Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Avraham’s hospitality to three surprise visitors who are angels posing as men…Avraham, the courageous man of justice, pleads with God to find a way to save the community (but not the wicked people) of Sodom… destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their Societal failures (lack of Tzedaka and Mishpat ; affluence without social justice is self -destructive)…Lot and family escape…Incestuous origin of the nations of Ammon and Moav…Avraham prays for King Avimelech of Gerar—the first mention of prayer in the Torah…Birth and circumcision of Yitzchak…Expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael from Avraham’s home…Avraham’s alliance with Avimelech… the Akeida (Binding) of Yitzchak…Brief genealogy of Avraham’s brother Nachor, including birth of Rivkah
Lessons in good manners (bikur cholim and hacnosas orchim)
• God comes to “visit” Avraham when he is recuperating from his painful circumcision. This is the first instance of Bikkur Cholim.
• Avraham interrupts this Divine visit to invite in and attend to the needs of the three travelers in the hot desert who pass by his home.
• Avraham himself rushes to the cattle and chooses a tender choice calf (which he gives to a male attendant to prepare).He then serves cottage cheese (or yogurt) and the prepared calf to his guests who sit in the shade of a tree.
• When his guests are leaving he “sees them out” as they resume their journey
• When informed that God is planning to destroy Sodom, Avraham tries to reason with God to save the place
• Lot insists that the two strangers he sees in Sodom spend the night in his home, town laws notwithstanding
On human sacrifice
Human sacrifice is the ancient act of killing one or more human beings as part of a religious ritual is an attempt to commune with a deity. Killing of a human being is designed to appease the gods; or divine the future; or bring luck and prosperity; or bring success in warfare; or enable the King’s servants to continue to serve him in the next life by killing them now.
Human sacrifice has been practiced in various cultures throughout history. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the burning of children seems to have occurred in Assyrian and Canaanite religions. Archaeological discoveries and ancient texts support the historical authenticity of the burnt offering of children in Canaan and Israel. Charred skeletons of children discovered at Gezer, Ta’anach, and Megiddo of Palestine are similar to hundreds of urns containing the charred remains of children found at Carthage sites. In Mesopotamia and Jerusalem, scholars have found sources that record the practice. North Mesopotamian texts of the tenth-seventh centuries B.C.E. signify the burnt offering of male children in honor of the god Hadad. A Syrian inscription indicates that people burnt their children for the gods Adrammelech and Anammelech.
In ritualistic Baal worship, adults would gather around the altar of Baal. Infants would then be burned alive as a sacrificial offering to the deity. Amid horrific screams and the stench of charred human flesh, participants – men and women alike – would engage in sexual orgies. The ritual was intended to produce economic prosperity by prompting Baal to bring rain for the fertility of “mother earth.”
Molech, the national deity of the country of Ammon, was an ancient fire deity that was worshiped throughout Canaan. It was represented as a huge bronze statue with the head of a bull in which a fire burned in its hollow inside. Children were placed on the hands of the statue and, through an ingenious system, the hands were raised to the mouth (as if Molech were eating) and the children fell into the fire where they were consumed by the flames. The people gathered before Molech were dancing to the sounds of flutes and tambourines whose purpose was to drown out the screams of the victims.
The Akeida (Binding) of Yitzchak
Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz views the Akeida story as “the opening of the age-long warfare of Israel against the abominations of child sacrifice which was rife among the Semitic peoples as well as their Egyptian and Aryan neighbors … God abhorred human sacrifice.” In that age, he continues, “it was astounding that Abraham’s God should have interposed to prevent the sacrifice not that He should have asked for it…The valley of Ge-Hinnom, where these abominable rituals were practiced became a synonym for Hell.”
I see the Akeida as the story of the extraordinary Avraham whose conscience ultimately prevails and stops him from slaughtering his own son, despite his initial “calling” from above. My interpretation is based on my understanding of some of the words in the text and on the observation that only forces emanating from God (called Malachim, angels/agents of God) appear in the story, but never God Himself.
