Did Abraham Fail the Test?
There are countless themes that run through the High Holidays and we are familiar with many of them: repentance, justice, prayer, soul-searching. Of the Yom haDin, the Day of Judgment and of celebrating the Creation of the world: of anticipated endings and new beginnings. They push us to think about our relationship with ourselves, others, the world and God. The Yamim Nora’im—Days of Awe—are not supposed to be easy; they are supposed to be meaningful.
The theme I would like to address concerns itself with the courage to be morally defiant, even if it means defying God for the sake of God’s own justice. Many of us have the classical image in our head of God being crowned King on Rosh haShanah as all of Creation passes before Him in judgment. However, this can also be a difficult and an incomplete image. Perhaps it is us who should judge God in return.
This sounds preposterous, of course. But is it? I propose that we look closer at this idea through the lens of one of the most riveting and disturbing Rosh haShanah stories: Akeidat Yitzchak—the Binding of Isaac. And I dare launch a controversial statement.
Abraham failed the test. Not because he didn’t sacrifice Isaac but because he almost did.
How did Abraham fail the test of sacrificing his son? In order to answer that question, let us look at the context.
Looking at the context of a Torah passage or verse is an ancient Jewish technique of text study. Rashi calls this smichut parshiyot, the joining of different passages so that we may glean meaning from their interconnection. In a sense it is like watching a soap opera. What happened in the previous episode and how will this impact the unfolding plot?
Previously in the book of Genesis, we witnessed the unfolding of the Sodom and Amorrah story. The twin cities of sin have found ill-favour in God’s eyes. Not because, as often is thought, due to acts of sexual depravity, but rather, as the Midrash states, because of social exclusion. The Sodomites twisted their laws to legally oppress the stranger and the poor amongst them. Finally God heard a great outcry rising from Sodom (which the Midrash recounts as coming from a young woman tortured to death because she fed a starving man). God decides to intervene and overturn the cities. Of course this begs the question: were all the inhabitants of Sodom and Amorrha cruel and morally corrupt and deserve to be killed by the wrath of God?
Avraham Avinu asks himself the exact same question and he calls God on it, so to speak. “Shall not the Judge of all the Earth do justly?” (18:25) he says. And he proceeds to negotiate with God down to ten righteous people.
The Abraham we encounter here is truly a man who walks with God. He has the courage to hold God to God’s own absolute moral standards. Does God not expect Abraham to rise to the occasion?
As the famous Bible scholar Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg writes in her monumental work, ‘Genesis – the Beginning of Desire’:
‘In [this] famous passage, Abraham negotiates with God about the destiny of Sodom. “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?”asks God (18:17). In [Midrash] Bereshit Rabbah, God’s special love for Abraham is expressed thus: Ï shall do nothing without his knowledge”… his consciousness (da’at) is valued by God, his reactions courted even where they run, in an obvious sense, counter to the expressed intent of God. So Abraham pleads for Sodom, “plays” God down from fifty righteous saviors of the city to ten. The core of his plea balances his concern for God with his concern for humanity. ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”(18:25).“
It is Abraham’s ability to ‘hold both God and man in a single thought’, which, according to Abraham Joshua Heschel is the mark of a truly religious human being. It is what makes Abraham uniquely righteous.
Abraham is the first in the Bible who dares take initiative as exemplified by his aggressive plea to save Sodom. Abraham’s intimate relationship with the Eternal and his heart overflowing with love makes him unafraid to draw on either quality for the sake of even the gravest of sinners. This is the Abraham we love and admire.
This, then, is the context preceding Akeidat Yitzchak. Our troubling passage opens with ‘achar hadevarim haeleh’—‘and it was after these things’. The classical commentators ask themselves, ‘what things?’ (Many things happened in this parashah, and Midrash fills in the blanks). My bold proposition then, is to read ‘achar hadevarim haeleh’ as referring to the Sodom episode. Like a good soap opera, we know what our protagonist has been up to before. We saw last week’s cliffhanger. We think that we can anticipate our hero’s next move. Abraham has, after all, shown momentous courage.
But then Abraham our Father surprises us with his most troubling act of moral ambiguity yet. When the Torah tells us, ‘achar hadevarim haeleh, haElohim nisa et Avraham’—‘and it was after these things that God tested Abraham’ we know all too well what follows: the reprehensible commandment to sacrifice his son. Is this the same God Whose justice could be tempered by a man’s plea for mercy? Is this the same God Who promised to never destroy the earth again after the deluge? Who sets a rainbow over all the earth as a sign of His covenant of love with all of Creation?
Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg suggests that Abraham stayed silent upon hearing the gruesome order. She says:
‘Silence is the ultimate modality of Abraham… Abraham was silent when suffering, as it is said, ‘Take your son.’ He could have said, ‘Yesterday, You told me, ‘in Isaac your seed will be named.’ He could have [should have?] responded… but he says nothing.’
And so we are left to wonder, is this the same Abraham full of bravado only a few chapters ago? This man timidly and willingly resigns himself to the fate of sacrificing his beloved son.
