Do we want to be alone?

The story of the Akeidah and Rosh Hashanah 5781.

A MAN prays outdoors in Jerusalem in April.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
A MAN prays outdoors in Jerusalem in April.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Why did God torture Abraham and traumatize Isaac? Who benefits from the Akeidah, which will we read – if we are fortunate enough to be together – on Rosh Hashanah? Does God benefit? For most Jewish thinkers, this is not conceivable. Does Abraham benefit? Isaac? Hardly.
The two never speak again. Abraham walks down the mountain, perhaps alone, joins his attendants, and goes back to Beersheba. But as the great commentator and statesman Don Isaac Abarbanel notes, Isaac is not with him. Isaac went down a different road, and joined his mother, Sarah, at Hebron. The Akeidah was the end of the relationship between Abraham and Isaac, and perhaps between Abraham and Sarah as well.
So there is no benefit for God, Abraham, Isaac or Sarah. In 13th-century Provence, Rabbi David Kimhi offered a simple answer: The beneficiaries are the audience. But the Akeidah was performed like a 2020 NBA game, in front of no spectators. Then what audience? Not a live audience, but the literary audience. The story is for us, those who read the story.
“And today, years after paganism and idolatry has been abolished,” writes Kimhi, “most of the world believes in the Torah of Moses and its narratives.”
What, then, do we learn from it?
For some readers, we learn to disconnect, not from our phones, but from our loved ones. Martin Buber, normally so insistent on the “I and you” relationship, sees the Akeidah as the ultimate story of disconnection. In a beautiful little essay published in On the Bible, Buber notes that there are only two times that the phrase lekh lekha appears in the Bible: Genesis 12 and Genesis 22. As Buber puts it, the first one demands “that he separate himself from the past, from the world of the fathers,” and the second demands “that he separate himself, despite the promise given him by that same God, from the world of the sons.”
This is quite a terrifying idea. Are we prepared to live devoid of past or future, solely in the present? Being present is an admirable goal – one achieved by Abraham’s trifold Hineni – “Here I am” – in the story, but we also derive much of the meaning in our lives from where we come from and what we leave behind us. If these are taken away, if we are stripped of our heritage and our legacy, can we survive?
Allow me to pit Aang against Buber. Who’s Aang, you ask? He is the central character in the Nickelodeon show Avatar: The Last Airbender, which our kids have been watching, and thus a natural sparring partner for Martin Buber. One scene made me stop washing dishes and watch. Aang, who has the potential to save the world, had just met a guru, who was instructing him on how to open the seventh chakra.
Finally, they reached the last one, and the guru said that to open it, Aang must think about all his personal attachments, and then, “Let all of those attachments go. Let them flow down the river, forgotten.” (The guru studied with Buber!)
But Aang objected. “What? Why would I let go of Katara? I... I love her!”
“Learn to let her go,” the guru insists, “or you cannot let the pure cosmic energy flow in from the universe.”
Aang won’t have this, though. He sees right through the choice. “Why would I choose cosmic energy over Katara?”
IN THE STORY of the Akeidah, it may be a character absent from the story who has just the voice we need to hear. In a Syriac poem from the sixth century, a conversation between Abraham and Sarah is imagined. As Abraham rises to take Isaac to the land of Moriah, Sarah asks where they are going. And when she does not get a good answer, she says, ““You are not aware of how much I endured / The pains and birth pangs that accompanied his birth / Swear to me on him that he will not come to any harm / Since he is my hope. Then take him and go.”
Sarah is no less pious than Abraham, but she is far more relational. She sees the Akeidah not only as a test of faith, but as a test of love. Abraham’s piety is beyond question, but as a poem by Elazar b. Rabbi Qilliri puts it, “He forgot that a father should be merciful toward his son.”
The context is a poem for Shavuot, in which the poet asks why no one until Moses merited to receive the Torah. The poem then moves through the patriarchs one by one, and for each, God proposes giving the Torah, but the Torah objects because of a flaw in the character.
When they get to Abraham, God waxes poetic about his piety and devotion. But here the Torah says, “He pleased, and his offering was sweet / He was great and his name spread / But he forgot that a father should be merciful towards his son / He should have pled, have offered a prayer.”
Many readers have asked why Sarah is absent from the Akeidah. I don’t know why, but it is worth thinking about what might have happened if she were not absent. I like to think that she would have argued that being alone on a mountaintop is the pinnacle of religious experience. She might have said, “What is it all for if there is no one to pass it on to? What makes our lives meaningful if we destroy our relationships? What justifies the present if there is no future?”
I’m thinking a lot about these dilemmas this year in particular. We usually encounter the New Year together, with and surrounded by our families, our communities, our congregations. We stand surrounded by our past, our future and our present. This year, though, for many of us, we will be stripped of all that. What will it be like to be standing all alone, with no one to look at but ourselves in the mirror?
Abraham at the Akeidah was prepared to be alone. He did not hear Sarah’s voice, but only God’s. Fortunately, the angel stayed his hand. “Do not harm the boy! [On the contrary,] I will multiply your descendants as the stars in heaven and the sand on the seashore.”
As we enter a holiday alone, we pray that despite our willingness to be alone this year, we will be able to rejoin with our families and our communities next year. And may the devotion of Abraham and the love of Sarah guide us.
The writer ([email protected]) is a professor at Yeshiva University and author of the new book Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akeidah for Modern Jewish Thought (JPS, 2020).