A Heretic’s View of Akeidat Yitzchak by Reuven Herzog


One of the most troubling sections of the entire Torah is the story of Akeidat Yitzchak. Avraham is commanded directly by God to perform the most vulgar act in existence: human sacrifice of his own son. It is the most unthinkable action; Avraham must forsake his paternal instinct, an instinct far more powerful than fear, more powerful than anger, and more powerful than even love, and sacrifice his son to a Being that he never even sees. The ultimate question in this story is, why?

It has bothered me for years, not only that Avraham is commanded to commit such an act, but that he complies. Child sacrifice is all around him, in every pagan culture at the time, but Avraham is supposed to be different. He is the one to recognize a single God; he is the one to father many nations; he is the one to inherit God’s land; he is the one to personify kindness. He is the one to distinguish himself from the world around him, understanding that death is not desirable to God. He argues with God, one-on-one, to save the people of Sedom, Amorah, Admah, and Tzevoyim, the four representations of evil in the world, even if there were only ten good men among them. Avraham challenges God for destroying so many people and issues one of the most powerful cries in history (BeReishit 18:25): “HaShofeit Kol HaAretz Lo Ya’aseh Mishpat,” “Shall the Judge of the whole world not perform justice?!” Avraham understands the value of all human life, and is so concerned for his own son and his legacy that he even directly challenges God on the promise that he will inherit Eretz Kena’an when he asks, even before he has any children (15:8), “BaMah Eidah Ki Irashenah,” “Through what can I know that I will inherit it?” Yet regarding the Akeidah, when everything he has ever believed in and stood for comes crashing down before his eyes, Avraham stays silent. The man who took on God and won, who embarrassed the greatest king of Mesopotamia, at the very moment where we expect him to burst out and defend himself in front of God, says nothing.

But why does God even demand this from him? This is contrary to what God really wants, and contrary to what Avraham had been teaching in His name for the past 25-plus years. Furthermore, viewing the whole episode from the end, it is obvious that God didn’t want Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchak in the first place; He declares as such directly to Avraham! Although one could answer that it is just to make a direct point that human sacrifice is not desirable to God, there are much easier ways to get that point across to the world than to almost perform the act itself. A simple Divine message of “No” would suffice. So what is to be gained from this whole ordeal?

After some thought, I came to the conclusion that most everyone understood the story backwards. The goal of the command to Avraham was not to test if he would follow through on God’s command, but to see if he would reject it. God’s real goal, I thought, was for Avraham to question God, to beg Him to not take Yitzchak, to argue again like he did concerning Sedom. He wanted Avraham to understand, without a Divine command, that the true God is not like any other, that Abrahamic religion is not like any other culture. God wanted Avraham to distinguish himself from the nations around him. I (most likely mistakenly) took support from Rashbam’s understanding of the Akeidah’s relationship with the preceding section, of Avraham’s pact with Avimelech, the king of Gerar. He understands that the Akeidah is somewhat of a punishment for Avraham making this deal. I extrapolated from this that the Akeidah was God’s way of saying to Avraham, “Are you really going to establish yourself just like everyone else here? Isn’t your entire mission to distinguish My religion from others?”, hoping that Avraham would respond asserting that difference.  And Avraham plainly fails.

This made sense to me based on the events prior to the Akeidah, the Berit with Avimelech, and the fact that, following this episode, Avraham’s character diminishes from the scene as the Torah transitions to Yitzchak’s life, beginning with his search for a wife. Even before this actually happens, the Torah hints to the episode of Yitzchak’s marriage right after the Akeidah, as Avraham is told that Rivkah was born. Furthermore, we never see another conversation between Avraham and God. It therefore all made perfect sense to me: Avraham blew the last test, went along with God’s “command” when he should have better understood God, and God moves on from him, ready to try with the next generation.

The only problem with this theory is that it completely disregards our Mesorah and all of Chazal’s teachings on the subject. Pirkei Avot states (5:3) that Avraham was tested with ten tests, and he withstood all of them. Every single commentator includes the Akeidah on that list. Chazal all interpret Avraham’s performance at the Akeidah in a positive light. Much of our Rosh HaShanah prayers revolve around the concept that we should be judged favorably not because of our own merits, but because of the tremendous merit of Avraham at the Akeidah! God even blesses Avraham after the Akeidah!! None of the greatest Jewish scholars of history have put forward the idea that Avraham completely failed the Akeidah, so who am I to completely reverse the script?

I think, however, that there may be more to the Akeidah that solves the problems raised earlier. It is not that Avraham failed the test of the Akeidah, but in reality, there were two tests to pass. In order to fully “pass” the Akeidah, he had to understand the messages of both and react accordingly. How so? It is actually quite simple to separate the Akeidah into two halves. God gives two commands to Avraham: kill your son, do not kill your son. The first is unthinkable; the second, directly contradictory to the first. How could Avraham fulfill either command, and all the more so, both?

There is a hint later in the section that reveals what the true nature of the Akeidah is. The angel appears to Avraham for a second time and prefaces his Berachah with its reason: “Ki Ya’an Asher Asita Et HaDavar HaZeh VeLo Chasachta Et Bincha Et Yechidecha,” “Because you did this act, and did not withhold your only son from me” (BeReishit 22:16). One would assume that the two clauses are redundant, that “the act” that Avraham did was not withholding Yitzchak from Hashem. But that isn’t how the Pasuk is written; the Pasuk could have been written in many ways to imply that logic, but not with a Vav HaChibur. The logical connector “and” implies that the two clauses are independent thoughts. The only logical conclusion from this is that Avraham performed two separate actions. One obviously was not keeping his son from Hashem, mentioned in the second half of the Pasuk; what, then, is the ambiguous “act” mentioned in the first half of the Pasuk?

There is one other act that Avraham does in this Perek: He offers a ram to God, in place of his son. The “act” that the Mal’ach refers to is that Avraham does not kill his son.

What is so critical about this last act? It is this act, refraining from human sacrifice, which shows that Avraham truly understands God. The first command is given by “Elokim” – the name of God signifying justice. That name is also the name used in God’s relationship with other nations, and the general name for any god at all. What Avraham understood was that when God gives you a command, you obey. You can argue all you want to about other declarations or predications, but when you receive a direct command, you have only one choice: follow it. And so, Avraham reluctantly follows the command, never so much speaking a word throughout the entire journey, except to reassure his son.

However, this is the basic rule of any religion; there is nothing unique about Avraham or God in this respect. It is the second command that really distinguishes Avraham from others around him. Ultimately, he does not sacrifice his son. Never mind that the command came only from an angel, whereas the directive to slaughter emanated from God Himself. At the first chance to avoid filicide, Avraham jumps. It doesn’t matter to him that child sacrifice is all around him, and that he should be thrilled to do it, because Avraham is different. He is the only one in his generation to receive the word of “Hashem” – the God of mercy, the God of the Jews.

This is the Mal’ach’s point when he tells Avraham to stop the slaughter. He says (22:12), “Ki Atah Yadati Ki Yerei Elokim Atah,” “For now I know that you are a God-fearer.” Is this so unclear that Avraham needed the Akeidah to show that he fears God? Not at all. What the Malach is truly saying is, “Now I know that you respect the sovereignty of ‘Elokim’ over the world, just like everyone else. But are you different than them; do you respect ‘Hashem’?” And Avraham stops.

The true greatness of Avraham is that he is able to simultaneously understand two aspects of God – His dominance over the universe, and His mercy over its inhabitants. Avraham is not the first monotheist, but he is the first person to understand monotheism – in its dual nature.

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