Vayehi achar had’varim ha’eileh veha’elokim nisa et Avraham vayomer eilav: Avraham!
Vayomer: kach-nah et bin’cha, et yechid’cha asher ahavta et Yitzchak…
And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham and said to him: “Abraham!”
and he said: “Here I am,”
and God said: “Take now your son, your only son, who you love, Isaac…”
What a parashah I have landed on for my Bat Mitzvah! Not only does Vayera tell the story of the of the Akeida (the binding of Isaac) - but we also have the fascinating story of S’dom & Amorrah (Sodom & Gomorrah). And at the very beginning of the parasha, we meet Avraham’s three visitors who are, in fact, three malachim or angels coming to break the news to him and Sara that they are going to have a child.
But above all, the topic which made me think was the Akeida – it’s been something which has bothered me for as long as I’ve known about it.
“Take now your son, your only son, who you love, Isaac…”
When I first read this sentence I was completely astounded and genuinely frightened.
God is telling Avraham to sacrifice his son. To kill him!
Why would God ask Avraham to do such a dreadful deed?
And how could Avraham agree?
One traditional answer, is quite simply, because God told him to and his faith in, and love of God was so strong, that he knew it was the right thing to do.
Another explanation is that in those days, many cultures practised child sacrifice to please their gods. So when God told Avraham to sacrifice his son, he wouldn’t have thought it particularly strange. However, when God told Avraham to stop and NOT harm his son, God was demonstrating that he didn’t want, what would become the Jewish religion, to permit child sacrifice - something very new in the ancient world.
I’m afraid, this still doesn’t make me feel any better. Avraham has waited his whole life - 100 years - to have this child. So why would he give Yitzchak up so easily, without even questioning God? It just doesn’t make sense to me!
I need something different, something more, a better explanation of this terrible conundrum.
But first, let’s take a look at the facts…
We know that Avraham did challenge God. In fact, he argued with him, as we saw earlier in the sedra in the story of S’tom and Amorrah. God had decided to wipe out these two cities where most of the people were wicked. Avraham tried to bargain God down from finding fifty to finding ten good people, in order to save the cities. But despite his powerful arguments, they were destroyed.
So how could Avraham have his heart so set on saving the people in these two terrible places and yet silently agree to sacrifice his son?
Maybe he felt guilty about having challenged God in the first place?
Possibly, but we can’t get inside Avraham’s brilliant head, so we’ll never know.
We do have some other explanations, particularly in Midrash. The Midrash is a medieval collection of stories written by our sages; it’s there to fill in the bits of the Torah that are just bare facts and need to be pulled together and explained - almost like putting cement between bricks - so we can better understand the story.
Many Midrashim introduce us to a devious character called, “Satan”. The name “Satan” comes from the Hebrew word “Liston” which means “to accuse”. This means Satan’s task is to be a prosecutor, to challenge and to provoke. In other words, to prove God wrong. If we add a mischievous Satan into the Akeida story, we might just have another explanation.
In the Midrash, Satan acts as a reminder. He is supposed to make us think before we speak and realise why some things are NOT the right things to say or do. As you will see in the story, sometimes, according to the Midrash, even God makes rash statements!
The Midrashic Satan back-story to The Akeida starts like this:
Avraham has thrown a feast to celebrate Yitzchak’s Brit Millah, his circumcision. God is watching along with Satan. Satan likes to bet, to dare and to win.
Satan goads God: “Look what Avraham has just done for his son, he made a great feast for everyone, and did not even offer you a SINGLE sacrifice!”
God Responds: “How DARE you say a thing like that. Avraham WOULD SACRIFICE HIS OWN SON if I asked him to!” (pause)
“Want to bet?” says Satan.
Now we move to another Midrash set a few years later, where Yiztchak and his older half brother Ishmael, are bickering.
“I was thirteen when I had MY Brit Millah and could have protested, but I didn’t! (na, na, nana, na!) You where just a baby and therefore could not protest! I was so much braver than you!”
“Don’t say that!” Yitzchak retorts
“If God asked me to SACRIFICE MYSELF, I would do so WILLINGLY!“ (pause)
Satan is feeling gleeful now.
Of course, God does ask Avraham to sacrifice his son - as his final test - and if we accept THIS Midrash, it’s a test for Yitzchak as well.
The two of them set out on their journey. Satan is getting slightly anxious. He needs to stop them doing God’s will.
First, the Midrash suggests that Satan tries to tell Avraham that the reason he is doing this in the first place, is because of a bet with God. But Avraham is so set on obeying God’s instruction, he ignores Satan completely.
When that doesn’t work Satan tries to persuade Yitzchak to turn back. “Your dad’s crazy. He’s going to kill you,” Satan says but Yitzchak ignores him.
Then Satan tries to appeal to the child in Yitzchak by saying: “if you die, Ishmael will get all your toys and clothes. Eventually, Satan gets so frustrated and frantic, that he has to shape-shift into a stream so that Avraham and Yitzchak won’t be able to cross and get to the mountain.
At this point, however, Avraham prays. As God is infinitely more powerful than Satan and Avraham’s prayers are so strong, the stream disappears.
Satan is LIVID.
When they finally get to the altar, Satan makes a feeble attempt to knock the knife out of Avraham’s hand. Finally God intervenes:
Vayomer: “Avraham, Avraham”
Vayomer: “Al tishlach yad’cha el hana’ar, ve’al ta’as lo me’uma”
And God said: “Avraham! Avraham!
He said: “here I am”
And God said: “Do not harm the boy! Do not do anything to him.”
Satan must surrender; for now… And the test is over. Avraham, of course, has passed with flying colours, as God always knew he would.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, tells us that the Akeida was actually the last of ten tests with which God challenged Avraham. According to the Rambam, the first of these tests was the command in last week’s sedra, “Lech Lecha”, for Avraham to leave his home and move to the land of Israel.
Of course, the need to move out of the place where you were born and raised, has been a theme throughout Jewish history and was particularly necessary in my grandparents’ and great grandparents’ time in Europe.
The Nazi persecution before and during the Second World War, in different ways, affected both sides of my family. On Dad’s side, my Grandma Ruth’s family left Germany before the war, but my Grandma Alice and Grandpa Paul both had amazing stories of survival in Europe through the War.
Both of them lost many members of their families – my family – in the Shoah and I would like to dedicate this D’var Torah to one in particular.
My grandma’s little brother Gyurika was only six years old when he was killed in Auschwitz. He never reached my age. He wasn’t able to celebrate his own bar mitzvah, or to live a full life. He was always in my Grandma Alice’s thoughts and now that she has sadly passed away earlier this year, I want to promise, on this occasion of my Bat Mitzvah, to carry his memory in my thoughts, along with my wonderful memories of her.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
However hard I find it to understand the stories in the Torah, as I mature as a Jewish woman, I shall carry on learning more about the tradition and heritage I have been given and will continue to search for the answers to the questions which I find so challenging.
Having discovered Midrashic teachings and stories which provide alternative explanations and interpretations of the Torah stories, I now have new places to look.
When it comes to The Akeida, I can’t say that I’m fully comfortable, nor that my questions have been answered to my satisfaction. However, through the Midrashic version of the story, I can see the strength in Avraham’s and Yitzchak’s determination to block out Satan’s nagging voice in the back of their heads trying to destroy their belief in God.
So maybe having faith in God is not just about obeying rules, but is about thinking before we speak, not making rash statements, and trusting God.
When we are in our everyday lives and doing what we know to be the right thing, we must resist our internal Satan telling us to give up, turn back and doubt ourselves. For those of you who know the movie Finding Nemo,
“Just keep swimming”