Sons and sacrifice

"Take your son... and bring him up as a dedication..." (Genesis 22:1)

Parasha 311 (photo credit: Israel Weiss)
Parasha 311
(photo credit: Israel Weiss)
A little more than four decades ago, when I was telling my young children the story of that week’s biblical portion, my elder daughter, Batya, tearfully interrupted my tale. “Stop lying to me, Abba, and stop telling stupid and scary stories. Hashem [God] loves everyone – that’s what you always tell us. He couldn’t have asked Abraham to do to Isaac what you said.”
Trembling, she then ran into the bedroom to complain to my wife – and refused to listen to my biblical renditions for the next two weeks. For the first time, I was forced to reexamine the biblical account from the viewpoint of a naïve potential victim – and I saw the words of the Scripture in all of their awesome terror.
I have been wrestling with the import of the akeda (binding) story ever since. Now, I shall attempt to answer Batya’s question: How could God have made such a cruel request of Abraham? “
And it happened after these things that God tested [Nahmanides: proved, Maimonides: held aloft as a banner] Abraham, and said to him, take your son, your only one, whom you love, and bring him up as a dedication upon one of the mountains that I shall show you” (Genesis 22:1, 2).
The opening words, “And it happened after these things [or events],” suggest that the Divine commandment came as a result of and as punishment of the two preceding events.
Fascinatingly, the event immediately preceding the command of the akeda could be construed a transgression according to Israel’s political right wing – a sin of giving away part of the Promised Land of Israel – and the event before that could be considered a sin by Israel’s political left wing, a sin against Ishmael.
Let us first analyze the episode immediately preceding the akeda – the treaty Abraham enters into with Abimelech the king of the Philistines, allowing Abraham and his people to live in the Negev portion of the Promised Land (Gen. 21:22-33).
The Rashbam maintains that “After the event in which Abraham made a covenant with Abimelech...the Holy One Blessed be He became angry with him...since this land of the Philistines is subsumed under the [Divinely granted] borders of Israel.... Hence God vexed and punished Abraham as if to say, ‘You acted in a high-handed manner against the son I gave you by making a treaty between yourselves [you and Abimelech] and between your children and his children, giving away the patrimony promised to Isaac.... Now go and bring him [Isaac] as a dedication and see how you will be benefited by this treaty.” (Rashbam ad loc.).
Close to 4,000 years later, before the Partition Plan of November 29, 1947, a less generous division of land was offered to David Ben-Gurion.
Uncharacteristically, he found it difficult to reach a decision; he asked the one person in the Labor Party he truly respected, Yitzhak Tabenkin, to make the decision for him, promising that he would go along with whatever Tabenkin decided. Tabenkin agreed, but requested time to take counsel with two people. The next morning, Tabenkin advised Ben-Gurion to reject the deal.
“I will listen to you,” said the Jewish leader, “But tell me, with whom did you take counsel?” “I asked two individuals,” answered Tabenkin. “I asked my grandfather and I asked my grandson. I asked my grandfather, who died 10 years ago, and I asked my grandson, who has not yet been born. The Land of Israel belongs to them.”
Abraham’s penultimate act prior to the akeda might be called “The sacrifice of Ishmael.” It begins when the older and more sophisticated Ishmael mocks the younger and more naive Isaac which leads Sarah to demand that Abraham banish Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham at first demurs, but then complies with the Divine command that he heed his wife Sarah.
This narrative has striking parallels to the akeda story which suggests that God’s request that Abraham sacrifice Isaac came as a punishment for his having callously sacrificed Ishmael one chapter before.
The Bible describes the banishment of Ishmael: “Early the next morning, Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba” (Gen. 21:14).
As Rashi’s commentary on this verse points out, “Abraham [sent them out with] bread and water, and not with gold and silver.” This was nothing short of a death mission.
And then we find the parallel phrases to the akeda: “Abraham rose early in the morning” (Gen. 22:3), and “Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac” (Gen. 22:6) just as he placed the meager supplies of bread and water on Ishmael.
God sends Abraham with his “olah” (burnt offering) on what seems to be a death mission and they, too, must wander toward an unknown destination (ibid. 22: 3). In both incidents, it is an angel who saves the boys (21:17, 22:11) and an angel who blesses each with becoming a great nation (21:17, 22:15-19).
The command of Akedat Yitzhak, the sacrifice of Isaac, comes as the punishment for Akedat Yishmael, the sacrifice of Ishmael!
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and chief rabbi of Efrat.