The Akeida

  • Rav Chaim Navon
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Theological Issues In Sefer Bereishit

Yeshivat Har Etzion


LECTURE #24: THE AKEIDA

By Rav Chaim Navon

Akeidat Yitzchak (the binding of Yitzchak) is one of the most impressive events in Scripture and all of Jewish history. In this lecture we shall attempt a conceptual analysis of some of the fundamental ideas arising from the Akeida. The ideas connected to the Akeida are many and richly-varied; we shall, therefore, limit ourselves to some of the most basic concepts.

MAN'S STANDING BEFORE GOD

We shall first examine the human aspect of the story. What were Avraham's feelings? What did God want Avraham to feel? What is the Akeida's message regarding our own service of God?

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, among others, greatly emphasized the idea that the Akeida evoked the ultimate feeling of sacrifice and suffering that accompanies the religious experience:

I recoil from all talk that goes round and round a single topic: that the observance of mitzvot is beneficial for digestion, for sound sleep, for family harmony, and for social position.

The religious act is fundamentally an experience of suffering. When man meets God, God demands self-sacrifice, which expresses itself in struggle with his primitive passions, in breaking his will, in accepting a transcendental "burden," in giving up exaggerated carnal desire, in occasional withdrawal from the sweet and pleasant, in dedication to the strangely bitter, in clash with secular rule, and in his yearning for a paradoxical world that is incomprehensible to others. Offer your sacrifice! This is the fundamental command given to the man of religion. The chosen of the nation, from the moment that they revealed God, occupied themselves in a continual act of sacrifice.

God says to Avraham: "Take now your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, etc." That is to say, I demand of you the greatest sacrifice. I want your son who is your only son, and also the one whom you love. Do not fool yourself to think that after you obey Me and bring your son up for a burnt-offering, I will give you another son in place of Yitzchak. When Yitzchak will be slaughtered on the altar – you will remain alone and childless. You will not have another child. You will live your life in incomparable solitude. I want your only son who is irreplaceable. Neither should you think that you will succeed to forget Yitzchak and remove him from your mind. All your life you will think about him. I am interested in your son whom you love and whom you will love forever. You will spend your nights awake, picking at your emotional wounds. Out of your sleep you will call for Yitzchak, and when you wake up you will find your tent desolate and forsaken. Your life will turn into a long chain of emotional suffering. And nevertheless, I demand this sacrifice.

Clearly the experience, which was rooted in dread and suffering, ended in ceaseless joy. When Avraham removed his son from the altar at the angel's command, his suffering turned into everlasting gladness, his dread into perpetual happiness. The religious act begins with the sacrifice of one's self, and ends with the finding of that self. But man cannot find himself without sacrificing himself prior to the finding. (Rabbi Soloveitchik, Divrei Hashkafa, pp. 254-255)

While Rabbi Soloveitchik emphasizes the joy that awaits a person at the end of his spiritual journey, he insists that we not blur the beginning of that trek, which constitutes the primary message: the sacrifice that is demanded of him who serves God. According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, Avraham, in essence, already offered his sacrifice when he bound his son and was ready to slaughter him. This may be the reason that we too refer to this event as the "Akeida": the very binding of Yitzchak was already a sacrifice. There are midrashim and piyyutim that develop this point, the element of sacrifice that actually transpired during the Akeida:

When Yitzchak Avinu was bound upon the altar and turned into ashes, and his ashes were cast upon Mount Moriah, the Holy One, blessed be He, immediately brought dew upon him and restored him to life. Therefore David said: "Like the dew of Chermon descending upon the mountains of Zion" (Tehilim 133:3) – like dew with which He restored Yitzchak Avinu to life. (Shibbolei ha-Leket ha-Shalem, p. 9)

So too in a piyyut written by Rabbi Efrayim of Bonn:

...He quickly put his knees upon him, and like a warrior he strengthened his arms. With steady hands he slaughtered him in their midst, slaughtering him and making him ready. Resuscitating dew fell upon him and he was restored to life. He grabbed him for slaughter a second time. Scripture attests [to this], and the matter has a basis: "And the angel of the Lord called to Avraham out of heaven the second time" (Bereishit 22:11). (A piyyut of R. Efraim of Bonn, Jubilee Volume in Honor of Alexander Marx, p. 543).

According to this piyyut, Yitzchak Avinu was indeed slaughtered and killed, and afterwards he was restored to life. From Avraham's perspective, his sacrifice was complete. It seems that the piyyut's author wishes to emphasize Avraham's sacrifice, rather than to change the plain meaning of the verses. From Avraham's perspective, he was indeed ready to slaughter Yitzchak, and this was his sacrifice.

