Parashat Vayera: The real test of the Akeida

Faith can be the foundation of a profound relationship with God, and by extension with all of God’s creation. But it can have another side, a dark shadow

'The Sacrifice' of Isaac’ by Caravaggio. The author says the akeda is the supreme test of faith, and shows how man can push himself to the limit  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
'The Sacrifice' of Isaac’ by Caravaggio. The author says the akeda is the supreme test of faith, and shows how man can push himself to the limit
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Of all the stories in the Torah, we read the Binding of Isaac – the Akeida – the most throughout the year. In addition to reading it every day in a traditional siddur (prayer book) as part of the birkot hashahar section of the morning service, we also read it once a year during the annual weekly reading cycle of the Torah, as well as on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Why such prominence?

According to Rabbi David de Sola Pool, its recitation reminds us that we should emulate and be reminded that Abraham’s “devotion to God is to know no limit.”

Many would say such a reading promotes and elevates an unquestioning faith in God and what God commands us to do.

That faith can be the foundation of a profound relationship with God, and by extension with all of God’s creation. But it can have another side, a dark shadow. Reflecting on 9/11, Monsignor Lorenzo Albacate said:

“From the first moment I looked into that horror on September 11, into that fireball, into that explosion of horror, I knew it. I knew it before anything was said about those who did it or why. I recognized an old companion. I recognized religion... And I know, and recognized that day, that the same force, energy, sense, instinct, whatever, passion – because religion can be a passion – the same passion that motivates religious people to do great things is the same one that that day brought all that destruction. When they said that the people who did it did it in the name of God, I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised. It only confirmed what I knew. I recognized it.

 THE TWIN Towers burn (credit: Brad Rickerby/File/Reuters) THE TWIN Towers burn (credit: Brad Rickerby/File/Reuters)

“I recognized this thirst, this demand for the absolute. Because if you don’t hang on to the unchanging, to the absolute, to that which cannot disappear, you might disappear. I recognized that this thirst for the never-ending, the permanent, the wonders of all things, this intolerance or fear of diversity, that which is different – these are characteristics of religion. And I knew that that force could take you to do great things. But I knew that there was no greater and more destructive force on the surface of this earth than the religious passion.”

This self indictment of religion should give us all pause. Religious fanaticism also birthed the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, and the Inquisition. But we are still left with the question: how can such godless deeds be done in the name of God? Let us posit that God is the ultimate power in the universe.

With that in mind, let us remember what Lord Acton said about power: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It can then be said that if someone thinks they know what the absolute power of the universe wants, then that belief, that orientation, that faith has the ability to absolutely corrupt.

Standing in Auschwitz, the Polish-British historian Jacob Bronowski taught:

“It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some 4 million people.

“And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.”

WE ARE created “in the image of God,” b’tzelem Elohim (Genesis 9:6), but we are not God. As Bronowski reminds us, when we cross that line we become monsters. So what are we to do with the akeida, where Abraham is ready, without question, to kill in the name of God? What are we to do with this biblical story that is given such prominence in the Jewish tradition? Can this text, which supports religious fanaticism, teach a different message?

Shira Hecht-Koller, director of education for 929 English, reminds us Jewish writers such as the sixth-century poet, Elazar be-Rabbi Qillir, wrote that Abraham, “forgot how a father is supposed to have mercy on a son/a prayer or plea he should have offered.”

In the starkest terms we read (Genesis 22:9-10): “They arrived at the place of which God had told him. Abraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son.”

And then we are told (Genesis 22:11): “Then an angel of the Lord called to him from heaven: ‘Abraham! Abraham!’ ”

Why does the angel need to call out twice? Because the first time Abraham is so sure he knows what God wants from him that he has shut the rest of the world off. And so the angel must call again, and this time Abraham hears and responds, “Here I am.”

If there is a test, as we are told this is, in the first sentence of this story (Genesis 22:1), then Abraham passes the test not when he listens to God and is ready to kill his son. Rather in that moment of fanaticism when he is so sure he knows what God wants from him and the knife is raised ready to come down on Isaac and kill in the name of God, Abraham is able to hear a different voice, a voice of an angel, that says “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him” (Genesis 22:12). That is the test that Abraham passes.

This reading allows us to preserve the story as it is told with a completely different reading of what constitutes ultimate faith in God. In religion, as with all areas of our lives, we are entitled to even the strongest of our beliefs and opinions. And yet we should never be so assured of what we think that we are not open to a different voice, a different opinion. We need passion wedded to compassion.

The writer is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation, Manchester Center, Vermont, and a faculty member of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and Bennington College.