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 is hospitable to his three surprise visitors; Avraham, the man of universal justice, pleads with G-d to find a way to save Sodom ; Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their social aberrations (affluence without social concern is self destructive); Lot and Family Escape; Incestuous origin of the nations of Ammon and Moav; Avraham prays for Avimelech—the first mention of prayer in the Torah; Birth of Yitzchak; Hagar and Ishmael; Alliance with Avimelech ; the Akeda (Binding); Brief genealogy of Avraham’s brother Nachor
Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz views the Akeda 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 Akeda as the story of the Man named Avraham whose conscience ultimately prevails and stops him from slaughtering his own son.
Avraham receives a calling from Ha’elokim to immediately take his son, the one he loves, Yitzchak, and to go away to the Moriah (Jerusalem) area where his son will be brought as an all-burned offering.(Avraham, presumably not surprised by the request since child sacrifice widespread , says nothing. Even if he is in fact surprised, his silence may have resulted from his being in a state of shock.) The next morning he awakes early and keeps busy (nervous energy?): he saddles his donkey; chops wood for the offering and, with two young men to accompany him, sets out on his journey. Father and son journey in silence for three days until they reach their destination when one brief conversation takes place: Yitzchak inquires about a lamb for the offering and his father assures him that “God will provide”. Avraham builds an altar, arranges the wood on it; binds his son; places him on top of the wood; reaches for a cleaver to slit his son’s throat. A Malach Hashem calls out to him, instructing him not to harm the boy because he knows Avraham would not take his son’s life (my translation). Avraham spots a ram behind him, offers it up on the altar and then is blessed again by Malach Hashem.
Avraham experiences internal conflict. At first he feels an urge to perform child sacrifice. The “calling” does not come from G-d Himself but from an entity named Haelokem, an unusual term which I think refers to a specific internal force or human emotion ultimately emanating from G-d (Yayetzer Harah, Satan). The word poetically refers to the Midas HaDin--harshness and judgment (elokem) aspect of G-d that exists in all of us. Avraham appears to be stunned by the request and goes about his preparations for the journey in a trance-like, robotic state -- doing but not talking.
In the end Avraham’s conscience prevails, an idea captured by his “hearing the voice” of Malach Hashem –the powerful positive human force encapsulated in the four letter Tetragrammaton name of G-D (yud, hay, …).G-d Himself never appears in the story. Only His messengers, i.e., the emotional forces that drive our behavior, do.
The word chasacht in verse 12 (traditionally translated as “withheld “) is significant. I think the word can be related to the Hebrew root word for darkness, or death (choshech). Malach Hashem (personification of positive world forces; conscience) proclaims that Avraham resisted the original calling and temptation and, in the end, “did not darken or take your son’s life (Lo casacht) from among the number of My (Memenee)”. For this Avraham is blessed.
On Rosh Hashanah we plead for God to recall the Akeda with compassion. We are reminding G-d that just as Avraham ultimately was able to overcome his evil inclination we, too, have the ability and the desire to change for the better—which we pray will make us worthy of His forgiveness.
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-sacrificing is rampant even today in the Arab world where mothers sacrifice their sons in the name of religion( Allah). Members of these societies often live in poverty partly because they misdirect their energy and talent away from productive endeavors to embrace a religion that encourages fanatical and violent behavior.
In psychological terms, Avraham may be experiencing an unconscious desire to dominate and/or eliminate Yitzchak (Yehudah Valledaris). He is the dominant father of a submissive son whom he needs to “sacrifice” to his own parental plans and hopes. But G-d is there to rein in this urge (Günter Plaut). Yitzchak, in awe of his well-known and respected father, may never have been given the chance to act independently by what may have been doting and protective parents. Yitzchak was 37 years old at the time of the Akeda, according to the Midrash. The Akeda, the first time we hear Yitzchak speak, may be a first step in his path to maturity, an experience necessitating parental separation. The trauma (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) of his near-death experience will hurt Yitzchak’s inter-personal relationships later in life
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 knife, 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 are 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 knife 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 Nesa 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:
• G-d proved. Sforno sees this as experiential-- a Divine desire to permit the actualization of Avraham’s inherent but dormant qualities.
