Intro to Akeidat Yitzhak: Leaving for the journey to sacrifice YItzhak
Our Torah portion for today is the story of the Binding of Isaac; one of the most challenging texts in our tradition, and in fact one of the most central ones. Some people have the tradition of reciting this text as part of their daily morning prayers. In the first aliyah, we have the beginning of the story — we are told directly it is a test for Avraham. Once more, G!d tells him to go somewhere, and Avraham complies without complaint.
It is striking that Avraham, who argued with G!d to be more merciful to the cities of Sodom and Amorah, here offers no response, no questioning, when it comes to a command to slaughter his own son like a beast. This is the same Avraham who expressed his sadness when G!d told him to listen to Sarah and banish Ishmael, his other son, into the wilderness.
Sometimes we are struck silent in the face of tragedy, or in the face of brutal actions or words. Only later do we think of the proper response, what we should have done, or what we should do now.
It may have been Avraham was doing what he thought was right — after all, child sacrifice, like animal sacrifices, were common practices in the area. Maybe he felt this was the proper thing to do. And this indeed could possibly have been the test — not how far was he willing to go for G!d, but how much could he recognize that this was a G!dly thing to do — which it was not.
They reach the place and go to the mountain. Isaac sees something is wrong. Abraham avoids it and they continue walking together.
To me, this is the most heartbreaking moment. Avraham can’t even tell his son what is happening. They walk up the mountain in silence, only interrupted by the shortest of dialogues between them — in fact, the first time Isaac speaks in the Torah, and the only time he and Avraham speak directly to each other in the Torah. Perhaps Avraham is waiting for G!d to tell him to stop — stalling. Yet he seems to show his willingness to listen with that word Hineini — Here I am, just as he was willing to listen to G!d.
The silence of fear. The silence of shame, of not speaking about terrible things. The silence between fathers and sons, the intimacy that men are discouraged from experiencing, the vulnerability we are discouraged from showing.
Building the altar, the binding, the Just Kidding, Avraham names the mount.
And we come to the moment. This moment of nightmare. A parent slaughtering their child. Isaac’s silence, perhaps again struck mute by the seriousness or horror of the moment. But look! It doesn’t happen. An angel tells Avraham at the last minute, no, he has passed the test — he only needed to show he was willing to do it, not to actually do it.
A contemporary midrash imagines Sarah witnessing all of this in a vision as she sleeps, as a nightmare — for, as you may have noticed, she is absent from this story. She tosses and turns, seeing each moment, and she is frozen, unable to do anything about it, until at the last moment, she shrieks out, “Avraham! Avraham!” And it is she who is in fact, the angel. Once again, as Avraham did when he cast Hagar and Yishmael out, Avraham listened to Sarah’s voice — though this time, to save a life.
It recasts and makes us reconsider: ho are these voices? These imperatives that Avraham feels he must undertake, which G!d he is hearing? Which G!d, if any, do we hear? How can we discern what is important? And how can we recognize who else, not just ourselves, is affected by our actions and decisions?