May you all have a happy and joyous New Year
and may your inscription be for a Wonder-filled year.
The text basis is the Akedah, Gen 22. At the surface, this is a
story about God testing Avraham about whether or not he is
willing to sacrifice his son, his only son, Yitzkhak, whom he
loves. So Avraham rises up early and sets out to do this task (without telling Sarah) and builds the altar and is just about to sacrifice Yitzkhak and in the last minute an angel stays his hand by crying out to him and he stops, being absolutely willing to have done the task. And then he is blessed by the angel (twice) and goes on to Be'er Shava and hears that his brother has had some kids, one of whom will be the father of Rivka, Yitzkhak's future wife.
This is a difficult piece of text, no? From many views, I think. Obviously to us today it is difficult to imagine a parent tying up his/her child and slaughtering that young life on the altar to anything. Or is it?
My starting point:
I come to this text with several vantage points that play strongly into how I understand it. Since every writer had a bias, I feel it is only fair to state mine as clearly and plainly as I can. First, I believe that nothing in Torah is there for fluff and that what it states is as accurate as its language can be. Exactly how it came to have the current form is not the issue here (we can have a separate discussion on that if it is of interest). Another of my personal criteria is that unless it is overwhelmingly necessary to add into a text, I see no reason to do so. And so, I tend to wrestle with the text itself and not with some of the better known midrashim associated with the text. If I do not mention them it is not that I am unaware of them, it is rather that I chose not to include them. Instead, I will drash (search) out my own understanding of the text.
And so this is a test -- the Hebrew clearly says that and most agree with the statement. And from that point the many people who have wrestled with this text start to diverge wildly. We are told that it is a test, and not what the test is. We are told what happened, and not what the criteria for passing were. Many even argue whether or not Avraham passed the test. So let's take a deep look at it.
This piece of text is among the most beautifully and simply written sections of Torah. The Hebrew is perhaps one of the best pieces for students to tackle early on because the words are pretty straight forward, even if the concepts go much deeper. It is, from a literary point of view "Classic Torah". It is emotional, dramatic and clearly intended to be recited to generations forever. And, like most such texts, much more involved than the surface account might imply.
The time of the account -- when clans like Avraham's wandered the desert like Bedouins still do today (he might have looked very much like one of them). They would set up their vastly extended families outside of towns along trade paths and flourish (or not flourish) there -- trading both with the town folk (sheep, etc for finished goods, etc) and the same with traders that traveled along the routes. (It is probably from one such group that Avraham gets the update on his brother's family.)
Child sacrifice was, from historical, archeological and textual indications, the norm. People were very concerned with fertility and the fertility concept of "first fruits" was not a new concept to Avraham or Moshe. I would not be surprised that if you did NOT want to sacrifice your first-born, they had to be "bought" from the gods of the town, kingdom, or someone. Torah carries the injunction in several places that we are not to be like those around us that cause their children to "pass through the fire" (sounds like child sacrifice - or even children blowing themselves up or being placed in the line of fire...).
So when Elohim tells Avraham to sacrifice Yitzkhak, that might not have been very surprising. One could even draw a parallel between the two Rosh Hashanah texts (the first where Hagar and Ishmael are sent into the wilderness and the second the binding of Yitzkhak) and the two goats we read about in the Parsha for Yom Kippur (where one is sacrificed and the other is driven out into the wilderness).
So, even though through years it has been a popular understanding of the test to think that it was whether or not Avraham would sacrifice Yitzkhak to the God he could not see, I do not believe that would have been much of a test. Painful, perhaps, but hardly outside the realm of what parents around him were doing -- and he does appear to want to be fruitful and multiply, so a "first fruit offering" might be "expected" -- even though that would be considered unthinkable in today's world.
If the sacrificing of Yitzkhak is not the test, what is the test? The test is that which happens right before the "score" is announced -- namely that Avraham was able to see the Mal'ach, the messenger. Avraham arose early the next morning and personally prepared the donkey with provisions for a week and chopped and gathered the wood and collected his son and two servants and the bucket of fire (embers) and travelled for three days and climbed the mountain and built the altar and tied up his son and put him on the altar and raised his hand and stopped.
The Mal'ach calls out, "Avraham. Avraham!" and Avraham answers "I'm here". The messenger continues, "Do not send out your hand, and do not make a waste (a nothing) of the boy. [Pause] For now I know that you see (perceive, comprehend) Elohim and you did not withhold your son, you only one, from me."
I think the pause is important in our understanding. When Hannah gives her son to the One, she has him give his life-effort, his service to the One as opposed to her. This is one of the Haftarot (prophetic readings) for these days -- the rabbis are trying to point out that giving a life to the One is to Live for the One, not to die as an empty sacrifice, a me'uma, a waste.
And because Avraham, intent and well into the inertia of the events, and fully believing he is "Doing God's work", can still see the Mal'ach, the messenger in front of him (even if the Mal'ach shouts to make sure...), that is the test.
Unfortunately, sons, even whole families, are sometimes sacrificed when the authority figure cannot back down, cannot stop the inertia of events -- "it was too late". For Avraham, even at the moment of poising his hand with the slaughtering knife above his son, it was not too late -- he could "see" Ehlohim and stop and not waste his son through his "stuff". Indeed, if Avraham had killed Yitzkhak that day, he would have withheld him from the One. And so he passes the test, he "sees", he understands the real essence, the meaning of living for the One.
And Avraham names that place "YHVH is seen", a name it carries today, if only we choose to "see".
Can we stop in time to not waste lives? Will we see the Mal'ach? Avraham was not looking for the Mal'ach, but he was able to hear and to "see".
On Yom Kippur, we read that even Aharon, the Coheyn Gadol (High Priest), is not to come into the holiest place, where God's Presence Is, just any old time, or he will "die". This is also a protection so that we can "see" the Presence of the One -- a person can only "see" when he or she is fully present, not just any old time. And the requirement and ability to be fully present is what has created our tradition and people -- and it is what can sustain our leaders, lest they become "deadened" or "die".
Can we open our hearts and our very Self and "see" what is around us? Can we not waste the precious gift of life, both in ourselves and in others? Can we offer up our service without hurting anyone else and empower others to do the same? If so, we will find the mountain "where YHVH is seen".
May 5763 see all of us moving forward with a little more love, a little more peace, a little more wonder -- and may we see the Mal'ach whenever we need to find that part of the Presence. (G'mar chatima tova!)
(c) 2002, 5763 Candy Lobb All rights reserved