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Torah Portion Archive

Torah Portion of the Week

Rabbi Andrew Bossov
Temple Emanu-El, Sarasota, FL

Why, asked a young student, must we hear about Akedat Yitzchak / The Binding Of Isaac each and every year on Rosh HaShanah? The Torah contains so many wonderful and inspiring stories, yet we frightfully remind ourselves of how close the Jewish people came to annihilation at the hand of one of our own! As descendants of both Abraham and Isaac, we are bound to have mixed responses to this formative episode, and the charged discussion it evokes will continue spurring generation after generation of Jews toward clarifying and defining their covenantal relationship with the Almighty. As we read this classic story again as part of the weekly Torah reading cycle, we wonder why G-d chose to test Abrahams faith and loyalty by asking that he go to Mount Moriah to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, and we try to understand our love-hate relationship with this story which is at once compelling because of Abrahams example of blind faith and yet equally revolting for his apparent lack of humanity and compassion.

Prompting an emotional response from the reader/listener is the relative level of detachment from the action of the story exhibited by each of the characters involved. This being the case, one can hardly help but feel a sense of discomfort in identifying with any of the characters (namely, Abraham, Isaac, the two servants, the angel, the ram, and the offstage Sarah) recognizing that each of them is caught up in a series of events unfolding beyond their control. G-d, in this case, is the divine puppeteer, pulling strings from above, directing all the action. Each of the players is bound to fulfill their role. Submissiveness even when based on faith is not always an easy pill for us moderns to swallow, having been conditioned to speak out against all forms of coercion.

Abraham, in this scenario, is portrayed as a silent partner to G-d as opposed to his outspokenness pertaining to the righteous citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, for example. Abrahams feelings are not shared with us through any soliloquy or dialogue, such as might be expected in a work by Shakespeare or some other dramatist. He is obedient, but we have no clue as to his internal thought process: Does he care about how Isaac feels? Does he wonder how this may affect his familys dynamics? From a son or daughters perspective, how can we relate to this imposing father figure who pleads the case of strangers and yet seems perfectly willing to sacrifice his own offspring? And as a parent, how uncomfortable we become when we recognize that we, too, like Abraham, sometimes go too far in pushing our children toward fulfilling dreams other than their own losing sight of reality, unable to take the proverbial step backward in order to evaluate our actions in terms of their impact on those most precious to us.

And what of our personal inability to guide our life in the direction we wish it to take, just as Isaac whatever his age may be in this parashah participates in this drama with no apparent motivation other than to do as hes told and not worry about any details? So many people despair when they come to feel that their lives are beyond their control or that they are powerless to overcome certain challenges or disabilities. Perhaps as Isaac comes to realize what is happening, he becomes numb and passive because he feels sorry for himself. After being replaced on the altar by the ram, he doesnt speak in the text again until after his mother and father have both died!

The two servants brought along by Abraham remain nameless and extraneous. G-d speaks indirectly to Abraham during the Akedah through an angel, and the ram appears to be an innocent bystander who gets cast into an eternally significant role within Jewish tradition, exalted for its unwitting sacrifice in place of Isaac. Again, its as if none of the participating characters really want to be involved with whats going on and yet, they are caught up in one of the most pivotal moments in Jewish covenant history. Ironically, of course, the one character who would probably have had the most to say about what was going on Sarah is completely absented from the story. She is consulted neither by G-d (as she had been concerning Isaacs birth) nor by Abraham, she is not allowed a last word with her son before he goes off with his father, nor are we witness to her response upon Abrahams return from Mount Moriah except to have her death reported immediately thereafter in the next parashah, Chayei Sarah.

As we go through life and encounter situations where the circumstances appear to be beyond our control, may we have the presence of mind and the concern for the future to try to slow down the proceedings so that we might analyze our actions and their implications thoroughly before we commit an act which may irreparably impact on our families or communities. Perhaps the real test of the Akedah was whether or not Abraham could do this. The theme, however, would be whether or not we are allowed the free will to make such decisions. The fact that we can never know this for sure is what adds mystery and awe to our lives as we devotedly struggle to maintain the brit.

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