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This week we read one of the most difficult sections of the Torah – the binding of Isaac. Avraham, along with his wife Sarah, has been yearning for a child who would follow in his footsteps and uphold the covenant with God. God, from the beginning of His relationship with Avraham, has been promising him children. Finally, in their advanced old age, Isaac is born to them.
And then, just when things have come to what seems to be a happy conclusion, God tells Avraham to bring Isaac to a place He will reveal to him and “raise him up there as an offering.”
Without hesitation, Avraham leaves, is directed by God to Mt. Moriah (what is today the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem), and prepares to sacrifice his son. At the last moment, God steps in and stops him, saving Isaac’s life. He tells Avraham he has passed the test, and once again blesses him and his descendants.
The obvious question is: why did God demand such an immoral, counterproductive and inappropriate sacrifice from Avraham? And why did Avraham so readily acquiesce? How could God have asked him to do such a counterintuitive, destructive, act, which, we learn at the end of the story, He didn’t actually want Avraham to do?
We are not the only ones confused by God’s behavior. At the end, after Isaac has been saved, Avraham, according to a Rabbinic Midrash, asks God what’s going on: “first you told me that Yitzchak will be my descendant, my heir. Then you tell me to raise him up as an offering, and then you tell me to stop. What’s up?” Avraham is confused by God’s apparently contradictory, even confused, messages, and asks for clarification.
God has an interesting explanation for Avraham: “I have not contradicted myself; I have not gone back on my words. I told you to raise him up, not actually sacrifice him. You raised him up, now take him down.”
At first glance, it would seem that God is being cute here. His claim that there was no contradiction in His words is, technically speaking, true: He never said to Avraham that he has to actually sacrifice Yitzchak, to kill him. His exact words were “raise him up as an offering”; that demand could be met, technically speaking, by just bringing him up to the mountain, placing him on an altar, and then bringing him down again.
But that would be a pretty wacky reading. How could God actually expect Avraham to understand His words in this strange way, rather than listen to the absolutely clear intent of the commandment, which was to actually sacrifice his son?
It would seem that God is teaching Avraham, and us, something about being commanded. If God can say that there is no reason for confusion, and that Avraham could have - should have, in fact – understood the commandment in this non-violent way, then we have a whole new approach to looking at how we deal with the word of God. The apparent dissonance – “you really want me to kill my beloved son? The one you promised me, and for whom we’ve been waiting for so long, and who you told me will continue my relationship with you, and pass it down, in turn, to his children? Really?” – should have spurred Avraham to a creative, perhaps in some ways counterintuitive, reading, one that would resolve the dissonance. He should have said: “The contradictions inherent in this last commandment, going, as it does, against what God has taught me already, and what I, in my love for my son, also know to be right, must be resolved. There must be a way to read this communication differently.” Armed with that imperative, he would have come to the reading God now suggests: Don’t kill Isaac. Take him up, and then bring him down.
This solution to the practical, moral, and theological problems presented by the apparent command to kill Isaac was actually there all the time, had Avraham had the imagination and nerve to read God’s words as radically and creatively as God now explains they should be read. If it makes no sense to kill your son, if that is, given all we know, unacceptable, then the apparently straightforward reading can not be right, you can not kill Isaac. Rather, you must look for a reading that helps you to make sense of the commandment in a way that works with all the other things that God has said, and with what you know to be right, true, and reasonable. If it is unreasonable for God to ask Avraham to kill his son, than Avraham has the ability to read the senseless, contradictory, wrong commandment to do so in a way that makes it mean something else.
This information is crucial for us, as Jews committed to reading, and performing, the word of God. To read Him correctly, we must be creative when called upon to right what looks wrong in a commandment, to fix what seems broken in God’s message to us. Failure to do so could, God forbid, lead to incorrect, destructive, and immoral behavior. We must, again and again, rise to the challenge of obeying God’s word in such a way as to prevent unnecessary tragedies, which actually sacrificing Isaac would have been, by reading the word of God sensitively, creatively, and bravely.
Rabbi Shimon Felix