Avraham receives a calling from Ha’elokim (an unusual word which I interpret to mean a force/agent of God) to immediately take his son, the one he loves, Yitzchak, and to go away to Moriah (Jerusalem) area where his son will be brought as an all-burned offering. Is Avraham surprised by this command? One approach is that he was not, since child sacrifice was widespread, and he therefore voices no objection. Alternatively, he is shocked since this was a complete reversal of God’s promise of offspring and nation and because he had already realized the evil of child sacrifice. He remains silent because of his mental turmoil, disappointment and possibly depression. The next morning he wakes up early and keeps busy (nervous energy?)-- saddling his donkey by himself; chopping wood by himself for the offering--and, with two young men to accompany him, sets out on his journey. Father and son travel together silently for three days during which only one brief conversation takes place, when Yitzchak inquires about a lamb for the offering and his father assures him that “God will provide”. Upon arrival at their destination, Avraham builds an altar; arranges the wood on it; binds his son; places him on top of the wood; reaches for a cleaver(more frightening and more deadly than a mere knife) to slit his son’s throat. At the last moment a Malach Hashem (a divine force within him i.e., his conscience) calls out to him, instructing him not to harm the boy because He knows Avraham would not take his own son’s life (my translation). Avraham observes a ram behind him, offers it up on the altar and then is blessed again by a Heavenly messenger/force, Malach Hashem.
This story is Avraham’s internal struggle and its resolution. The “calling” to slay his son does not come from God Himself but from an entity named Ha’elokim which I understand to refer to a specific internal force or human emotion ultimately emanating from God (Yayetzer Harah, Satan). Elokim is the Divine name used to refer to Midas HaDin, strict and harsh judgment aspect of God that also exists in all of us. In response to this request, Avraham goes about his preparations in a trance-like, robotic state.
God Himself never appears in the story, only His messengers, i.e., the emotional forces that drive our behavior. Benno Jacob notes that in the first nine verses the appellation used to describe God’s directives is elokim, the harsh Satanic force in the world, but from the time Avraham decides not to slaughter his son--not to engage in child sacrifice-- the text switches to the Tetragrammaton name of God, the powerful positive force encapsulated in the four letters (yud, hay, …). It is an indication that universal goodness only exists when human sacrifice does not.
The word chasacht in verse 12 (traditionally translated as “withheld “) is significant. I think the term also is related to the Hebrew root word for darkness, or death (choshech). In the end, Avraham resisted the original calling and temptation and chose not to take his son’s life (Lo chasacht). For this he is blessed.
The Akeida is referred to as Yitzchak’s experience because his was the more painful emotion-- fear of death. On the High Holy Days we plead for God to recall the Akeidas Yitzchak with compassion. We are reminding God that just as Avraham was capable of reversing his initial behavior we, too, have the ability and the desire to change for the better.
Each of us could be inspired by the Avraham who had the strength of character to withstand the pressures of the surrounding pagan world. Child sacrifice is a powerful, insidious Evil in the world that must be eradicated if nations and families are to flourish. Sandra Gottesman notes that child-sacrifice is rampant even today in the Arab world where mothers sacrifice their sons in the name of religion (Allah). Members of these poverty-stricken societies misdirect their energy and talent away from productive endeavors by embracing a religion that encourages fanatical, violent and counter-productive behavior.
Yehuda Valladares thinks that, in psychological terms, Avraham may be experiencing an unconscious desire to dominate and/or eliminate his emotional competitor Yitzchak. He is the dominant father of a submissive son whom he needs to “sacrifice” to his own parental plans and hopes. But God is there to rein in this urge . Yitzchak, 37 years old at the time of the Akeida ,and in awe of his well-known and respected father, may never have been given the chance to act independently by what most likely were doting and protective parents. The Akeida, the first time we hear Yitzchak speak, may have been a painful but necessary first step in his path to maturity as he experienced parental separation. On the negative side, the trauma (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) of his near-death experience affected his behavior and hurt his inter-personal relationships later in life.
Jonathan Elkoubi offers a completely different approach. Beneath Avraham’s seemingly calm appearance, he is angry and just wants to be done with the trials, tests and psychological challenges he has experienced throughout his life. Maybe binding Yitzchak on the altar was his way of showing that he would go so far as doing the unthinkable rather than experience more challenges because the nine previous tests had drained him physically, mentally, financially and mostly psychologically. Perhaps the reason it is angels that communicate with him and not God Himself is because they are closer to Man and understand Avraham’s pain and frustration. In fact, the Akeida turns out to be the final "challenge" of faith that Avraham undergoes.
