It’s All About Perspective
Rabbi Allison RH Conyer
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5782
Sometime afterward God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham”; and he said, “Hineini - here I am.” And God said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you.” And Abraham rose up earlyin the morning, and saddled his donkey, and took two of his servants with him, and his son, Isaac. He split the wood for the burnt offering, and set out to the place which God had told him. Then, on the third dayAbraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey; and the boy and I will go to that place and worship, and then we will come back to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac; and he took the firepan in his hand, and a knife; and both of themwent together.
Then Isaac spoke to Abraham his father, and said, “Father” and [Abraham] said, “Hineini - Here I am my son.” And [Isaac] said, “Here is the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”And Abraham said, “My son, God will provide a lamb for a burnt offering”; and so both of them went together. They arrived at the place which God had told him, and Abraham built an altar there, and arranged the wood. [Abraham] then bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. And Abraham reached out his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And then an angel of Adonai called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham! Abraham!”; and he said, “Hineini - Here I am.” And [the angel] said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing that you did not withhold your son, your only son from me.” Abraham looked up, and saw a ram caught in a thicket by its horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in place of his son.
And Abraham called the name of that place Adonai-Yireh; As it is called today “On God’s Mountain, God will be seen.” And the angel of Adonai called to Abraham from heaven the second time, and said, God declares, “I have sworn by my own essence, that because you have performed this act, and did not withhold your only son, I will bless you greatly, and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven, and as the sands on the sea shore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies; All the nations of the world shall be blessed by your descendants; all because you hearkened to my voice… (Gen. 22:1-18)
Well, that’s a delightful story to read to welcome in the New Year! How many of us have asked ourselves – Why? What possible meaning could this story provide that was important enough to set the stage for the year to come? Furthermore, why is it that other traditions adopted our story to explain their own. So, I decided to research. And I went down the rabbit hole of article after article, book after book, and, from the plethora of interpretations,
I came up with a single conclusion – It’s all about perspective.
So, today, I hope to ignite your intellectual curiosity as we explore different interpretations of the Akeda, both from within and outside of our Jewish tradition. My hope is for each of us to be the author of our own interpretive story - firstly, by entering into dialogue with our history and traditions thereby connecting us to our people, and secondly, by embracing that which is most authentic tous as individuals. In so doing, my prayer for each of us is that we can discover a meaningful interpretation of this controversial story that can guide us into this new year.
Allow me to take you with me along a circuitous route down my rabbit hole.
First, the context: I discovered that the Akeda served as a foundation of the three Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. From a mainstream Jewish perspective, the Akeda tells the story of Abraham, man of faith, demonstrating his love for and trust in G-d, therefore securing the covenant for all generations.
From a mainstream Christian perspective, the Akeda foreshadows the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus, whereby the wood for Isaac’s sacrifice symbolizes the wood from Jesus’ cross; the binding of Isaac to the wood represents Jesus being bound to the cross before being crucified; and Abraham’s 3-day journey represents Jesus’ resurrection which occurred on the third day. Some say that the unaccomplished sacrifice of Isaac foreshadows Jesus’ divinity; whereas the sacrificial ram represents the human part of Jesus that died on the cross (Cordoneanu, 2014). Huh! I had no idea and was totally fascinated by this interpretation.
Continuing along my rabbit hole, I, ventured into the Islamic understanding of the Akeda. According to the Quran, the potential sacrificial son is never mentioned by name, though most agree that the son was Ishmael, not Isaac. In fact, Isaac was birthed as a reward for Abraham’s faithfulness and his willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael. Another point of difference between the Muslim interpretation and the Jewish and Christian interpretations is the lack of reference to the ram as a replacement sacrifice.
Instead, the Quran refers to a 'great sacrifice' (dhibḥinʿaẓīm), alluding to the future sacrifice of the Prophet Muhammad and his followers, the descendants of Ishmael, in the cause of their faith. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ishmael_in_Islam).
The story in the Quaran reads:
He said, “I am going towards my Lord, and He will guide me.” “My Lord, grant me a righteous son. So, We gave him good news of a patient son. Then, when the boy was old enough to accompany him (or old enough to work with his father), he said, “My son, I have seen myself sacrificing you in a dream. See what you think”.” He said, “My Father, do as you are commanded; and, God willing, you will find me one of the steadfast. Then, when they had both submitted to God, and he lay his son down on the side of his face, We called out to him, “Abraham! You have fulfilled the vision. This is how We reward those who do good. This was certainly a test to prove (their true characters).
And We redeemed his son with a great sacrifice. And We left with him praise for later generations. Peace be upon Abraham. This is how We reward those who do good. He was truly one of Our faithful servants. And We gave Abraham the good news of Isaac, a prophet and a righteous man. And We blessed him, and Isaac (Sura, or Chapter, 37:99-113).
