This week’s parsha, Vayera, presents us with a visceral, engaging, and horrifying story. Abraham, the hero of these early Torah portions, is asked by God to do the unthinkable.
In this parsha, Abraham dramatically intercedes for Sodom and Gomorrah. He receives fulfillment of promise, and the birth of his son, Isaac. But now, near the end of the portion, we read this:
“God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning….” (Gen.22:1-3, emphasis added)
What’s remarkable about Abraham’s reaction to God’s inhumane request is that there is no reaction at all. He simply obeys, seemingly without question.
There are times as we read the Bible, that we are betrayed by our familiarity with the story. We know how this story ends, you see. We know not only that Isaac is ultimately spared, but we also know, as followers of Messiah, that this entire episode carries with it the theological freight of picturing for us the ultimate offering of God’s Son.
But for over 1,500 years, the Christ story lay dormant in the future and was not visible to the interpreters of the Bible. And the events in the story, at this point, demand a reaction.
A strong one.
In our fantasies about good and evil, right and wrong, we envision that even the “bad guys” have the capacity to feel empathy and act in compassion, when the heart strings are pulled strong enough. We see, for instance, Darth Vader respond to the pleas of his dying son, surprising the Emperor by picking up his evil mentor and throwing him deep into the reactor shaft of the Death Star.
We revel triumphantly at the reunion of Darth Vader and his son, Luke Skywalker, the father smiling through dying tears with pride upon his son, and dying in his arms.
We see similar scenes in the Italian mobster movie series, “The Godfather”, where blood and family provide the deepest resonating aspects of the story. Concepts of loyalty and family bond form the very fiber that brings the story its fascinating quality.
This is what is most disturbing about the Akeidah, the “binding of Isaac”. Abraham is not one of the “bad guys”. On the contrary, he epitomizes biblical faith. He is the very model given to both Israel and to the followers of Yeshua as to how faith really works. All the apostles quote his story for evidence and proof of their message, respectively.
While in our movies and other artistic fantasies we have the repeated theme of the “scoundrel with a heart”, in the story of the Akeidah, and particularly in Abraham’s dispassionate response to God’s command, we have the opposite: The case of the “good guy” with a heart that is made of ice.
We are compelled to ask, if we’re honest, “How could he do this?”
Abraham responds to God’s incredulous command as though he’s been asked to take the garbage out. Or pick up milk and bread at the store. Honestly, he shows more passion and energy in seeing to it that he feeds his mysterious guests when they call on him. We see him running around, killing the fatted calf, and generally making a huge fuss about being a good host. For that matter, he seems genuinely discouraged and upset about having to send away Ishmael, and his elder son is not even being killed, just sent away.
But when God commands him to kill his son, he saddles the donkeys, packs a lunch and heads to work.
The sages were shocked by this as well, and Rashi, for one, interpolates an intense counter-narrative into the story, by analyzing the way God informs Abraham of what he is to do, in his commentary on the Midrash Rabbah:
Rashi on Bereishit 22:2
“Take your son, your only son, that you love, Yitz h ak…” (Bereishit 22:2).
[God said to Avraham]: “Take your son.”
[Avraham] said to [God]: I have two sons.
God said to him: “ Your only son .”
Avraham said to God: This one is the only one of his mother, and this one is the only
one of his mother.
God said to him: “ That you love .”
Avraham said to God: I love both of them.
God said to him: “ Yitz h ak .”
Rashi goes on to suggest a rather disengenuous Abraham, answering God one way, but secretly hoping for a different response from God. He suggests that when God says “Take your son…”, that God means, actually, “Take your son back“, meaning Ishmael. Of course, he is disappointed in the literal truth of God’s command, and braces himself for what’s to come. In this way, Abraham is portrayed as a victim who is resigning himself to God’s will, and not as a father who seems to have lost all connection to his feelings.
Dana Weiss, of Mechon Hadar, suggests the following:
“The experience of having lost Yishmael prepares Avraham to lose Yitz hak because, despite how counterintuitive it sounds, killing Yitz hak is easier. It’s easier because what he is being asked to do is something fatal and final. If God kills Yitz hak by Avraham’s hand it is horrible and painful beyond imagining and beyond belief, but at the very least there is closure. Avraham will know where Yitz hak is if he is the one to bury him. There is no closure with Yishmael. Avraham has to live his whole life wondering if maybe someday Yishmael is going to come back. And maybe when Yishmael returns, he is going to call Avraham out for what he did and demand an impossible explanation.”
