Rabbi Seth Frish discusses the birth of Isaac and how God commanded Abraham to sacrifice him.
VAYERA : GENESIS 18:1-22:24
Every year, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we witness the birth of Isaac in the Torah reading. However, by the second day, we hear God command Abraham to sacrifice this very same child in what many perceive to be a test of faith. The entire episode is referred to as the “Akedah,” or “The Binding of Isaac.” This puzzling story also appears within the parshah of Vayera, which is read at this time within the greater cycle of Torah readings in synagogues throughout the world.
The story often has a chilling effect on our modern sensitivities in that very few of us can accept a God who would want such a thing, let alone even suggest it in the first place. And yet it still remains with us — often accompanied by an understanding that Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son serves as some sort of proof positive that Abraham has, in fact, passed “the test of faith.”
If one were to search for any sign of hesitation or any indication of a test, it certainly cannot be found in the opening paragraph of the story, especially when we see how anxious Abraham is to carry out God’s command. Abraham is quick to the journey and spares no time in getting underway.
That being said, this is hardly the kind of behavior we would expect from a man instructed to sacrifice his beloved son. Both archaeology and sacred texts alike suggest that the zeal to sacrifice children was quite commonplace, especially in the seductive cults of neighboring peoples.
Perhaps, in our story of the Akedah, it is not by accident that instead of the traditional Hebrew word for knife, “sakeen,” we find the word “Ma’achelet.” This word is noted in most Hebrew translations simply as a “knife,” and yet, the more plain meaning of the word “Ma’achelet” is “that which consumes.”
Since the “Ma’achelet” is used here instead of the “sakeen,” there is a distinct possibility that the use of this word is intended as an allusion to Molech, a god that devours children.
Toward the end of the story, as Abraham lifts the Ma’achelet, indicating the strong alliterative presence of Molech, we now hear the voice of an Angel calling to Abraham not once, but twice, “Abraham, Abraham! Do not raise your hand against the child.” It almost seems to be a way of saying, “I am not a god which consumes children — I am not Molech.”
In Abraham’s time, for many peoples, sacrificing a child on an altar would have been an expected religious act. Thus, the command to stay his hand and remove Isaac from the altar would be the very test we have been searching for in this sacred reading.
After Abraham removes Isaac from the altar, he is told that because he has not withheld his son from God, Abraham will be blessed with numerous descendants. The test is not in his placing Isaac on an altar, but instead in removing him from harm’s way by taking him off the altar.
For the God of Abraham, there is neither faith nor merit in the sacrifice of children — or of any human being. As a statement of religious faith, this becomes ever more poignant, especially in a world, such as ours, which willingly appears to accept the death of children without notice or, even worse, as sacrificial offerings to a god of their own choosing.
A not-so-subtle reading of the Akedah suggests that placing the children of the next generation on a sacrificial altar dedicated to any god is not a faithful act; it is a vile act, and it is obscene. Instead, we can learn that a true act of faith is not solely in taking children off of these altars, but rather in tearing them down, especially those that threaten the life of any child, or for that matter, of any human being.
We, too, could benefit from his example.
Rabbi Seth Frisch is the new Spiritual Leader of Congregation Kesher Israel in Center City Philadelphia and sits on the executive committee of the Philadelphia Board of Rabbis.