The Binding of Isaac, known as the Akeida, is one of the most challenging stories in the Jewish tradition. Our sages and philosophers have grappled with it since time immemorial, and with good reason.
The Torah is part of the source code for our morality, so when God asks Avraham to murder his son, the Torah confronts the reader with a fundamental question – can God ask us to do something that is wrong?
The story concludes with a retraction of the instruction, and that God would never ask us to do something wrong. Hashem is amazed by Avraham, but rejects the notion that Avraham might actually kill his son in God’s name.
But how we unpack the message until that point matters too. The story only makes sense if Avraham’s dilemma was a clash between his commitment to God and commitment to life.
To be sure, there is a diverse range of legitimate interpretations within our tradition, but we should consider their relative reasonableness regarding the values they teach. The ramifications of what we teach our children are enormous, so it’s important to understand the story correctly.
If we state that instead of struggling to come to terms with an immoral instruction that clashed with his commitment to life; and that Avraham truly wished to sacrifice his son, or that he regretted not being able to, then Avraham is a very problematic role model.
Of course, this interpretation makes no sense in the broader context of the story and the Torah. The Torah condemns explicitly people who sacrifice their children and warns against it many times. If Avraham had no issue murdering his son; there was no test for him, and more importantly, he does not deserve our respect. Aside from poor morals, this teaches, the story makes numerous references to Avraham’s difficulty coming to terms with the command. The story only makes sense if Avraham’s dilemma was a clash between his commitment to God and commitment to life.
How we think about God’s instruction matters too. If we explain that up until the final moment, God meant it, then it destroys our conceptualization of morality, and people who kill in God’s name might be doing something that could be considered sacred!
But this makes no sense either. The entire moral of the story is that this God is different – this God doesn’t want human sacrifice! By stopping Avraham from forcing himself to do something terrible, God drives home the point that there is no glory in human or child sacrifice. The God of life is committed to life absolutely.
To be sure, there are different methods of interpretation; surface; symbolic; similar; and secret – know as PaRDeS – פְּשָׁט / רֶמֶז / דְּרַשׁ / סוֹד.
There is an even more outlandish interpretation; that not only did Avraham have the requisite intent to murder his son, but that he actually did, and then Yitzchak was resurrected. It is not for us to say that this view is not legitimate; it is. There are some extremely esoteric explanations of what that could mean, but we must never confuse the surface explanation with the secretive.
The surface level of the story only makes sense if Avraham didn’t want to kill his son, and God never meant it.
We lose a lot by saying otherwise.
The Torah emphasis repeatedly that Avraham had to force himself to go through the simple motions of the story – וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת–יָדוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶת–הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת.
We believe that on some level, our righteous men have a predisposition to do not only the right thing but in a certain sense, what God wants – כָּל עַצְמוֹתַי תֹּאמַרְנָה.
The Malbim notes that Avraham had to force himself because his predisposition was facing a resistance he wasn’t familiar with because God didn’t want him to murder his son!
There are many ways to understand the story. But the story is very problematic if we entertain the possibility that God could ask us to ignore our moral instincts, and most problematic if we think we ever should.