A D’var Torah about the Akedah

by Margo Schlanger

ShofarThe traditional Torah portion for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is about the birth of Isaac and the near-death of Ishmael, Abraham’s son by a woman whose name we never find out – Hagar, the name given in the Torah, means “foreigner.”  Ishmael, of course, is the father of the Ishmaelites.  In the Muslim tradition, he is the Muslim patriarch, ancestor of Muhammed, and more generally of the Arab Muslims.

It’s the relationship between that first day’s parsha and the parsha for today, Rosh Hashanah’s second day, that I want to talk about.  Today’s parsha is Akedah, the binding of Isaac.  As we all know, it’s a difficult portion.  If the project of our Torah reading is to find inspiration and edification, that’s a tough undertaking from a story that seems to portray just about everyone behaving badly.

How can we reconcile ourselves to a God who says to Abraham “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and offer him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you”?  And if the answer to that question is, it’s a test, then that raises another question:  How can we admire an Abraham who is so bold, so compassionate, as to argue with God over strangers in Sodom and Gomorrah, but not bold enough and compassionate enough to argue with God about the command to murder his own child?  If it’s a test, didn’t Abraham fail, when he set so silently to obey?

These are not new questions.  Just to pick one of many examples of ancient discontent with the story, there’s a poem titled “Az Terem” by Yochanan HaCohen, written in the 7th century by a poet in Israel.  It was for centuries part of the Shavuot service.  The poem’s setup is that God created the Torah, personified as God’s daughter, at the beginning of the world.  And then God told the Torah it was time for her to marry.  So as each righteous man appears in the history of the Jews, God proposes that man as the Torah’s partner.  But one after the other, she rejects each as not a good husband for her, until finally Moses appears and she agrees.  What the poet writes about Abraham sounds very like what we probably feel.  The Torah rejects Abraham saying:

“But he did not beg for mercy for his only son;
He wished to spill his blood like a cruel man
In order to fulfill your will wholeheartedly
As he was certain that God is good and merciful.
He should have, however, begged to spare his only son
And save him from the burning coals.
No mercy would have been shown his son if the Lord of mercy had not taken pity.”

My point is that the problems we see in the Akedah have been plainly evident for thousands of years.

Sarah comes off ok in the Akedah—she doesn’t seek to kill anyone, although she is certainly not an effective protector for Isaac.  (In many midrashim, when she hears about the episode, she dies of shock.)  But she looks even worse than Abraham in the previous chapter, when she insists on Ishmael’s being cast out.  (Although, to be fair, she doesn’t suggest that he be cast out without any money or ability to reach safety; that seems to be Abraham’s idea. She’s more like Cinderella’s stepmother than like, say, Snow White’s stepmother.)

So if we are looking for inspiration, models of good behavior, so far we have crossed out God, Abraham, and Sarah.  But perhaps we can nonetheless find that Isaac and Ishmael were startled by their near-death experiences into something positive.   Let’s look at both stories together.  What we’ll find is that they are basically the same story.

For both Ishmael and Isaac, God causes them to be cast out of their homes.  For Ishmael, it is Sarah who brings it up, where for Isaac, it’s God’s idea from the get-go.  But in both cases, God is the one who tells Abraham what to do.

For both Ishmael and Isaac, Abraham “rose early in the morning” and assembles provisions.  For both, those provisions are plainly inadequate.  For Ishmael and Hagar, Abraham gives them just bread and a water skin, no money, no means of transport.  For Isaac, Abraham assembles wood but no animal for a burnt offering.

For both Ishmael and Isaac, death is near.  Hagar has left Ishmael alone in the desert, and sits an arrow’s flight away, not wanting to watch him die.  Abraham has bound Isaac and has the knife in his hand.

For both Ishmael and Isaac, God then intervenes, stopping the course of events God had previously set in motion.  The intervention is, for both, first the voice of God’s angel, and then newly opened eyes.  Hagar sees a well, and Abraham sees a ram.

And for both Ishmael and Isaac, God’s promise then follows: they will have multitudes of descendants.  Ishmael’s children will become a great nation; Isaac’s offspring will be as many as stars in the sky and grains of sand on the shore.

For each of his two sons, then, Abraham—whose name includes the word “father”—abandons him to his death.  We can only imagine the hurt that caused.  Near-death experiences are traumas, not conducive to growth.  Isaac and Ishmael do not speak again to their father, as far as the Torah describes.

But in each story, there turns out to be a way out—a solution invisible at first, but then evident.  The well saves Ishmael, and the ram saves Isaac.  God opens Hagar’s and Abraham’s eyes, and they see before them a path to life rather than death.

It remains for Isaac and Ishmael, though, to right the wrong more permanently.  And both of them are able, notwithstanding their trauma and hurt, to do that.  After Abraham dies, they reconcile.  In Genesis 25, verse 9, we read that after Abraham dies (rich and contented), “His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah.”

So that’s the reading of the Akedah I offer you in hope.  Right now, things look very bleak in Israel, where the Akedah took place.  We seem to be at a moment as dark as the binding of Isaac or the casting out of Ishmael.  Maybe these stories can offer us hope or a model, that somehow, a lack of compassion doesn’t have to end in tragedy.  Maybe we can gain an ability to see a way out, and to understand that it is, indeed, a way out.  Maybe the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael currently facing death can reconcile, as their many-times-removed grandfathers did.

Ken yehi ratzon.

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