Shabbat Shalom: Vayera (Genesis 18:1-22:24)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – “And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. (Genesis 21:4) And it was after these things that God tested Abraham ….“Take your son… and bring him up there as an offering…”’ (Genesis 22:2) ‘And an angel of the Lord from the heavens called out to him… and said: “Do not cast your hand upon the lad and do not do anything to him; now I know that you fear God since you did not withhold your only son from Me”’ (Genesis 22:12)
One of the most difficult narratives in our Bible is this story of the “binding” (akeda) of Isaac. How can the Almighty God, the God of compassionate righteousness and moral justice (Gen. 18:19), command Abraham to sacrifice his beloved and innocent child? And, secondly, how can a father ever think of carrying out such a command without the slightest dispute with God such as the argument Abraham made for the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18:23-33)? Let us begin with our first query: How can a compassionate God make such a request? The great existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, in his celebrated work Fear and Trembling, maintains that herein lies the precise nature of the Divine test, the reason why Abraham emerges as the supreme Prince of Faith: God expects of his most trustworthy servant the “teleological suspension of the ethical”; in response to a command by the ultimate value and ideal of life and world (telos is the Greek for “end” or “goal”), the individual must be able to still the ethical voice of his conscience.
We hearken to the word of God not because it is good, but rather because it was given by God! Fascinatingly, Rav Yosef ibn Kaspi suggests a very different approach: the entire story of the akeda was only meant to teach Abraham that God is not Molech, and He abhors child sacrifice. Hence Abraham, a child of this world of idolatry, may well have expected just such a command; and perhaps the real test may have been Abraham’s (correct) decision to listen to the second “voice” of the angel of the Lord: “Do not lay your hand upon the lad.”
A number of years ago, I visited the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad. As I stood before Rembrandt’s celebrated painting of the akeda, I noticed that Rembrandt pictures Abraham’s hand outstretched with the knife, ready to slaughter Isaac and an angel from the Lord staying Abraham’s hand and forcibly preventing the father from sacrificing his son. Why does Rembrandt add an element which the Bible does not record? Clearly, Rembrandt was disturbed by how Abraham could favor the words of a mere angel telling him to desist from the act of slaughter which God had commanded. Rembrandt concludes that the angel actually prevented Abraham’s action, so that Abraham emerges from the story as the Kierkegaardian Prince of Faith par excellence!
Rav A.I. Kook gives a most startling reason for Abraham’s preference for the command of the angel over the command of God: The angel was actually Abraham’s conscience telling him not to slaughter Isaac. Remarkably, he suggests that it is only he who does not silence his conscience who is truly God fearing. Apparently, Rav Kook is saying that the inner voice of the human conscience is actually the “image of God,” the “portion of God from on high” within each and every one of God’s human creations, which was the angel of the Lord who came to Abraham; it was a voice from within, not a voice from without.
In fact, it is quite possible that Rav Kook is hinting at the possibility that since God’s words were nebulous to begin with, His having said, “bring him up there as an offering” (or a “dedication”), but never saying explicitly to “slaughter Isaac” (see Rashi), Abraham misinterpreted God’s words; God meant only that Isaac should be dedicated – in life, not in death! And this is what our talmudic sages say (B.T. Ta’anit 4a) when explicating the words of the prophet Jeremiah regarding the sin of idolatrous child sacrifice: “‘Which I never commanded, nor spoke of, nor thought about’; ‘I never commanded’ refers to Mesha, the King of Moab [who sacrificed his son to Moloch]; ‘which I did not speak of’ refers to Jephthah, who sacrificed his daughter [to God]; ‘which I never thought about’ refers to Isaac the son of Abraham.’” I do not believe that subjective human conscience can take precedence over the word of God; however, in the case of God’s initial command to Abraham – which leaves room for two different interpretations – it makes perfect sense for Abraham to invoke the “angel of the Lord.”
After all, Abraham certainly knew the biblical portions prior to his ministry, God’s displeasure over Cain’s murder of Abel, the lame excuse of Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (and if Cain is indeed his brother’s keeper, how much more so is Abraham his son Isaac’s keeper!), and – most of all – the dictum following the story of the flood: “Whosoever sheds his fellow’s blood, his blood shall be shed by his fellow, since in the image of God was the human fellow created” (Gen. 9:6). These words previously given by God could very well have been the “angel of the Lord from heaven” which gave the correct interpretation to Abraham of God’s true desire vis-à-vis Isaac.