Abraham and Isaac: To the Brink

Last week’s Torah portion, called Parashat Vayera in Hebrew, has a full and long story arc that spans from

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the three guests who visit Abraham as he heals from his brit milah, or ritual circumcision, to the story of Abraham binding his son Isaac as a sacrifice, known in Hebrew as the Akedah.

Today, let’s look at the story of the Akedah, as this is a story with so many levels of interpretation, each of which provide us with rich opportunities for reflection and personal growth.

The story begins with a foreshadowing: that after surmounting several obstacles along his sojourn the the unknown land that God has promised Abraham, it is written that God tested Abraham. Hadn’t Abraham already been tested? hadn’t he already heeded the formless Voice and left behind all that he’d ever known to go forward to an unknown land; argued with God over the merits of redeeming at least some inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah; engaged his wits to gain passage through a dangerous land for a second time; become the father of Isaac with Sarah, both in their old age; and expelled his other son and concubine in order to please Sarah and establish her offspring as Abraham’s lineage? All this has already happened in Vayera. So, what new test could God have in mind?

The narrative of story line is one level of reading Torah, and it is rich with family dynamics, geography, foreign cultures, and heavenly beings and conversations.

Another level is how does the story fit into the overall picture of events. In other words, how does one event relate to the previous or the next one? do we see how they are related, and what do we learn about how events in our lives are more than random events?

In some Torah study traditions, there are two more levels with which to read the text. These would be: how we see the wisdom in each story teaching us lessons; and the fourth is to experience the ineffable and mystery contained in the story.

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Let’s stay now with the third level in our Torah parashah, the level of finding wisdom, inspiration and insight. And let’s narrow our focus on just the vignette or drama of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac by Abraham, as a sacrifice.

First of all, what was God thinking here?

The Hebrew text reads: וְהָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים נִסָּ֖ה אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֑ם

which translates, “and God tested Abraham”.

Okay, a test! But we do not know anything more than what is written. We do know what tests are, though. They are a way to see if you are staying engaged and on track, whether it is in your math class or a relationship. And we do know that as Abraham follows the instructions he received earlier, to leave behind the place he’s always known, he encounters many challenges. He endeavours to stay on track and engage with God through listening and discussion.

Think about your relationships, and which ones last, and which ones don’t. We often hear that relationships require work. But unlike our math class, we don’t have an instruction book for that.

P We observe how trusting in an inner call to action, such as Abraham heeding God’s Voice telling to leave everything behind and go forth with Sarah; taking risks by speaking one’s truth, even to God; engaging with a conflict to its resolution (Abraham arguing with God over the fate of Sodom or Sarah laughing at the angels’ promise that she will conceive); can lead to fulfillment of promises, such as the miraculous birth of Isaac when Sarah is in her nineties.

These elements of risk-taking in a relationship bring Abraham, Sarah, and God closer. But God has one last and most risky test of character and commitment left for Abraham.

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In the binding of Isaac, the Akedah, God now calls for the beloved son of the couple’s old age, Isaac, to be brought to a mountain top to be slaughtered on an altar as if he were a sacrificial animal. Besides being a ghastly request, God is actually calling Abraham to do just what the other peoples, such as Moloch worshippers, whom he’d left behind in his ancestral home, would do for their idols and gods: put their own children upon altars, as sacrifices.

In this strange and unique splitting off and separation of Abraham from all the other idolatrous peoples, God first instructs him to do just what these child-sacrificing peoples do:

“Take your son, your favoured one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”

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The drama mounts as the father and son ascend to the place in the heights, punctuated by the pathos of scenes such as Isaac seeing only the kindling wood, and asking his father where the sheep is for the burnt offering. And further, without having actually been told this, Abraham tells him, “God will see to the burnt offering, my son”.

Where are you now? On the edge of your seat? I am! As my grandmother Dot z”l would say of such stories in the Torah, “…and what a great plot!”

Pause for a moment. Ask yourself what pulls you personally into this drama.

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We will all have different answers to that question. Perhaps you are scared for poor Isaac, or feel rage at Abraham. Perhaps you are analyzing what sort of psychological damage could result from this threatening behaviour by a parent on their child. And why doesn’t Isaac, who by now must be an adult, go along with the perilous and confusing journey up the mountain? Or, perhaps you simply want to know how the story ends and prefer to skip all the details and who said what to whom.

Perhaps you are tapping into your own quest to understand the nature of what draws us into unknown territory, just as Abraham and Isaac do. Will Isaac/myself be killed? Will Abraham/myself actually slaughter the one thing that he/we cherish(es) most? What will happen?

We can heed the urge or impulse that moves us toward risking the unknown. We may hesitate, analyze, bargain, compromise, or ignore it altogether. We may see the danger of following an impulse as one with no guarantee of a safe outcome and balk at it. Or, the draw to risk may ignite our sense that it is the correct time for making changes and taking a new direction.

These are possibilities, and learning how and when to heed or pass on them, is our spiritual challenge.

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God and Abraham have a relationship that has significant repercussions on others. Everyone is brought to the brink of destruction, to the precipice.

Isaac may die, Abraham may lose Isaac, devastate Sarah, and destroy their lives forever; and, God may lose Abraham.

Therein lies the dynamic that binds God and Abraham to this doom-laden mission. Abraham is listening–and God sees that. A ram is substituted for Isaac on the altar at the moment that Abraham raises his knife to kill him. They have all gone, with so little dialogue or discussion or analysis, to the brink together.

What was God’s test of Abraham? Certainly establishing that Abraham and Sarah have the mettle and ability to leave behind the familiar, with unshakable Faith and Trust, to navigate unknown paths which lie ahead.

What voices or calls do you heed, and by what measures can you navigate choices in your relationships?

©Susan J Katz 2019