This understanding is also found in a more famous midrash:

"And Avraham came to bewail Sara, and to weep for her" (Bereishit 23:2). From where did he come? Rabbi Levi said: He came to Sara from the burial of Terach. Rabbi Yose said to him: Surely Terach's burial took place two years prior to that of Sara! From where then did he come? From Mount Moriah, for Sara died from that distress. This is why the [narrative beginning] "And the life of Sara was" follows immediately upon that of the Akeida. (Bereishit Rabba 58, 5)

And in the words of Rashi:

The narrative of the death of Sara follows immediately on that of Akeidat Yitzchak, because through the announcing of the Akeida – that her son had been made ready for sacrifice and had almost been sacrificed – her soul flew from her and she died. (Rashi, Bereishit 23:2)

What is the message of this midrash? It seems that the midrash wishes to emphasize the element of sacrifice in the Akeida account. There is a fundamental difficulty in understanding the Akeida: we know how the story ended. But Avraham did not know that it would have a happy ending. From his perspective, the incident involved a real sacrifice. Avraham was truly prepared to sacrifice his son. In order for us to share in this experience, Chazal emphasize that the story did not have an entirely happy ending: Sara died. The Akeida did indeed involve a sacrifice. A religious person is expected to sacrifice.

Across the generations, many have asked what is unique about the Akeida story: surely, many pagans sacrificed their children to their gods; and on the contrary, the Torah condemns those who sacrifice their children to their deities! One of the first to make this point was Philo of Alexandria:

But quarrelsome critics who misconstrue everything and have a way of valuing censure above praise do not think Avraham's action great or wonderful, as we suppose it to be. They say that many other persons, full of love for their kinsfolk and offspring, have given their children, some to be sacrificed for their country to serve as a price to redeem it from wars or drought or excessive rainfall or pestilence, others for the sake of what was held to be piety, though it is not really so...

To their malignity and bitterness I reply as follows: Some of those who sacrifice their children follow custom in so doing, as was the case according to the critics with some of the barbarians. Others have important and painful reasons for their action because their cities and countries cannot but fail otherwise. These give their children partly under compulsion and the pressure of higher powers, partly through desire for glory and honor, to win fame at the time and a good name for the future...

We must therefore examine whether Abraham, when he intended to sacrifice his son, was mastered by any of these motives, custom or love of honor or fear. Now in Babylonia and Mesopotamia and with the nations of the Chaldeans with whom he was brought up and lived the greater part of his life, the custom of child slaughter does not obtain, so as to suggest that his realization of its horrors was rendered less powerful by the regularity of such a practice. Surely, too, he had nothing to fear from man, since no one knew of the oracular message which he alone had received; nor was he under the pressure of any public misfortune which could be remedied only by the immolation of a child of special worth...

Thus, everyone who is not malignant or a lover of evil must be overwhelmed with admiration for his extraordinary piety... (Philo, "On Abraham," Philo VI, pp. 89-99)

Philo makes several important points. His most important observation is that Avraham does not appear to have attempted to derive any benefit from killing Yitzchak. When Mesha, King of Moav, sacrifices his son, he wishes to achieve thereby victory in war. Avraham, on the other hand, seeks no benefit; he wishes only to obey the will of his Creator.

Kierkegaard had a similar understanding:

With Abraham the situation was different. By his act he overstepped the ethical entirely and possessed a higher telos outside of it, in relation to which he suspended the former... It was not for the sake of saving a people, not to maintain the idea of the state, that Abraham did this, and not in order to reconcile angry deities. (Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, [Problem I])[1]

In Jewish and general history, we know of many similar cases. Avraham may perhaps have been the first to do so, but after him many others sacrificed themselves and their children, giving up their lives for the sake of their religious belief. Already during the second Temple period, the Sages raised this question: Was Avraham unique only in his originality? How is he different from all those who suffered a martyr's death throughout the generations? These are the words that Chazal put into the mouth of a woman who sacrificed her seven sons so that they not bow down before an idol during the days of Antiochus:

His mother said to him: "My son, Let not your heart faint, and be not afraid. You are going to your brothers, and you shall be placed in the bosom of Avraham Avinu. And say to him in my name: 'You built a single altar, and did not sacrifice your son. But I have built seven altars, and I have sacrificed my sons upon them. Moreover, in your case it was a test, while in my case it was real. (Eicha Rabba (Buber), 1)

What then is the true difference between Avraham and all the others who sacrificed their children for the sake of the sanctification of God's name? In order to stand the uniqueness of Avraham, it should be noted that Avraham offers up not only his love for his son, but also his entire faith system, his values, and his understanding of the world. Until now, he was an honorable man, both in his own eyes and in the eyes of others; from now on, he will be a murderer. Until now he believed that God was abundant in love; this belief was now shattered into pieces. Until now he believed in God's promise "For in Yitzchak shall your seed be called" (Bereishit 21:12); this too he was ready to forego. Those who died a martyr's death in later generations understood what they were dying for. Their death had meaning. Avraham was even ready to give up on meaning.

