The Akedah

September 20, 2009

Each year on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah we read the Akedah.  The Tradition tells us this is the 10th and last test by which God tried Abraham.  Each year at this time we also are tested, challenged to come to terms with this story in which a father without objection heeds God's command to slay his beloved son.  Each year we read the familiar story and try to reach a fresh interpretation that will reconcile the conflict between love of God and love of child.

People of all faiths and eras have wrestled with this story.  Soren Kierkegaard called Abraham the Knight of Faith; Immanuel Kant called him a child murderer.  One could say Abraham intended to be both.

Chapter 22 of Genesis is called "the Akedah," meaning "the Binding."  The story has many bindings.  Isaac is physically bound by his father and laid on the altar of sacrifice.  Another binding is the spiritual one between the father and son: twice the chapter says that the two of them went "together," YaH'DoW (verses 6, 8). 

The story is also bound together with Rosh HaShanah:

One midrash tells us that when Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac, God says to him: Isaac's descendants will sin...and I will have to judge them on New Year's Day.  However, should they implore Me to seek out some merit on their behalf, and to remember...the binding of Isaac, let them blow in My presence the horn of this creature. 

            Abraham asks: The horn of what creature?

            God says: Turn around.

            At once (as Genesis 22:13 says) "Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold a ram."

            And that is why we blow the Shofar on Rosh Hoshanah.

A second link is that Rosh Hashanah begins the ten Days of Awe, of soul-searching and especially Atonement.  The English word "Atonement" can also be read as "at-one-ment" - and I like to view the Togetherness of YaH'DoW said twice in the story to mean that Abraham is at one with God just as he is at one with Isaac.

Despite all this togetherness, there is also, ironically, separation.  When Abraham and Isaac depart on their three-day journey, neither one will ever again see Sarah.  Their togetherness comes at the cost of losing a wife and mother. 

Further, after the Akedah, God never again speaks with Abraham.  I don't view this as disapproval on God's part for Abraham's willingness to carry out God's command without objection.  In Genesis 24, after Abraham buries Sarah and is about to send his servant on a journey to find a wife for Isaac, we are told that God "blessed Abraham in everything."  Commentary says this includes wealth, honor, longevity and children.  It is possible that God stopped speaking to Abraham because Abraham has no more need of God's support or commands; he has reached the point where he is so at-one with God that he no longer needs God's spoken Presence.

I find this view helpful in reconciling the difficult conflicts we feel in reading the story.  Abraham is so close to God that he is beyond mere faith, he also has profound knowledge of God.  So much so, that he knows that God will not allow Isaac to be sacrificed; God can be relied on to be true to the covenant and the particular promise of numerous descendants.  So Abraham goes on the journey with both faith and knowledge that it will turn out OK.  Faith in God combined with knowledge of God can be synergistic; each is enhanced by the other.

Clues to Abraham's one-ness with God are in the Text.  First it mentions Abraham and Isaac, and says: "the two walked off together."  Then after Abraham says: "God will see to the sheep...my son" the Text also says "the two of them walked on together."  This second time, because Abraham has just mentioned God, could mean that it is now Abraham and God who are walking on together.

This is reinforced by the several images of "seeing" in the story.  Abraham says "Elohiym yireh...," "God will see to the sheep..." and then after Isaac is spared, Abraham names the place "Adonai-yireh," echoing his words when they were walking together.  This offers the possibility that the first time Abraham said "God will see," he knew what the result would be.

Later allusions to Abraham also support his unique one-ness with God.  Abraham is the only person God refers to as "My friend" (Isaiah 41:8) or "My friend forever" (2 Chronicles 20:7) - not even Moses is called God's friend.

The Akedah is a fascinating story.  Abraham's faith and knowledge of God is something to aspire to.  But we need to confront the reality of evil and misfortune with deeds - faith and knowledge alone will not allow us to prevail over them.  As a line in the Reform liturgy says: "Pray as if everything depends on God; act as if everything depends on you."

 

 

 

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