The Binding of Isaac, the Akeida, is one of the most challenging stories in the Torah. Our sages and philosophers have grappled with it since time immemorial, and with good reason.
The Torah is the source code for what we understand to be moral. Yet God asks Avraham to murder his son, and the Torah confronts the reader with a fundamental question: Can God ask us to do something immoral and wrong?
The story concludes with a retraction of the notion that Avraham would need to follow through and kill his son in God’s name. God is impressed that Avraham doesn’t withhold his son, and we come away understanding that God would never ask us to do something unethical. In stopping Avraham at the very last moment, God drives home the point that there is no sanctity in child sacrifice and death; this God is different. This God is committed to life, absolutely.
But while the ending is illuminating, the way we interpret the story up until the reversal matters as well.
To be sure, there is a diverse spectrum of legitimate discourse; we should evaluate their relative standing with regards to the values they teach. The ramifications of what we teach our children are enormously consequential, so we need to get it right.
If we think about God’s instruction and say that up until the final moment, God truly meant it and only then changed His mind; then, it destroys our conceptualization of ethics and morality because they are ad hoc – fluid and not universal.
And if we think that Avraham truly and simply desired to obey God and sacrifice his son and that he regretted not being able to obey God’s command, then the whole story makes no sense. Child sacrifice was common in that era – if Avraham was all too willing to murder his son, what exactly is the test? It destroys the entire notion of his “sacrifice”! Furthermore, if Avraham is all too willing to murder his son, what kind of role model is he, and why would we teach children that this is what greatness looks like?
And of course, apart from the fact this interpretation leaves us in moral turpitude, it also makes no sense in the broader context of the Torah, which explicitly condemns child sacrifice on multiple occasions.
By necessity, we need to reject the notion that Avraham truly and simply wished to sacrifice Yitzchak. The story only makes sense if it was hard – really hard.
Until this point in Avraham’s life, his commitment to life and commitment to God were in perfect harmony – God wanted Avraham to be good to others. Now that God asked him to sacrifice his son, he had a dilemma because his two great commitments were no longer aligned. At no point does the story suggest that this is easy for Avraham, and actually, quite the opposite. Let’s read the story closely:
וַיֹּאמֶר קַח־נָא אֶת־בִּנְךָ אֶת־יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר־אָהַבְתָּ אֶת־יִצְחָק וְלֶךְ־לְךָ אֶל־אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם לְעֹלָה עַל אַחַד הֶהָרִים אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ… בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת־עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת־הַמָּקוֹם מֵרָחֹק… וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת־יָדוֹ וַיִּקַּח אֶת־הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת לִשְׁחֹט אֶת־בְּנוֹ – And He said, “Please take your son, your favored one, Yitzchak, 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…” On the third day, Avraham looked up and saw the place from afar… And Avraham sent his hand and picked up the knife to slay his son. (22:2,4,10)
The Ran highlights out that Hashem never instructed Avraham to sacrifice his son; Hashem only requested it – “Please” – קַח-נָא. This is not a command that must be obeyed; this is a request that does not mandate compliance.
As Avraham struggled with turmoil about the position he was in, he looked up and saw the mountain in the distance – וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק. The Nesivos Shalom notes that הַמָּקוֹם is one of God’s names, the Omnipresent, the attribute that God is everywhere, and “the place” of all things – הַמָּקוֹם. This whole affair did not feel right to Avraham. He’d opposed human sacrifice pagan worship his whole life, and yet here he was, about to destroy his life’s work and snuff out his family legacy. He felt a distance from God – וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק.
Then, at the story’s dramatic crescendo, the Torah uses remarkable imagery to characterize what took place. Avraham does not “pick up” the knife; he must “force his hand” – וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יָדוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת. The Torah dissociates Avraham from his disembodied hand because Avraham was resisting what he was doing. The Malbim notes that Avraham had to force himself because his natural predisposition had always been aligned with God, so this resistance was unfamiliar because murdering his son was something God didn’t actually want!
The Kotzker suggests that even to the musculoskeletal level, the cumbersome description of Avraham’s belabored muscle movements truly expressed and mirrored God’s desire that Yitzchak would remain unharmed – כָּל עַצְמוֹתַי תֹּאמַרְנָה.
Lastly, R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that Avraham’s entire characterization in this story is lethargic, illustrating the slow heaviness with which he moves through the story. But lethargy runs counter to everything we know about Avraham up to this point! He is introduced to us as someone who eagerly and enthusiastically goes where God tells him, who runs after guests to invite them in, and who hurries to feed them. In this story, he is in stark contrast with his energetic fervent self because he faces the greatest challenge of his life, and it is antithetical to his very being.
Of course, we know how the story ends. God would never ask us to do something unethical. But how we tell the story matters just as much as how it ends.
This gut-wrenching story of moral turmoil is held in the highest esteem by humans and by God. And that’s because it wasn’t easy. It is not a story about blind faith and obedience, but the exact opposite.
Quite tellingly, we read this story on Rosh Hashana. Sure, we recall the great merit of our ancestors. But perhaps we can also remind ourselves that the greats also grappled mightily with unclear choices between right and wrong.
Will we tell the truth and be personally honest when confronted, or keep a secret and loyally honor a promise? Will we prioritize individual needs and do something that greatly helps a few, or communal needs and do something that adequately helps many? Will we be just, fair, and equal with our friends and family, or will we be compassionate and merciful based on each circumstance? Will we prioritize the present or the future? Short term or long term?
It is all too rare that we face a moral choice that is truly black and white. Most of the time, it’s not a starving orphaned widow with cancer whose house burned down, knocking on the door asking for help. Far more often, we face a difficult choice between competing ideals, none of which will resolve the situation in a manner that perfectly aligns with an established code of ethics or norms.
We would do well to remember our role models. They weren’t primitive people – they were refined humans doing their best to ethically navigate a world of murky choices. And while society may have changed in form, it hasn’t changed in substance, and humans haven’t changed much at all.
Doing the right thing is plenty hard enough; but you first have to identify what the right thing truly is, which is far harder. It gets to the core of our mission in life, and we must take strength from the stories of our greats – this is the way it’s always been, and we must persevere all the same.