Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Vayera (Genesis 18:1 – 22: 24)

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Efrat, Israel“Take your son, your only son, the one whom you love, Isaac, and dedicate him there for a burnt oering [or a dedication; literally, a lifting up] on one of the mountains which I will tell you of.” (Genesis 22:2)

As we have seen, there are manifold possibilities of interpreting God’s most difficult directive to Abraham. But in order for us to truly appreciate the eternal quality of Torah, let us examine how the martyrs of Jewish history have taken – and drawn inspiration from – this drama of the Akeda (binding).

In the city of Worms, in 1096, some 800 people were killed in the course of two days at the end of the month of Iyar. In The Last Trial, Professor Shalom Spiegel’s study of the Akeda, he records a chronicle of that period that cites a declaration by one of the community’s leaders, Rabbi Meshulam bar Isaac:

“All you great and small, hearken unto me. Here is my son that God gave me and to whom my wife Tziporah gave birth in her old age. Isaac is this child’s name. And now I shall offer him up as father Abraham offered up his son Isaac.”

Sadly, the chronicle concludes with the father slaying the boy himself, in the presence of his wife. When the distraught parents leave the room of their sacrifice, they are both cruelly slaughtered by the murdering Christians. 

Spiegel quotes from a dirge of the time:

“Compassionate women in tears, with their own hands slaughtered, as at the Akeda of Moriah. Innocent souls withdrew to eternal life, to their station on high…”

The biblical story of the binding of Isaac is replayed via the Talmudic invocation of the ram’s horn (shofar) each year on Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment and Renewal. The shofar symbolizes the ram substitute for Isaac on Mount Moriah; God commands that we hearken to the cries of this shofar ‘in order that I may remember for your benefit the binding of Isaac the son of Abraham, and I shall account it for you as if you yourselves bound yourselves up before Me’ (Rosh Hashanah 16a). 

This message of the shofar has inspired Jews of all generations to rise to the challenge of martyrdom whenever necessary, transforming themselves into Abrahams and Sarahs, placing their precious children on the altar of Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of the divine name.

Indeed, there was apparently a stubborn tradition which insisted that Abraham actually went through with the act of sacrifice. After all, following the biblical command of the angel to Abraham (the deus ex machina as it were) – ‘Do not cast your hand against the lad’ (Genesis 22:19), where is Isaac? If, indeed, his life has just been saved, why doesn’t he accompany his father, why don’t they go together to the lads, why don’t they – father and son – return home together to Beer Sheva and Sarah (as they have been described twice as doing – father and son walking together – in the context of the Akeda story)?! 

Moreover, when they first approached the mountain of sacrifice, Abraham tells the young men to wait down below:

‘I and the boy will go yonder; we will worship and we will come back to you’ (Genesis 22:5).

So why does the text have Abraham return alone? 

On the basis of this textual problem, Ibn Ezra (1089–1164) makes mention of an interpretation that suggests that Abraham literally followed God’s command, slaying his son, and that God later on miraculously brought Isaac back to life. It is precisely that stark and startling deletion of Isaac’s name from the conclusion of the biblical account of the Akeda itself which gave countless generations of Jewish martyrs the inspiration for their sacrifice; and this is the case, even though Ibn Ezra felt compelled to deny the tradition as inaccurate:

“Isaac is not mentioned. But he who asserts that Abraham slew Isaac and abandoned him, and that afterwards Isaac came to life again, is speaking contrary to the biblical text” (Ibn Ezra, Genesis 22:1). 

Ibn Ezra is obviously making reference to a commentary which Jewish martyrdom would not allow to fall into oblivion.

The earliest referencee to this notion of Isaac’s actual sacrifice is probably the Midrash Hagadol which cites R. Eleazer ben Pedat, a first generation Amorah of the Talmud:

“Although Isaac did not die, Scripture regards him as though he had died. And his ashes lay piled on the altar. That’s why the text mentions Abraham and not Isaac.”

And perhaps one might argue that Isaac was so traumatized by the Akeda that a specific aspect of him did die, part of his personality which would always remain on the altar. After all, Isaac is the most ethereal and passive of the patriarchs, called by the Midrash – even after the binding – the olah temimah, the whole burnt offering. 

But this psychological interpretation and Ibn Ezra’s rejection notwithstanding, the penitential Slichot prayers still speak of the ‘ashes of Isaac’ on the altar, continuing to give credence to the version which suggests that Isaac did suffer martyrdom. And we have already cited recorded incidents of children who suffered martyrdom at the hands of their parents, who did not wish them to be violated by the pagan tyrants.

God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, and Abraham’s submissive silence, may actually help us understand how a people promised greatness, wealth and innumerable progeny comparable to the stars, find the courage and the faith to endure the suffering and martyrdom mercilessly inflicted upon them by virtually every Christian or Islamic society with which they come into contact.

The paradox in Jewish history is that unless we were willing to sacrifice our children for God, we would never have survived as a God-inspired and God-committed nation with a unique message for ourselves and the world. Perhaps that is why Mount Moriah, the place of the willingness to sacrifice, is the Temple Mount of the Holy City of Jerusalem: the place from which God will ultimately be revealed to all of humanity; the place of Jewish eternity.

Shabbat Shalom!


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