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner wrote in a similar vein:

Avraham had to give up on everything that he felt and understood as a human being – as a most superior human being; he had to erase all his thoughts and ideas, all the feeling of goodness in him, in order to fulfill God's command. This teaches us in a most drastic manner that we do not fulfill God's commandments because it is good for us to do so, or because we understand them, or because we experience pleasantness in their performance, but rather because they are God's commandments. (Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, Tal Chermon, pp. 49-50)

It is important, however, to remember the end of the Akeida story: in the end, as Rabbi Soloveitchik emphasizes, Yitzchak is not sacrificed, and Avraham enjoys everlasting joy. God does not demand of man to give up on his entire world. But we learn from the Akeida story that God demands of man that he be ready to give up on his entire world. The Akeida account establishes man's priorities for once and forever: serving God is above all else, above all values, above all feelings. And the service of God means doing what God says, even in the absence of identification and understanding.

According to the thinkers thus far mentioned, the message of the Akeida emphasizes the worship of God through fear and acceptance of His yoke. This is also what follows from the plain sense of Scripture, which, following the Akeida, designates Avraham as "one who fears God." Those thinkers who advocate other approaches can argue, of course, that the Akeida gives expression to only one element of religious experience. Indeed, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, whose approach to serving God emphasizes loving God and identifying with Him, refused to accept this interpretation, even partially, and even with respect to the act of the Akeida itself:

"And Avraham rose up early in the morning" (Bereishit 22:3). The peace of mind of the holy soul, of the holy father, the mighty native, did not cease. His sleep was not gone from him, because of the clear knowledge, which came to him through the word of God, and no feeling of darkness, negligence, or depression became intermixed in the longings of his purified heart. He passed the night in the restful and gaily holy sleep of the upright, and the time of rising arrived as usual. And the strength of God which turns his legs into hinds, to run as a stag and be mighty as a lion, to do the will of God, blessed be He, supported him, for he rose early in the morning...

This holy old man went off to this amazing task, the opposite of all the natural ways of the human soul, neither stooped nor with failed strength, but rather fully erect and girded in might. His entire journey was powered by the fullness of supremely elevated love. (Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Olat Ra'aya I, pp. 86-87)

How different are Rabbi Kook's words from those of Rabbi Soloveitchik! In contrast to the sleeplessness described by Rabbi Soloveitchik, Rabbi Kook speaks of "the restful and gaily holy sleep of the upright." As opposed to the sacrifice emphasized by Rabbi Soloveitchik, Rabbi Kook speaks of "supremely elevated love."

As we stated earlier, one may adopt Rabbi Kook's theological approach without forcing this idea onto the Akeida. It would suffice to argue that whereas Avraham's initial feeling may have been one of sacrifice, what is most important from our perspective is what happened at the end: Yitzchak's ultimate rescue, which is the dominant element that has become impressed in the hearts of believers. It would appear that Rabbi Kook wished to go a step further, emphasizing the love that was in Avraham's heart the entire length of the Akeida saga.

RELIGION AND MORALITY

Over and beyond the subjective emotional issue, which has thus far occupied us, the Akeida story raises another question: What is the relationship between religion and morality, between the religious command and morality? Indeed, the Akeida story ended on a happy note, leaving no contradiction or tension between religion and morality. Chazal emphasized this point:

"Which I did not command them" (Yirmiya 7:31) – regarding Yiftach; "I did not speak" (ibid., v. 22) – regarding Mesha king of Moav; "Nor did it come into my heart" (ibid., v. 31) – that Avraham should sacrifice his son on the altar. (Sifrei, Devarim, piska 148)

However, the piercing practical question remains: What should a person do when, in his eyes, religion and morality appear to clash? What should he choose? We see that Avraham, when it appeared to him that such a clash exists, chose God's command, and rejected the demands of morality![2]

There are those who have argued that no such clash ever existed:

[God] spoke to [Avraham] in language bearing two meanings: one that would be understood by the masses, and another that would be understood by [select] individuals. When [God] said to him: "And offer him there for a burnt offering" (Bereishit 22:2), its meaning to the masses is what would appear to be the plain sense of Scripture, namely, "And offer him as a sacrifice"... But its meaning to [select] individuals is: "And raise him up on one of the mountains in place of a burnt offering".... Avraham, may he rest in peace, did not understand this esoteric meaning, but rather he understood [God's command] according to its manifest meaning. (Rabbi Yona Ibn Janach, Sefer ha-Rikma, pp. 58-59).[3]

Rabbi Yona Ibn Janach argues that God never told Avraham to slaughter Yitzchak, but only to bring him to the mountain. It is not clear from what Rabbi Yona says whether he understands that God intended for Avraham to misunderstand him, or that he would have preferred that Avraham understand him correctly, but Avraham erred in understanding the commandment as it would be understood by the masses. In any event, Rabbi Yona is clearly trying to reduce the tension between God's command and morality.[4]

Some understand just the opposite, that there was no clash because there is nothing with which to clash: "morality" has no meaning, other than "what God desires."