"Do not stretch out your hand against the lad nor do anything to him for now I know that you are a God-fearing man,” is said by the angel. But once Avraham has successfully passed this most difficult of the trials, God Himself takes over and expresses enormous satisfaction with Avraham’s actions. (The word “and” that introduces the phrase, “you have not withheld your son, your only one, from Me,” may mean there is a change in speakers at this point.)
1 And it happened after these things that God tested (Nisa) Abraham and said to him, "Abraham," and he replied, "Here I am."
2 And He said, "Please take your son, your only one, whom you love — Isaac—and go to the land of Moriah; bring him up there as an offering upon one of the mountains which I shall tell you."
3 So Abraham woke up early in the morning and he saddled his donkey; he took his two young men with him and Isaac, his son; he split the wood for the offering, and stood up and went to the place of which God had spoken to him.
4 On the third day, Abraham raised his eyes and perceived the place from afar.
5 And Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here by yourselves with the donkey, while I and the lad will go yonder; we will worship and we will return to you."
6 And Abraham took the wood for the offering, and placed it on Isaac, his son. He took in his hand the fire and the cleaver, and the two of them went together.
7 Then Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, "Father — " And he said, "Here I am, my son."
And he said, "Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the offering?"
8 And Abraham said, "God will seek out for Himself the lamb for the offering, my son." And the two of them went together.
9 They arrived at the place of which God had spoken to him; Abraham built the altar there, and arranged the wood; he bound Isaac, his son, and he placed him on the altar atop the wood.
10 Abraham stretched out his hand, and took the cleaver to slaughter his son.
11 And an angel of HASHEM called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham! Abraham!"
And he said, "Here I am."
12 And he said, "Do not stretch out your hand against the lad nor do anything to him for now I know that you are a God-fearing man, since you have not withheld your son, your only one, from Me."
13 And Abraham raised his eyes and saw — behold, a ram! — afterwards, caught in the thicket by its horns; so Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as an offering instead of his son.
14 And Abraham called the name of that site "HASHEM Yireh,"as it is said this day, on the mountain HASHEM will be seen.
15 The angel of HASHEM called to Abraham a second time from heaven.
16 And he said, "By Myself I swear — the word of HASHEM — that because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only one,
17 that / shall surely bless you and greatly increase your offspring like the stars of the heavens and like the sand on the seashore; and your offspring shall inherit the gate of its enemy.
18 And all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your offspring, because you have listened to My voice."
19 Abraham returned to his young men, and they stood up and went together to Beer-sheba, and Abraham stayed at Beer-sheba.
Translating the word Nisa is critical in understanding the unfolding drama. There exists a wide range of possible definitions for what God did to or for Avraham including some of the following cited by Rabbi B.J. Jacobson in his Meditations on the Torah:
• God proved. Sforno sees this as experiential, a Divine desire to permit the actualization of Avraham’s ability to imitate God’s Goodness
• God tested. Ramban observes that the test is for the benefit of the one tested and not the tester. Avraham would accrue additional merits by his good and righteous behavior.
• God made him witness to an idea. Rambam thinks the word means “sign”. Avraham would become an attestation to the whole world of “the indubitable validity of prophetic truth”.
• God attested. Abravanel, too, maintains that the word Nasa is related to the root NS—lifting, raising—and is a testimonial for the nations of the world to see.
• God reproved. Rashbam, who had an ardent love for Eretz Yisroel, thinks Avraham is being punished for yielding a part of the Promised Land to Avimelech as part of a mutual non-aggression pact , as described in a preceding story.
• God tested his reaction. Benno Jacob notes that the expression “And it happened after these things” always indicates a surprising turn of events. Like Job whose domestic bliss was suddenly and unexpectedly interrupted, Avraham is learning by experience that there is no permanence in worldly matters. God wanted to show the world what Avraham’s reaction would be.
• God performed a miracle in creating all Mankind with an enormous reservoir of strength of character when confronting moral and ethical issues.
