyone can relate to the tale of the Akeda, Heschel can. He was often compared to the biblical Abraham. William Sloane Coffin, the charismatic Protestant preacher, called him “Father Abraham” and told Heschel, “I am sure the original Abraham, father of us all, looked just like you.” It seems to me that Heschel, who lost his mother and sisters in the Holocaust, can also be compared to Isaac. The Bible does not tell us what traumatic effects Isaac suffered from his ordeal, but we know that he continued to have faith in God. This is also true for Heschel, who continued to believe that God loves us. For Heschel, “The greatest heresy is despair, despair of man’s power for goodness, man’s power for love.”
Rosh Hashana is an appropriate time to look to Heschel as a model of faith and hope. The fundamental biblical message, he insisted, is that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God and therefore has infinite value and dignity.
When I was a young boy studying at Salanter Yeshiva in the Bronx, I never heard my teachers say that the binding of Isaac was an especially problematic text. They told us instead that it shows how Abraham loved and trusted God above all things; the Akeda teaches the world that sacrifice of children must end once and for all. Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of Britain, concurs. He says the most important message of the Akeda for Rosh Hashana is “that a civilization is judged by the way it treats its children.”
Ultimately, no interpretation of the Akeda fully satisfies. I think the greatest lesson of the story is that while it is beyond our capacity to understand fully the way God deals with the world, it is not beyond our capacity to sense God’s love and to love God in return.