Let’s look at the Akedah—The Binding of Isaac
Let’s look at the Akedah—The Binding of Isaac, perhaps the most problematic reading in the Torah yet it is the one that we use every Rosh Hashanah. There are reasons for this and I suppose the most obvious is that it shows one man’s devotion to and trust in his and our God. That however is just not enough for me and there are as many commentaries on this portion as there are grains of sand on the beach. Let’s look at a couple of them and something different and new. We do know that infanticide was practiced at the time by other nations outside of the people who came to be known as the children of Israel. Many believe that the main idea here is for us to not only not be like everyone else but to be a model people. That’s an easy way out. Then there is the question of Isaac. Most of us will remember from our early Jewish education that in those picture Bible story books, Isaac was depicted as a blonde haired babe and then we learn later on that in actuality he was an adult of either 32 or 36 and that changes the story for me a great deal. It is one thing for a father to tell a child that he has had a vision and must do something and to say the same to a grown man. Is it any wonder that when the story ends Abraham walks down one side of the Mount Moriah and goes to Be’ersheva and Isaac walks down the other side and the two never spoke to each other again and in fact, the next time that Isaac saw his father was at Abraham’s funeral at Hebron. To me this is certainly more of the kind of modern stories that we see in which father and son have unresolved disagreements.
Yoram Hazony in his “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture”, a new look at our Bible gives us yet something more to think about. He is convinced that Abraham ascended Mount Moriah so secure in his knowledge of natural law that God had no such thing as to his killing his son in mind. He writes: “Abraham at every point keeps firmly in view what is to him a fact—that whatever God may have said to him, he will not require him to murder his son. God himself will provide a ram for the sacrifice … at no point does Abraham intend to murder his son.” That is the least convincing assertion in a book full of challenges to the plain sense of the text. If Abraham knew God would provide a ram, and God knew that Abraham knew all along, moreover, why stage the whole grisly pantomime in the first place? Torah itself tells us that this is Abraham’s test and once we read that we should know in advance that everything will turn out fine even if it means that father and son will never exchange another word.
An angel calls out to Abraham as he stretches his arm over Isaac, knife in hand. If God knew that Abraham would not strike, why did the angel bother? Although God is omniscient, angels “are not competent to know the intentions of human beings.”
In the traditional view, God’s love for Abraham is as inexplicable as his love for David who seemed to do nothing right. It is the love that establishes a covenant between the human and the divine. From this covenant we derive, directly or indirectly, the foundational concepts of Western civilization: the sanctity of human life, the dignity of the human person, the inviolability of individual rights. This sense of the divine elevated its view above that of any society that hitherto existed. If we accept the traditional view of the Akedah rather than Hazony’s novel but in my view unconvincing gloss, then the whole notion of natural law in the Bible crashes and burns, just as Kierkegaard insisted in his study of the binding of Isaac in his “Fear and Loathing”.
“Hebrew Scripture, in Hazony’s view, makes no claim that divine guidance is needed for good behavior. “The different roads that are open to us are there to be compared. If we can look at them and discern ‘which is the good way’ almost empirically, without need for God’s instructions, it is because the evidence is there to be discovered by those who look.” We know that worshipping idols is wrong because they are just blocks of wood, that we should not commit adultery “because we know from experience that a man will have his vengeance,” and so forth”.
Let me close this with one more look at the story of Abraham and Isaac and this comes to us from a modern troubadour, Leonard Cohen. Cohen wrote “The Story of Isaac” as a paean against war and bloodshed and in which the story is told by Isaac as to what he experienced that day. The first time I heard it, I thought it was the most moving rendition of a Bible story set to music I had ever heard and when I lived in Israel, the song had been translated into Hebrew by noted Hebrew poet Ya’akov Shabatai and not only was his version a translation but he corrected several of the Biblical mistakes Cohen made in his original. I offer you my translation from the Hebrew and ask you to think about it.
“The Story of Isaac”
The gate openly slowly and in came my father,
He was very old.
He stood so tall above me; his eyes were blue and shining
And his voice was very cold.
He said he’s had a vision and I knew he was strong and holy…
He must do as he’d been told.
So we started climbing up the mountain;
His axe was made of gold.
The trees got much smaller and the lake became less blue,
We stopped to drink some wine
He threw the bottle over, it broke a minute later…
He put his hand in mine.
I thought I saw an eagle but it could have been a vulture,
I could not decide.
My father built an altar, and looked once behind his shoulder…
I knew I could not hide.
You who build your altars to sacrifice your children
You must not do so anymore,
A scheme is not a vision and you never have been tempted
By a demon or a god.
You who stand above them with your axes blunt and bloody
You were not there when I lay upon the altar and
My father’s hand was trembling with the beauty of our God.
And if you call me now your brother, forgive me if I inquire
“Just according to whose plan”?
When it all comes down to dust, I will help you if I must,
I will kill you if I can.
Mercy without uniform—man of peace or man of war
The Peacock spreads its fan.