Parashat Vayera puts us in a conflict with the image of Avraham, the father of our People. He is the epitome of Ḥesed (lovingkindness) is our role model. We hold on the highest pedestal, higher than Ya-akov (the conniving, lying, deceiving character) and the grey, non-descript, Itzḥak (his story takes one Parashah only…). He goes out to wage war to save his cousin Lot, fights against villains without taking any reward for his actions. In his attempt to save the whole people of S’dom for no real merit of their own, he even argues with God. He IS The father of our People, the Jewish People: all Jews by Choice are referred to as Son/Daughter of Avraham and Sarah.
And yet, yesterday and today we read to disturbing stories that crack this image. First, he deported his first-born son Ishmael and then the story of the Akedah – he almost sacrificed his other son Yitzḥak. I am not so sure that I would accept Avraham as my role model on how to be a good father.
Would you follow HaShem’s command to sacrifice your own child?
No matter how much we dislike these stories, the DELETE function is not available to us. These stories are there for a reason and we need to find out what is there to learn from them.
The very first verse of the Akedah story tells us that HaShem is testing Avraham. An essential element in any test is the clear definition of the Pass/Fail criteria. At least to the one conducting the test should know these, if not the object that is under test. In another famous biblical test, Job’s test, the Pass/Fail criterion is very clear to Satan, who conducts the test. We, the readers, know what it is as well as that Job is unaware of the test. Here, we do know that a test is going on; however, there are no Pass/Fail criteria.
If Avraham’s absolute obedience to HaShem is the pass criterion and he should truly sacrifice Yitzḥak, then Avraham failed. He shouldn’t have accepted the words of the angel as the word of God, and should have proceeded with the act, until (if at all) God himself intervened.
If the condition to passing the test was that Avraham should object God’s request and not sacrifice Yitzḥak, then Avraham failed. Avraham probably argued with God about Sara’s demand to cast out Yishma-el, to the extent that God told him (Genesis 21:12):
Whatever Sarah tells you, do as she say
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל אַבְרָהָם… …כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר אֵלֶיךָ שָׂרָה שְׁמַע בְּקֹלָהּ
Here, when it comes to Yitzḥak, Avraham is utterly silent. Talmud tells us to object and disobey a prophet if what he says in the name of God counter the Law of God. So much more so if the instruction comes from God Himself. Going back to the first murder in history, we know that the Law “you shall not murder” did not yet exist. Nevertheless, God punishes Kain for murdering Hebel. So much more so that Avraham had to disobey God’s request, clearly being immoral and unlawful.
I am not sure how credible is the Angel that alludes to the possibility that Avraham passed the test. After all, God, that once said to himself [Gen. 18:17]:
Adonai said “Shall I hide from Avraham what I am about to do”
וַה’ אָמָר הַמְכַסֶּה אֲנִי מֵאַבְרָהָם אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה
is not talking to Avraham any more. That surely is a sign of dissatisfaction, to say the least.
The traditional lesson of this story is the need for blind, unconditional, faith. Avraham did not know what was going to happen, and trusted in God to keep his previous promises. This is the same blind, total, faith that my cousin’s wife displayed on Sukkot 1973. She was in her ninth month of pregnancy when she was notified that her husband had fallen in battle. This faith led her to say “God gave, and God took away, Be the name of the God Blessed”.
A third possibility, that goes even further, says that maybe it was Avraham that tested God. Something like “let’s play chicken: let’s see who blinks first”. Avraham does not argue, doesn’t ask any questions. However, he starts stalling for time. Everything is done in slow motion. We read in the greatest detail how Avraham wakes up in the morning, saddles the donkey, takes the two aids, goes to chop woods… Avraham is waiting and hoping that God will blink first. He is determined, that if push comes to shove – he will not slaughter his son. He will lose his faith in the Almighty – but it is a price that he is prepared to pay. Indeed, most difficult, unbearable choices.
And God blinks first.
God knows the heart of all his creatures and is well aware of Avraham’s mind. The heavenly voice (Genesis 22:12):
don’t touch nor harm the boy, because now I know that you revere (are fearful of) God and wouldn’t spare your only son from me
וַיֹּאמֶר אַל תִּשְׁלַח יָדְךָ אֶל הַנַּעַר וְאַל תַּעַשׂ לוֹ מְאוּמָה כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים אַתָּה
stops the saga. The Angel continues (ibid, ibid, 16-18): “…because you have not withheld your son… all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants…” And yet – there is no further communication in any shape or form between HaShem and Avraham.
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik offers a whole different perspective to the Akedah story. He roots his insight in the Jewish tradition that reenacts and relives past events as a way of remembrance. Sukkot is a good example: we actually relive our ancestors’ experience by living in a sukkah every year. Rabbi Soloveitchik asserts that Pidyon HaBen – the redemption of the firstborn son – is a re-staging of the Akedah. The parents of the newborn are Avraham and Sarah, the newborn is Yitzḥak and the silver coins are the ram. The Cohen – L’havdil (to make a huge differentiation) – plays the role of HaShem.
The dilema that Avraham grapples with is whether or not he accepts the fundamental concept (Psalm 24:1):
To Adonai is the earth with all that it holds, the universe and all its inhabitants
לַיהֹוָה הָאָרֶץ וּמְלוֹאָהּ תֵּבֵל וְיֹשְׁבֵי בָהּ
By accepting Sarah’s request to expel Yishmael and obeying HaShem then, by not arguing with HaShem that tells him: “Lekh Lekha to the land of Moriyah”, by placing Yitzḥak on the altar, Avraham’s choice is crystal clear. He acknowledges that his precious children truly belong to HaShem. Sarah and he are only temporary custodians that are tasked to prepare the child to a life of service of Hashem’s creation. HaShem returns Yitzḥak to Avraham and Sarah with a renewed mindset that parents do not own their child.
Truly, this is what the test was all about and Avraham passed it with flying colors.
Pidyon HaBen (Redeeming the First-Borne son) ceremony communicates to us the same ancient, yet profound, message. We do not own our children. They are entrusted to us with a sacred guardianship to raise them to follow ideals and not idols, and be guided by ethical values. We embrace our children with love and protection as their Guardians. AND every Erev Shabbat, we hold them at arm’s length, our hands on their heads, when we bless them.
Going back the very question I asked earlier: Would I obey HaShem’s request to sacrifice my son?
I did. So did My father and my mother. My uncle and aunt did. All Israelis that accompany their children to the IDF’s recruitment base when they turn 18 obey the same request. We acknowledge that we are only the guardians of our offspring. Parting from our children when they go to defend our homeland, our “Beit Abba”, is exactly what Avraham was doing. For most of us, the scenario: “God will seek out and find for Himself the lamb for the offering, my son” really happens. For many – my father, my uncle and aunt included – the alternative offering was not found.