• G-d tested. Ramban thinks the “test” was designed to supply additional merits to Avraham as he converts his potential into action.
• G-d made him witness to an idea. Rambam thinks the word root is “sign”. Avraham would be an attestation to the whole world of the indubitable validity of prophetic truth.
• G-d attested. Abrabanel maintains that the word Nesa is related to the root NS—lifting, raising-- a testimonial for the nations of the world to see.
• G-d 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.
• G-d 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.
• G-d performed a miracle in creating Man with an enormous reservoir of strength of character to deal with moral and ethical issues confronting him.
• G-d tempted. Franz Rosenzweig, cited by Günter Plaut, proposes a radically different approach. In his view, the only way one can truly believe, is if he has no clue or understanding of God’s actions. Only then can one experience faith and trust.
The Daas Mikrah commentary notes that Avraham is the first person to be summoned by name to fulfill a Divine command.
Günter Plaut suggests that what is being “tested” are 1)Avraham’s faith in G-d’s not going back on his word and 2)his total submission to Divine will.
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. Here he is being directed to “go outside of himself” –to abandon pagan belief in child sacrifice. These are bitter separations, first from familiar surroundings and now from his son.
Some translate the phrase “bring him up there as an offering” to be “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.G-d 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 G-d say “bring him up there as an offering for Me”? Furthermore, the Hebrew word employed is L’olah,”for an offering”. But in another section, where 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 Moriah it would be as if a burnt offering was presented. A Midrash suggests that Avraham misunderstood what was being asked of him.
The destination Moriah sounds like the Hebrew word reay to see, and to perceive. This thematic Hebrew root recurs pointing to enlightenment and understanding as the key ideas permeating this Parsha.
Avraham himself got up early, cut the wood and saddled the donkey. AHHava mekalkeles es Hashure—love (like hate) can upset the normal behavior.
There must be no rash behavior. A three day cooling off period often precedes important decisions.
Yitzchak carrying the wood conjures up the image of a time when convicted prisoners had to “bear their own cross”—carry the wood that was be used in their 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.
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 Hashem and His four letter name of Mercy .
The staccato rhythm of the words in verse nine suggests that when Avraham arrived at the mountain he rapidly went through the motions 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. David Gleitman thinks that it was necessary to call Avraham’s name twice because of the urgency to snap him out of what seemed to be a hypnotic state and “bring him back to earth”.
Atta yadaate, says Rav Sadya Gaon, means I always knew your faith and morality but now, with My having made it public, it will be obvious to all.
There is one tradition that believes that Avraham completed the sacrifice and Yitzchak was miraculously revived afterward!
Benno Jacob stresses that an altar shall not be built in vain.
A ram offered in place of Yitzchak : every animal offering is a substitute for a person.
Substituting the raysh in Hebrew achar (behind) with the similar-looking daled changes the word to mean echad (one); Avraham saw one ram.
Hashem yireh—God will always be omniscient.
Behar hashem yaraeh—on this mountain a major religious epiphany took place: permanent elimination of child sacrifice in Judaism. There is a further separation between the pagan world and the deepening beliefs of Avraham (Aaron Fruchter), a faith that 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. Moslems believe that Yitzchak died and only Ishmael survived.
David Gleitman speculates that it was these two “lads” (Ishmael and Eliezer) who later told Sarah that Yitzchak was dead.
I'm a high school teacher at an orthodox high school in Los Angeles. We had recently been discussing the idea of Yitzchak and how his personality is manifested and seen throughout his appearances in tanach. A possible explanation of his being reserved, conflict avoidant, and "bound" came up as a possible "PTSD" reaction from the akeidah. When researching this concept, I found it alluded to in your shiur on parashat Vayerah from last year and wanted to know of you have a source for this idea or if perhaps you have seen an idea similar to this? Thanks so much for your time!