• God tempted. Mendy Saidlower reasons that although God's order to Avraham seems to us to be cruel and bizarre, we can never know what God’s thinking is. Perhaps He is interested in evoking Avraham’s uncomprehending but blind faith and total obedience. Franz Rosenzweig, cited by Rabbi Günter Plaut, proposes a similar approach. In his view, the only way one can truly believe, is if one has no clue or understanding of God’s actions. Only then can one experience sincere and true faith and trust. Some have speculated that God wanted Avraham to challenge Him about child sacrifice just as he had pleaded with God to change His mind about destroying the community of Sodom. Rabbi Plaut concludes that what is being “tested” is Avraham’s faith in God’s not going back on his word (for Avraham to have offspring) and Avraham’s total submission to Divine will.
The Daas Mikrah commentary notes that Avraham is the first person to be summoned by name to fulfill a Divine command.
The Hebrew for “go to” is Lech Lecha, the same phrase appearing in (and naming) the previous Parsha. Then Avraham was asked to abandon family, geography and familiar environment. Now he is being directed to “go outside of himself” and sacrifice his child. Both are bitter separations, first from familiar surroundings and now from his son.
Some translate the phrase “bring him up there as an offering” to mean “along with an offering”, or “in lieu of an offering” meaning that Yitzchak was never meant to be offered up, only to be there with his father. God did not command that Yitzchak be slaughtered, only that he be brought up the mountain. Had the intention been for Yitzchak to be sacrificed, why didn’t God say something like “bring him up there as an offering for Me”? Furthermore, the Hebrew word employed is L’olah,”for an offering”. But in a section when the Torah discusses donation of animals to the Temple, the “L” prefix communicates that one need not bring the specific animal pointed to, but can bring another in its place. The ambiguity here may mean that by bringing Yitzchak to Mt. Moriah it would be as if a burnt offering was presented. A Midrash cites one view that Avraham misunderstood what was being asked of him.
The destination Moriah sounds like the Hebrew word r’ay to see, and to perceive. This Hebrew root recurs often pointing to insight, enlightenment and understanding about the evil of human sacrifice as the key theme permeating this Parsha.
Avraham got up early and rather than leaving it to his servants, he himself cut the wood and saddled the donkey. AHHava mekalkeles es Hashure—love (like hate) disregards dignity.
There must be no rash behavior. A three day cooling off period often precedes important decisions.
“And Abraham said to his young men… we will worship and we will return to you” suggests that Avraham’s plan (or wish) was that his son would not die.
Yitzchak carrying the wood conjures up the image of a convicted prisoner having to “bear their own cross”—carry the wood that was be used in his hanging. Suspense builds as father and son journey together physically yet appear to be worlds apart emotionally, each wrapped up in this own thoughts and not saying a word to one another. Anxiety and dread fill the air.
The staccato description of the his behavior suggests that when Avraham arrived at the mountain he rapidly (and anxiously) attacked the tasks of building the altar, of laying out the wood, of binding his son, of laying out his son, and of picking up the cleaver to slaughter.
Every word breathes terror: Slaughter…Cleaver. The Hebrew word used here for a knife is Maacheles, not the more familiar Sakin. Maacheles contains the root word “eat”. Slaughter with a Maacheles involves a powerful thrust that “eats through” anything in its way-- layers of skin, muscle and bones.
The voice heard comes from an entity, or force or Avraham’s conscience, deriving from God and His four letter name of Mercy. David Gleitman thinks that it was necessary to call Avraham’s name twice to snap him out of what seemed to be a hypnotic state and to “bring him back to earth”.
Atah yadati, says Rav Sadya Gaon, means God always knew Avraham was faithful and moral but now, He is asserting that it also will be obvious to all.
Some maintain that Avraham did sacrifice his son who was then revived afterward!
An altar should not be built in vain. A ram is offered in place of Yitzchak ; every animal offering is a substitute for a human. The message is repeated that only animals-- and not humans-- are suitable for offerings to God. Replacing the raysh in Hebrew achar (behind) with the similar-looking daled changes the word’s pronunciation to echad (one); i.e., Avraham saw one ram.
Hashem yireh—God will always be omniscient and will choose this location for offerings to Him.
Behar hashem yaraeh—on this mountain a major religious epiphany took place: permanent elimination of child sacrifice in Judaism. Rabbi Aaron Fruchter points out that the additional separation between the pagan world and the deepening faith of Avraham and his followers now will be elevated for all to see.
The verse makes no mention of Yitzchak returning with his father Avraham. Perhaps the Torah thought it superfluous. Perhaps after this traumatic experience, Yitzchak avoided his father and chose an alternate route home.