Parashat Vayera: Interpreting the ‘akeida’

The story of the binding of Isaac, the akeida, as we shall explore, is open to many interpretations.

 ‘ABRAHAM AND Isaac’ by George Segal, at Princeton University. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘ABRAHAM AND Isaac’ by George Segal, at Princeton University.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Through the course of the year, the akeida, the binding of Isaac, is read more than any other narrative in the Torah. It is read as part of this week’s parasha, Vayera, as well as on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. In addition, it is read every day in a traditional siddur as part of birkot hashahar (blessings of the dawn), the preliminary section of the daily morning service.

The question that needs to be asked is: Of all of the stories in the Bible, why is the akeida – God telling Abraham to slay his son – the story that receives the most prominence? 

A classic answer is offered by Rabbi David de Solo Pool in his siddur:

“This biblical reading recalls Abraham’s unquestioning acceptance of God’s will. At the beginning of each day, the Jew would proclaim to the world the biblical lesson – taught to Abraham and, through him, to his people – that man’s devotion to God is to know no limit.”

“This biblical reading recalls Abraham’s unquestioning acceptance of God’s will. At the beginning of each day, the Jew would proclaim to the world the biblical lesson – taught to Abraham and, through him, to his people – that man’s devotion to God is to know no limit.”

Rabbi David de Solo Pool

For many Jews, this is a powerful understanding of their relationship with God. There are also Jews who find this unquestioning relationship with God, particularly when God demands the killing of a human being, and in this case one’s child, to be highly problematic. Is there a way this passage can be redeemed?

There are “shiv’im panim ba’Torah,” 70 faces/sides of Torah, the rabbis teach us (Numbers Rabbah 13). On this, the School of R. Ishmael expounds: “As a hammer shatters a rock” (Jeremiah 23:29) – “Just as a hammer subdivides into many different sparks, so does the biblical verse extend into many different interpretations” (Sanhedrin 34a).

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

The story of the binding of Isaac, the akeida, as we shall explore, is open to many interpretations. Rabbi Norman Cohen in his insightful book Self Struggle & Change: Family Conflict Stories in Genesis and Their Healing Insights for Our Lives, teaches:

“We are all like Abraham; each of us is so involved in our outside worlds – our careers, interests, or our principles – that we do not or cannot see that it is our child, or spouse or parent that is bound on the altar. We are so adept at sacrificing that which is truly important to us on the altars we have erected that we may ask whether we are capable of hearing the cry of the angel before it is too late.”

Reading this episode as unquestioning loyalty to God can make it a proof text for religious fanaticism and extremism.

And yet, there is a way to see this story in a completely different light. At that moment when Abraham has his arm raised, ready to kill in the name of God; in that moment of uber-religious fervor and fanaticism, Abraham is still able to hear the angel tell him this is not what God wants. This is the test that Abraham passes. He is rewarded not for being a religious fanatic but rather because in the midst of that fanaticism, he was open to hear a different voice, a path to a different way.

In this light, we can read the story as an anti-religious-extremism text. An important and timeless message for helping us grow – in our religions, in our societies, in our communities, in our personal relationships.

The story of the akeida is traditionally understood as God testing Abraham. Lippman Bodoff flips that reading of the story on its head. He points out that the akeida is full of many details – something rare in a biblical story of only 19 verses. Bodoff asserts that these details slow down the unfolding of the events. That is to say, Abraham wanted to give God the opportunity to change God’s mind. A case in point is Abraham, who is more than 135 years old at the time, saddles his donkey and does not have his servants do it. In this interpretation, it is not only God testing Abraham but Abraham testing God, so he would know if he would want to follow God to begin a new religion.

The context of the akeida also needs to be placed within the ancient world where human sacrifice was practiced. To what extent remains a debate among scholars, but human sacrifice was considered by some cultures to be acceptable. In that light, when God approaches Abraham to offer his son as a sacrifice, it can be seen as speaking to him in a way he would understand: human sacrifice to a deity. And that is the punch line. At the end, God is saying: “You might think I want human sacrifice, from what you may see around you, but that is not what I desire at all.” In forming this new relationship with Abraham, God tries to meet him based on normative thinking and behavior, and then offers a radical way to say that a relationship with God is going to be different. As Judith S. Antonelli points out, “The akeida represents its rejection (of human sacrifice) and replacement by animal sacrifice. Animal sacrifice... predated human sacrifice and coexisted with it for quite awhile before eventually replacing it in most parts of the world. Some pagan traditions, such as Greek mythology, bear tales indicating such a transition.”

“The real hero of the Issac story was the ram”

Yehuda Amichai’s poem “The real hero of the Issac story was the ram” challenges us to think in a different, broader perspective. In our anthropocentric reading of the text, we focus on the potential killing of a human, Isaac, Abraham’s son, and not the ram that in the end was offered up as the sacrifice. The poem closes:

The angel went home.

Isaac went home.

Abraham and God had long gone before.

But the real hero of the Isaac story 

was the ram.

A different interpretation of the akeidah developed in reaction to a political event in the United States over 50 years ago. On May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guard troops shot at students at Kent State University protesting the Vietnam War. Of the four killed, three were Jewish. Eight years later, Kent State commissioned sculptor George Segal to create a statue to commemorate the event. Segal chose the akeida.

As he explained, “Basically, the piece calls on older people who have the power of life and death over their children to exercise love, compassion and restraint.”

In that light, the akeida can be depicted as a protest against war. Kent State rejected the statue, but it found a home on the campus of Princeton University, where it remains to this day.

In this short exegesis, we have seen vastly different ways the akeida can be understood – a reminder that Judaism stands upon its diversity. In the words of Rabbi Ishmael, the array of interpretations are like “many different sparks.” Those sparks can ignite new ways for us to understand not only the text but our world and our lives. They challenge us to better grapple with the divergent thinking we encounter in the course of the day through the people we meet and the events of the day. ■

The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is the rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.