Religion & Beliefs

Son Sacrifice: Humility and the Significance of the Akeda

Many years ago, when I lived at Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi, a storm erupted in synagogue on Shabbat Vayare-the Shabbat, like this coming one, on which we read the story of Akedat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac. The shouts of anger … Read More

By / November 13, 2008

Many years ago, when I lived at Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi, a storm erupted in synagogue on Shabbat Vayare-the Shabbat, like this coming one, on which we read the story of Akedat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac.

The shouts of anger and dismay were occasioned by one of the plethora of pamphlets that appear in nearly every synagogue in Israel, each one offering interpretations and glosses on the weekly Torah portion. The pamphlet in question had been written by an American immigrant to Israel, and it broke with tradition by condemning, rather than lauding, Abraham’s willingness to follow God’s command to sacrifice his son.

This was many years ago, so I don’t remember the name of the author or his exact words, but he pointed out-and he was hardly the first to do so-the anomaly between Abraham’s attempt to deter God from his plan to destroy the evil city of Sodom and the patriarch’s mute acceptance of the command to slaughter his son. In pleading for Sodom, Abraham argues that the city’s righteous inhabitants would be killed along with the guilty-and that God, the world’s judge, would be seen as committing an injustice. Yet Abraham raises no objection at all to the unjust sentence imposed on his own innocent, beloved son, nor to God’s insistence that he, Abraham, be the instrument of God’s injustice. The writer expressed his horror at Abraham’s behavior, and censured it in no uncertain words.

My guess is that his visceral reaction to Abraham’s apparently mindless obedience was triggered by a liberal American liberal upbringing. Like me, he’d been taught by his parents and by his society not to remain silent in the face of injustice and never to obey an unjust command without question.

Nearly all traditional interpretations and classical commentators view this, the last of Abraham’s ten trials, as a manifestation of the first Jew’s steely resolve to maintain his faith even at the price of losing what he loved most-the son born to him by his wife Sarah in their old age. In reference to Abraham’s fierce face, medieval Jewish liturgical poets called him "Eitan," meaning "the strong one."

While it broke with tradition, the modern writer’s view of the story was firmly grounded in the Torah’s text. The dissonance between pleading for Sodom and binding Isaac is glaring and even traditional commentators felt they had to explain it. And even the Sages of the Talmud and Midrash did not hesitate to criticize and even condemn the actions of biblical heroes.

So why did the writer’s critique of Abraham arouse such anger in Tirat Tzvi’s synagogue that morning?

The ethos of national, and in particular, military service is strongest in two of Israel’s subcultures, the kibbutzim and the national-religious community. Tirat Tzvi, the oldest of the country’s handful of religious kibbutzim, belongs to both those sectors, so military service is a sacred value. A large portion of the kibbutz’s young men serve in elite units that perform some of the IDF’s most dangerous missions. Parents, and the kibbutz community as a whole, actively encourage sons to volunteer for such units. (Tirat Tzvi also expects its young women to perform military service and no small number even reach officer rank, but in general they service in much less risky positions. So the ethos of self-sacrifice to the point of possible death is still very much a male one.)

Parents who have raised their children to give their all for their country and who have encouraged their sons to aim for the best and toughest army units, inevitably read the binding of Isaac in a different way. This is the position that I and my wife Ilana find ourselves today: if our primary concern was for our sons’ safety, we would have raised them to think of themselves first and to do their best to get through their army service at desk jobs. In a way, in bringing up our sons as we have, we have bound them and placed them on an altar-and we pray fervently that God will not require the sacrifice.

The angry kibbutzniks at Tirat Tzvi felt they’d been insulted by the American immigrant who had dared criticize the sacrifice that Abraham had been willing to make. While it was hardly the writer’s intention (in fact, he fervently apologized the following week’s pamphlet), the people of Tirat Tzvi felt that they were being accused of injustice and moral obtuseness in having sent their sons off to combat service in their country’s army.

Yet both readings of the story are valid, well-founded, and valuable. What was on evidence at Tirat Tzvi that Shabbat morning was a glaring failure, on both sides, to read the text and understand the tradition with due humility. The writer was so incensed by Abraham’s intent to murder his son that he summarily dismissed the traditional commentaries without trying to understand them. The outraged kibbutzniks were so caught up in their allegiance to traditional readings and in the personal choices they had made that they were unwilling to consider any other reading of the story.

If the Torah’s stories and commandments are to have any relevance to us today, we must place them in the context of our lives in the modern world. Yet we err if we dismiss traditional readings and understandings as primitive, benighted, or insensitive. After all, our great-grandchildren’s children will live in a different world than we do today but they will still read the Torah. And we hope that they will both find messages relevant to them and strive to understand, with respect and humility, what those stories meant and how they were read by previous generations-including ours.


Image: The Binding of Isaac by Roni Pinto