Rosh HaShanah

By Sanford Olshansky

“Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will point out to you.” And Abraham arose early in the morning and saddled his ass and took his two lads with him and Isaac, his son, and split the wood for the burnt offering and got up and went to the place [of which] God told him. (Gen 22:2,3)

I have an only son, whom I love. Until recently, he was a sports reporter, covering college hockey. His work took him, in the harshest winter, to isolated places such as Burlington, VT, Hanover, NH and Storrs, CT. After doing post-game interviews and filing his story, he drove, late at night, over icy highways, to his next destination. On many such nights I prayed silently to God that if someone had to die tonight, it should be me and not him.

Whether or not the story of the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac is historic or a literary parable, it is inconceivable to me, as a parent, that Abraham would not have said “God please take me instead and let him live.” Many commentators have pointed out that this is the same Abraham who argued with God in an attempt to save the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, who were not his own flesh and blood. Furthermore, what kind of God would put a man through this ordeal?

Most liberal Jews give priority to asking what a Torah story is intended to teach us, rather than whether it is historically accurate. In this case the standard answers given by Jewish tradition are that God doesn’t want human sacrifice and that the descendants of Abraham, through Isaac – i.e., the Jews – are deserving of special status before God because of Abraham’s unquestioning obedience. (It is arguable that Isaac also understood what was happening, and thus showed unquestioning obedience, as well.)

Rashi, the great medieval commentator, turns to midrash to try to get God “off the hook” by saying that Abraham misunderstood God’s instructions, since the Hebrew word haalayhu, which most Bibles translate as “offer him (up)” could also mean “take him up.” Ibn Ezra, another great medieval commentator, disputes this. He says that since Abraham lacked the power of prophecy, he would rush to fulfill what he understood his instructions to be, as the text describes.

Ibn Ezra says that Abraham was truly being tested, as Genesis 22:1 states. He says that until this test, God had only “potential” knowledge and not actual knowledge of Abraham’s virtue. Abraham passed the test and is rewarded:

“. . . because you did this thing and didn’t withhold your son, your only one, I will bless you and will multiply your descendants like the stars of the sky and like the sand that is on the seashore and your descendants will possess the gate of their enemies. And all the nations of the earth will bless themselves through your descendants because you listened to my voice.” (Gen 22:16-18)

Ibn Ezra also disagrees with those who try to get both Abraham and God “off the hook,” by saying that Abraham never expected God to accept the sacrifice of Isaac because he was told that his line would continue through Isaac. He says that this would require that God never changes a decree, and cites an example from the Torah where a Divine decree in Exodus was altered in Numbers.

Richard Elliot Friedman, a modern Bible scholar, says that the story is best understood in terms of Abraham’s essential quality of obedience to God. He says that Abraham presumes to argue with God about Sodom and Gomorrah because, in that case, Abraham isn’t being told to do anything. In fact, God “opens the door” for the discussion by telling Abraham what is intended. He adds that Abraham is too close to Isaac to argue on his behalf in the same way – his “intensely personal interest” in the outcome is obvious.

Friedman says, further, that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah itself may have caused Abraham’s silence about Isaac. He says that Abraham learned, from that case, that God knows what is in a person’s heart, so what is the point of arguing? Ironically, says Friedman, Isaac is saved by Abraham’s unquestioning obedience. Silence in this case accomplishes more than argument in the other.

Apparently our sages intended to emphasize the importance of obedience to God’s commandments. Nevertheless, I believe that I would not go along willingly if God asked such a thing of me. Is that the final demand of this disturbing story, read every year on Rosh Hashanah? It is not clear. What is clear is that it calls on each of us to engage in honest struggle and examine our lives and evaluate our behavior.

Sanford Olshansky is a rabbinical student at AJR.