This story seems a direct inversion of the Sodom story. In the Sodom story, God could be swayed and He promises to show mercy if ten righteous people are found (of course, the story doesn’t end well for the Sodomites). It is Abraham who sets the conditions. What we see is a picture of a stern but merciful God and of God’s brave and morally righteous servant.
However, in the Akeidah, it is God who is unrelenting and Abraham who complies with an absurd demand. How can this be? The korban (sacrifice) seems to be inverted: the guilty becomes the innocent, the bystander becomes the father and the God willing to forego some of His power now becomes a God Who wishes to vindicate Himself ad absurdum.
Or so it seems.
I believe we can read the text in a radically different way. When the Torah states that ‘God tried Abraham’, I believe the true test was not whether Abraham would sacrifice Isaac but rather whether Abraham would have the holy chutzpah to do again what he did before. Resist. Defy. Argue. Isn’t this the pattern of behavior that the Eternal expects (and demands) from his faithful servant? After all, Abraham is commanded to ‘la’asot tzedakah u’mishpat’—to do righteousness and justice. The text may provide us hints to support such a reading.
The Torah recounts: ‘Abraham, take your son.’ The famous medieval commentator Rashi fills in the gaps of a truncated conversation: ‘God says, ‘take your son.’ Abraham said to God, ‘I have two sons.’ God said to him, ‘your only one’. Abraham replied, ‘which son? God said, ‘the one you love’ upon which Abraham replied, ‘I love them both’. Finally God specifies:’ Isaac’.
It is almost as if the Torah and Rashi are both waiting with baited breath. Each word carefully articulated, each pause apparent. Are you sure you want to do this, Abraham? Stop. Think this over. Stop. Take a deep breath. Stop. Remember who Isaac is, Abraham. He is your longed-for, chosen son, heir apparent of your legacy of justice and loving kindness, the only child of your beloved wife Sarah. Stop.
Can you almost hear the dark irony of the Torah’s text as God issues His command? It is as if you can almost imagine God repeating the thought to Himself: ‘shall I conceal from Abraham what I am doing?’ Is God issuing Abraham a hidden invitation, no better yet: a hidden command to rebel? Is, a God who demands such an exacting price a God worth serving? Rashi hints at God’s real intent through the word ‘v’ha’elehu’—bring him up. God doesn’t use the word ‘slaughter’ at all…
And yet, Abraham zealously complies.
He takes his son up to Mount Moriah. Silence marks their ascent to the sacrificial altar, a descent into slavish obedience. Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav considers this an encounter with the challal panui, the silent space of God’s absence. Perhaps God makes Himself absent from abhorrent human actions done in His Holy Name. Perhaps the silence awaits Abraham’s response – not in an eagerness to serve but in an eagerness to oppose in the Name of God Himself. And yet Abraham and Isaac walk on together, the son completely trusting his father, the father completely loving the son. It only makes the scenario more poignant and cruel.
At the end, God stays Abraham’s hand, the knife hovering dangerously over the bound Isaac. But is it really God staying Abraham’s hand? Genesis speaks of a ‘malach’, an angel of God. Why is it not God Himself intervening? Is it possible to read God’s lack of direct presence as thinly-veiled disappointment? He sent His angel to stop the drama from unfolding. Perhaps God is angry with Abraham. Like an angry and disappointed parent, God does not want to face Abraham. True, the p’shat (plain meaning) of the text suggests pride of not having been withheld Isaac but I can almost imagine this being a taciturn compliment of a sour and obligatory nature.
Abraham failed the test. Perhaps this passage should be called Akeidat Avraham for truly it is Abraham who is bound: hands and feet and heart and lips, failing to reject callousness in the Name of the Most High.
We can all imagine moments in our lives as Jews, as people of faith, as human beings where we should have stood up to authority unafraid, even when that authority seems absolutely correct. It is easy and comfortable to conform, to wash our hands clean from responsibility, to shirk accountability. But both the Sodom story and the Akeidah remind us that it is often through rule of law that the cruelest of crimes are perpetrated.
Of course, we are fallible. We, too, fail to stand up to ‘do righteousness and justice’. But then again, we can take comfort by looking at the other side of the coin. We too can defy authority for a righteous cause and confront the Divine with Divine principles. There is a definite place in our tradition for what I would call ‘covenantal anger’ sparked by the human condition and all the cruel and senseless tragedies that can befall us throughout our lifetimes. Rule of divine law means that even God Himself is bound by justice and that when God fails to live up to His own standards, then we are called to judge Him. Only then can God’s integrity be preserved and is He worthy of our worship. This is the mark of a person’s genuine relationship with God and only under this condition can God be the One Who ‘heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds, who numbers the stars and gives each one a name’ (Psalm 147:3-4).
Fortunately, both modalities of Abraham live within us. Hopefully, reminding ourselves of the Akeidah and standing before the Divine Presence during these Days of Awe will give us the strength to emulate the Abraham we love and admire. Be the justice in the world that you want to see done. Be and be not afraid. Then perhaps we can really bring Heaven down to Earth.