This is an interesting and even plausible explanation of Abraham’s state of mind. Weiss brings the dark implication of this line of reasoning home when she suggests:
“This paves the way for the other explanation of Avraham’s emotionlessness, listlessness, and willingness. The loss of one son made him a little harder to shock and a little harder to wound.” https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/taking-beloved-son
And so it often is in life.
We love, deeply. We also feel the pain of loss and unmet hopes in stinging, icy-hot stabs of reality, thrown in our faces at the worst possible moments. We suffer brokenness. We don’t achieve our hopes and dreams.
There are moments in our deepest times of pain and loneliness, when the most inspiring passage of scripture and most hopeful pep talk from a friend can do nothing but deepen our despair. Over time, we become somewhat numb to it. The shock gives way to resignation. The pain gives way to listlessness. It is a form of self-protection, the way a turtle retreats inside his shell.
Psychologists call such a state “walking depression”, in which a person appears normal on the outside but is masking a deeply affected form of despair. Their emotions become buried beneath the mask, but are raging and bleeding under the surface.
Perhaps Abraham found himself in such a state during the Akeidah, and what we view as cold-heartedness is really nothing more than a form of lifeless resignation to duty. The irony is that in the midst of such a clinical form of obedience, God is watching and observing his servant and preparing to utter the most lofty of evaluations of Abraham’s character:
“…By Myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you…” (Gen.22:16-17)
Abraham burned with passion for progeny for most all of his adult life. He and Sara reached old age, and were well past the point of normal parenting, when God proclaimed his promise of a son from Sarah’s womb. The miracle lie in the fact that, in terms of human years, both Abraham and Sara should have been sterile; unable to have children.
But then, in cruel and twisted fashion, when the son has finally come (and I’m of the opinion that Isaac was in his thirties when the Akeidah transpires), God deals one final blow to Abraham’s life goals and hopes, and commands that he kill the very hope of his legacy, as an act of obedience.
We are emotional creatures, but we must resist the tendency to shield ourselves from the full weight of the text and the narrative it presents. The Bible does not fulfill our inner desire for the fulfillment of fantasy. It does not resolve the tension in clean and simple lines. It leaves the unstructured mess for the next generation to inherit. We live our lives from day to day, never really knowing if we are truly fulfilling what God has for us to do. We wonder, at times: “Is this it? Shouldn’t there be more?”
We press on in duty, doing what we believe is right.
Each year, we face this story of the binding of Isaac, and we subconsciously console ourselves with the knowledge that Isaac is not actually sacrificed. He will live on to marry and have children of his own, who will birth the nation of Israel. But at the end of his life, even Isaac will suffer from “dim eyes”, or blindness. The sages see this as a picture of spiritual blindness, and the inability to discern the “good” son from the “bad”. There is no happy, fantasy ending to Isaac’s life. He dies with his sons estranged from each other; one has made alliance with the women of the heathens, and the other is bitter of spirit and eventually goes down to Egypt, far from the land of promise, and dies there.
The covenant promises remain, but they seem so distant, so untouchable.
Perhaps this is what we are to see in this story. The unfeeling response of Abraham to the duty imposed upon him reflects the burden and weight of years of pain and unfulfilled hope, capped off by one final blow to the seat of the emotions: one blow too many, even.
Abraham does not understand, but in the end, he is faithful to God, even if it kills him to the core. A similar cry of the heart is found in the story of Job:
“Though He slay me, I will hope in Him. Nevertheless I will argue my ways before Him.” (Job 13:15)
Abraham, smitten with physical sterility for so many decades, now faces the potential that he is becoming spiritually sterile. No longer able to engage with the reality of his situation, but merely slogging on with a resigned sense of duty, yet still unwilling to give up entirely, still clinging to an irrational form of sublime faith.
The good news in the story of the binding of Isaac is that even when God pushes our faith to the point of extinction, as He did with Abraham, He is ever watchful to not extinguish it entirely.
“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory.” (Matt.12:20, quoting Is.42:3)
Sometimes a promise is so magnificent, and a calling so significant, that it requires the near death of the recipient to be able to receive it. May we be encouraged in our faith today, as we examine the full force of this heart-wrenching scene, a passage that is recited by many in their daily prayers, and be reminded that even if the life we are called to seems as death to us, that we trust in a God who brings the dead back to life.