Reflections on The Akedah
Rosh Hashana 5774
By Leah Zigmond, Assistant Director, Camp Ramah Darom
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah we read the story of the Akedah – the binding of Isaac. For years this story has intrigued me and I have struggled to find its meaning. The story starts off with God testing Abraham. (In many commentaries this test is said to be the final of 10 tests which Abraham undergoes.) God tests Abraham by asking him to take his beloved son Isaac to the land of Moriah and to offer him there as a sacrifice.
Abraham begins to do this: He wakes up early, gets his donkey ready, takes with him two helpers, Isaac, some wood for a fire, and sets off to complete the task.
After three days of walking the group nears the designated place. Abraham tells his helpers to remain behind while he and Isaac take the wood on a bit further, to worship. It is clear from the language of the story that, at first, Isaac does not know what is about to happen. Isaac tells his father, “Here are the firestones and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” (Genesis 22:7). In the next line Abraham answers his son, “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering”.
Abraham and Isaac reach the site for the sacrifice; Abraham builds an altar, places the wood onto it, binds Isaac, and places him on the altar, on top of the wood. Abraham takes out the knife but just before he can kill his son an angel calls out to him, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me” (Genesis 22:12). Abraham has already passed the test; he is not required to go through with the sacrifice.
Abraham sees a ram caught in the bushes, and the ram becomes the sacrifice instead of Isaac. Now an angel calls out to Abraham for a second time telling him that because he passed this test, because Abraham did not withhold his son from God, he and all his descendants will be blessed, “Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your favored one, I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore” (Genesis 22:16-17)
It seems to me that there are two questions to ask ourselves about this story: What is this story about? And why do we read it on the second day of Rosh Hashanah?
In some ways this is a story about accepting our inheritance. No matter what we think of
the morality of Abraham’s actions in this story, no matter what we think of a God who would ask such a thing of a loving father or a son who would trust his father to such an extent, this story is part of our inheritance as Jews; we are blessed because of Abraham’s performance on this particular test of his faith. So what does that mean to us? For myself, I don’t know what I think of a parent who is able and willing to sacrifice his child. And I don’t know if I want to be ‘blessed’ as a direct result of such an action. But I don’t have a choice. This story, along with all of the stories in the Torah, is part of my inheritance as a Jew. I don’t need to agree with what all the characters in all of the stories do, but together they make up my history. My job is to pay attention to these stories as they are read in a cycle each year and to try and make sense of them in some way each time.
The story of the Akedah is clearly a story about sacrifice. Many commentators focus on the binding and the near slaughter of Isaac. Whether from the viewpoint of Abraham or Sarah or Isaac or God, the commentators focus on the actions of a father who is willing to kill his favored son because he hears a voice which commands him to do so.
But I do not think that this is only the story of a man who was willing to kill his favored son (although that is part of what happens in this story). The lesson that intrigues me most within this story is about the importance of being prepared to change. The importance of being willing to make one choice and then, if we see that it was not the right choice—to take it back and to make a new choice instead. If Abraham had been more set in his ways, so certain that he was doing the one right thing, perhaps he would not have heard the angel who told him that he had ‘passed the test’, the angel who told him to put down the knife and not to harm Isaac. Maybe this is a story about the importance of always checking that what we are doing still makes sense. About not being so single-minded that we are unable to be present in the moment. Maybe this story is about helping us to understand that doing the right thing at the right time is central to our lives as Jews. And that sometimes this means being able to re-think our actions right up to the very end. It is okay to re-evaluate. It is okay to change course. It is imperative to listen carefully for new information and if circumstances have changed, it is essential to change with them.
And why do we read the Akedah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah? This is the beginning of our year and the beginning of a 10 day period of reflection. This is a time which is traditionally dedicated to taking stock—to considering our deeds of the previous year and considering how we might have behaved differently, behaved better. This is a time of asking forgiveness from others, from ourselves, and from God. What better time to read about the themes of sacrifice, priorities, risks?
I think that we read this story now in order to give ourselves a chance to consider what we have been willing to sacrifice during the past year, and what we have held on to. We read this story as a way to remind ourselves that some sacrifices are too big for us to make. We also read this story to inspire us to reconsider and reassess our situations, as a reminder to be ever vigilant in staying true to ourselves and not falling dangerously into autopilot mode leading us so into complacency. This story is also a reminder that our history is filled with people who made difficult choices so that we can remember, each time we are faced with a difficult choice, that we come from a long line of people who struggled to do the right thing too.
What a gift it is to be reminded, on the second day of the New Year, that life is full of complicated tests. And that passing these tests will not always be straightforward or easy or without pain and certainly it will not be without sacrifice.
What a good idea it is that we start off our new year reminding ourselves that we have an obligation to be alert—a responsibility to constantly check that our actions are in line with our current needs and with the needs of those around us.
And how fitting it is for us, as Jews, to study this ancient text each year, opening ourselves up each time for new and different interpretations of how these stories might touch our own lives.