In the Quaran, Abraham decides to inform his son about G-d’s command, and Ishmael willingly agrees to be sacrificed; In the Torah, however, Abraham kept Isaac in the dark without foreknowledge or consent of his intended sacrifice. Not only do Jewish interpretations NOT write in Isaac’s consent, but they comment on Isaac’s trauma incurred from this event. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk taught that although it was hard for Abraham to bind Isaac on the altar, it was just as hard to release him. For Abraham realised that Isaac, for the rest of his life, would remember that his father had almost killed him. (Etz Chayim Chumash, Torah & Commentary, UCSJ, pg. 121).
The Midrash suggested that after this event, Isaac went to the Garden of Eden for three years (Midrash HaGadol, Gen.22:19) “…to be healed from the wound inflicted upon him by Abraham on the occasion of the Akeidah” (Spiegel, S., 1979, p. 6).
Another aspect that peaked my interest was the role of Satan. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sources all have midrashim, or interpretations, that include Satan (the devil or G-d’s adversary) trying to interfere in slightly different ways. Both Christian and Jewish interpretations liken the idea of testing Abraham to that of Satan testing Job, where Satan was tempting Abraham NOT to listen to G-d’s command. Other midrashim suggest that Satan’s interference triggered Sarah’s death which occurred immediately after the Akeda.
What did Satan do? He went off and told Sarah, “Ah Sarah, have you not heard what’s been happening in the world?” She replied, “No.” He said, “Your old husband has taken the boy Isaac and sacrificed him as a burnt offering, while the boy cried and wailed in his helplessness. Immediately, she began to cry and wail. She cried three sobs, corresponding to the three tekiah notes of the Shofar, and she wailed [shevarim] three times corresponding to the [truah], staccato notes of the shofar.
Then, she gave up the ghost and died. (Pirkei d’ Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 32).
In contrast, one Muslim version of the story tells of the Devil trying to stop Abraham, Ishmael and Hagar (Ishmael’s mother), who were all not only aware of what was going to happen, but in complete accord with the decision as a sign of submission to G-d’s will.
One day, Allah asked Ibrahim to sacrifice his favourite son. Ibrahim agreed unhesitatingly, as did his wife and son. The Devil (Iblis) tried to dissuade all three [from following the Divine command], but [Abraham drove Satan away by throwing rocks at him] … When Ibrahim brought the sharp knife down to cut his son’s neck, the sharp edge of the knife turned. Allah, in his infinite mercy, had stopped the sacrifice, pleased with Ibrahim’s unquestioning faith. The boy was released, and a ram provided by angels was sacrificed instead… Hajj pilgrims still throw stones three times at the Devil pillar in memory of this incident. (https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/blogs/the-speaking-tree/the-sacrifice-of-ishmael/)
The insertion of Satan to tempt Abraham adds further weight to his test – it’s not just about obeying G-d, Adonai, Allah, but about resisting temptation. In other words, sacrifice is not just about doing the right thing, but also about resisting temptation to do the wrong thing. Ahh, now it’s starting to sound a bit more like the message of the Yamim Noraim– the Days of Awe and Dread. For Abraham, that day was a day of awe and dread – awe and reverence for the Divine, and dread for what he was being asked to do.
Next stop along my journey: The Celebration. Whereas Jews read the Akeda on Rosh Hashanah, Muslims around the world celebrate the festival of Eid al-Adha, commemorating Abraham's great sacrifice and the Muslims dedication to their faith. Their meat sacrifice is divided into three parts: the first is given to the poor; the second is given to relatives, neighbours, and friends; and the third part is consumed by the family. Muslims dress in their nicest clothing, pray, visit the mosque, exchanges gifts with those around them, and are also encouraged to donate to the poor.
This triggered my thinking of how we, as Jews commemorate this day. We, too, dress in our nicest clothes (except if you are home in your PJs watching the service via Zoom or YouTube), go to synagogue, bring food or gifts to people’s home, or buy something new for the New Year. And we, too, are encouraged to donate. Although we have many festivals where we are commanded or encouraged to donate to the poor, Rosh Hashana is not one of them. And yet, synagogues and Jewish organisations around the world run campaigns to encourage Jews to support our Jewish community – our synagogue, our local Jewish community, and Israel. The story reminds us that Isaac was spared and Abraham was blessed with numerous descendants to perpetuate the Jewish people and tradition; thus, it is a reminder to us of our responsibility to perpetuate the Jewish people and tradition.
Finally, the messages of the story: Whereas a Muslim interpretation of the story is that of submission and adherence to G-d, and a Christian interpretation is that of love born from undeserved suffering (trials), our Jewish interpretation encompass both of these ideas and more.