Now the nations of the world, even the best of them, think that truth exists independently, and that God commanded the truth because in and of itself it is true... This is in contrast with Israel, who say: You are the God of truth; He, may He be blessed, is truth, and there is no truth outside of Him. All the truth in the world is [true] only because so God commanded and willed. Since He, may He be blessed, is truth, therefore, this too is truth. One is forbidden to steal because the God of truth so commanded. Because of the command of the true God, this is true as well. But when God commands the opposite – that property declared by a court to be ownerless is ownerless – then that becomes the truth, that this person's property is ownerless. And when God commanded our father, Avraham, to bind up his son Yitzchak [as an offering], then it was the truth to bind him. Had He not said to him afterwards, "Do nothing to him," it would have been the truth to slaughter him. (Ha-Admor mi-Pistchena, Eish Kodesh, p. 68)

It is important to note that the proof from the Akeida is inconclusive. The Akeida account only proves that in a case where there appears to be a clash between the two, God's command takes priority over morality. But is this also the conclusion? The simple meaning seems to be that after Avraham was commanded not to slaughter Yitzchak, he understood that God's commands and morality are basically in harmony. That is to say: Avraham initially thought that he would indeed have to give up morality, but in the end he understood that God's commands are in consonance with morality.

A contemporary thinker has proposed a slightly different approach:

In the midrash that we have presented, Sama'el presents Avraham with the apparent contradiction between the word of God and moral values. Avraham answers: "On this condition" (al menat ken). This response can be understood in the spirit of Kierkegaard's interpretation of the Akeida story: Avraham recognizes the contradiction between the two systems, and gives priority to God's command over morality. According to our approach, we can explain that Avraham argues that he believes that his deed is indeed moral, because the word of God undoubtedly constitutes morality. Our Avraham, as opposed to Kierkegaard's knight of faith, does not sacrifice morality, but only his understanding of morality. Avraham has to reconcile himself to his inability to understand on his own what is good and what evil, but he is not forced, because of God's command, to act against what is good and moral. (Rabbi Ezra Bick, "Bein ha-Rambam le-Kierkegaard," Sefer Daf Kesher 6, p. 85)

Rabbi Bick argues that even at the outset Avraham did not think that he was about to perform an immoral act for the sake of Heaven, but rather that his act was certainly moral, though he himself was unable to understand why. Rabbi Bick's approach is the total opposite of that of the author of Eish Kodesh: Whereas the Admor of Pistchena argues that even at the end God is immoral, Rabbi Bick claims that from the very beginning it was clear to Avraham that God is moral, though he himself did not understand how this could be so.

Whatever Avraham's initial assumptions may have been, it is clear that in a case of a clash – real or imagined - between a Divine command and morality – priority must be given to the Divine command; whether because God's command is necessarily moral, or because God can command us to give up our moral standards. It also seems that in the end of the Akeida account God's command and morality are in harmony, this being the normal situation.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] We shall not discuss Kierkegaard's position at length. Kierkegaard argues that Avraham's greatness expressed itself in his faith in the absurd, in the paradox: Avraham believed at one and the same time that he would sacrifice his son, and that God's promise regarding a son would be fulfilled through Yitzchak. This is, according to Kierkegaard, Avraham's greatness and the greatness of the Akeida. Clearly operative here is the romantic Christian motif of faith in the absurd. But it is interesting to note that parallel motifs may be found in Chassidic literature. See No'am Elimelekh 9c; Mei ha-Shilo'ach, vol. 1, p. 29.

[2] In my opinion, this is the answer to the famous question why did Avraham object to God's plans regarding Sedom, but was silent regarding the Akeida. In the latter case, Avraham received a command, and his first duty was to fulfill it. In the former case, God shared certain facts with Avraham, facts that did not require immediate action on his part. Thus, the door was open for questions and objections.

[3] Support for this position may be found in Bereishit Rabba 56, 12.

[4] The words of Ibn Janach, the 11th century Spanish grammarian, may be understood against the background of the religious polemics between Jews and Moslems. The Moslems claimed that if God could retract His command that Yitzchak be brought as a sacrifice, he could also take back the Torah given to Moses and replace it with the Law given to Mohammed. Ibn Janach argues that God never retracted His command regarding the Akeida, since He never actually commanded that Yitzchak be killed (Avi Ravitzky, in Avraham Avi ha-Ma'aminim, p. 30).

(Translated by David Strauss)