The Torah contains within in it a bundle of contradictions. On the one hand, we are told to trust in G-d and submit to G-d’s will as a testament to our faith in G-d and affirmation of our part in the covenant. On the other hand, as soon as Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we were endowed with intelligence and moral consciousness. Thus, the Akeda was indeed a conundrum for Abraham, for how could he both follow G-d’s command and listen to his own conscience. The idea that G-d would ask a father to sacrifice his own son seems incompatible with a Divine ethical directive.
Soren Kirkegaard, the 19thcentury Danish existentialist philosopher, theologian, and social critic, suggested that faith transcends reason, that love of G-d may lead us to do things that would otherwise be considered morally wrong. Kirkegaard said that Abraham had “faith in the absurd”, believing that G-d could make the impossible possible, believing that he would both lose and keep Isaac (https://rabbisacks.org/vayera-5771-the-binding-of-isaac-a-new-interpretation/). Kirkegaard saw Abraham as willing to give up the world – his future – by sacrificing Isaac, while maintaining the faith that G-d will return his son and his future will be secure. Abraham’s love for his son was clear; yet, Abraham was compelled to suspend his moral duty as a father to fulfill G-d’s will.
In his famous book Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard wrote: “…the story of Abraham [contains] the … immense paradox of faith…, a paradox that may transform a killing into a sacred God pleasing act, a paradox that gives back Isaac to Abraham and which no thinking can encompass because faith begins where thinking stops…The ethical expression for what Abraham did is, that he would murderIsaac; the religious expression is, that he would sacrificeIsaac; but precisely in this contradiction consists the dread which can well make a man sleepless, and yet Abraham is not what he is without this dread…” (cited in Cordoneanu, 2014, p. 204).
In other words, the story illustrates both the paradox and power of faith.
Abraham’s journey was both to overcome his moral apprehension and trust G-d's plan that all will work out as it is meant to be, AND to wrestle with his dread, rather than blindly accepting his divine directive.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (2010) offered a unique perspective as he questioned how one of the greatest sins in the Tanach, child sacrifice, could also be Abraham’s “supreme achievement”. He proposed, instead, that the Akeda was a polemic against the pagan cultural understanding that children are the property of their parents. Rabbi Sacks argued that the Akedah is a test for Abraham to recognise that all children belong to G-d. Parents are merely guardians. He pointed out that G-d granted Abraham and Sarah a child only after it was naturally impossible for Sarah to conceive, thus the child only existed because of G-d. Rabbi Sacks further suggested that “G-d creates legal space between parent and child, because only when that space exists do children have the room to grow as independent individuals…The Torah ultimately seeks to abolish all relationships of dominance and submission.
That is why it dislikes slavery and makes it, within Israel, a temporary condition rather than a permanent fate. That is why it seeks to protect children from parents who are overbearing or worse. Abraham [he argued] is a role model for all time of what it is to be a parent…A parent is one who knows he or she does not own their child.” (https://rabbisacks.org/vayera-5771-the-binding-of-isaac-a-new-interpretation/). So, Rabbi Sacks suggested that the message of the Akedah is to be able to let go of our children and trust in G-d to allow them to grow.
And finally, Modern Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai wrote an interpretation of the Akeda:
An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
And on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy.
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
Both in their temporary failure.
Our two voices met above
The Sultan's Pool in the valley between us.
Neither of us wants the boy or the goat
To get caught in the wheels
Of the "Had Gadya" machine.
Afterward we found them among the bushes,
And our voices came back inside us
Laughing and crying.
Searching for a goat or for a child has always been
The beginning of a new religion in these mountains.
(Amichai, Y., 1977. Poems of Jerusalem and Love Poems.)
Emerging from my rabbit hole, I’ve learned that the Akedah can be understood as a foreshadowing of Jesus, Mohammad, and the future of the Jewish people. I’ve learned that, for some, human suffering can bring about love, and that love and devotion might require us to give up that which is most precious to us for the sake of something greater. I’ve learned that we can be tempted to do the wrong thing, but faith can help us stay the course. I’ve learned that faith is a double-edged sword, as faith trumps reason. Yet, struggling with our faith is healthy and necessary to help us stay on our destined path. I’ve learned that parents do not own their children; they are tested (no doubt during the toddler and adolescent years, or at any age with children in lockdown), and reminded to let go, enabling their children to grow independently.
And I’ve learned that Arabs and Jews have both sacrificed their sons and daughters, looking for hope and laughter to appear in the bushes stopping the continued sacrifice.
In short, the message we take from this story each year is based on the context in which we are in, individually and as a community. The meaning and message of the story reflects who we are, our values and beliefs, our hopes and our fears. So, this year, what’s your interpretation? When you look into the story, what do you see? What do you accept, what do you reject? What do you struggle with? Where do you find yourself within the story? How will your interpretation shape the way you enter this new year? You are the author of your own story. Test yourself and have faith. Enjoy your journey down your own path– go forth and be creative, be inspired, be authentic, and be you. Shana Tova.