Suzanne Darby gave this d’var on Rosh Hashanah.
Abraham’s binding of his son Isaac, the Torah portion our congregation reads each year at Rosh Hashanah, is quite familiar and memorable to most of us. It begins, “Some time afterward, God puts Abraham to the test.” (Gen 22:1) Interestingly, this difficult, challenging passage is only 20 verses long.
Every year we must struggle to understand why G-d would confront Abraham with such a test and why Abraham obeys without question. We ask ourselves, “Would we have such faith?”
Abraham is told to take his son, go to the land of Moriah and offer Isaac as a burnt sacrifice. Abraham saddled his ass, takes the wood, his servants, Isaac and leaves.
Would we expect Abraham to question these instructions? Yes!
G-d speaks to Abraham, the man he has “singled … out, that [Abraham] may instruct his children…to keep the way of the Lord.” G-d speaks of his decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham remains standing in front of G-d and asked, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent….?” G-d answers, “If I find …fifty innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham does not stop there, but continues to negotiate. What if there are 45? 30 and finally what if 10 good men can be found? And G-d again agrees, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the ten”–a number that reflects a minion.
While Abraham defends the hypothetical innocent, he is silent when commanded to sacrifice his own son, the only child of his wife Sarah.
In Genesis 17, G-d reveals himself to Abraham and states, “I will establish My Covenant between Me and you…” G-d further instructs, “…Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac; and I will maintain My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come.” That would be us.
Once again, G-d confirms that the covenant will be passed on through Isaac when Sarah demands that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away. God addresses Abraham, “Do not be distressed over [Ishmael]… for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued through you.”
How does Abraham rebut this paradox, when told to sacrifice Isaac? How do we readers of Torah deal with the contradiction of repeatedly being told that Isaac is the link to the next generations but now will be offered as a sacrifice?
We all know that Isaac will not be sacrificed but replaced by a ram, but does Abraham contemplate this as he travels to Moriah? We may conclude that Abraham knows that Isaac will survive this ordeal.
How does Abraham explain his actions to the servants who accompany him? All his household and slaves have been circumcised and are part of the covenant with G-d. Would they wonder if they will also be called upon to sacrifice their firstborn sons?
How does Abraham explain to Sarah that Isaac is to be offered as a burnt offering? Many years ago, one of our student Rabbis asked the same question. My favorite response was from one student, who thought that Abraham got ready and just as he left called out to Sarah, “Hey, Sarah, I going to the land of Moriah and taking Isaac, bye.” But it will be another 3000-plus years before the SUV will be available to Abraham, and I am not sure he can make a quick exit on his donkey.
Perhaps Abraham doesn’t explain, but Sarah is no fool. What is her judgment? Does she believe that she shall never see her one and only son alive again? Does she rail at Abraham and plead for Isaac’s life? Upon Isaac’s return, does she forgive Abraham? Has the relationship between husband and wife been forever altered? The script is silent on all these questions.
Even more compelling is how Abraham explains the situation to Isaac. There is disagreement among Torah scholars on Isaac’s age at the time of his binding. Traditional Rabbis argue that Isaac is 37 years of age, but others believe Isaac to still be a young child. But Isaac is at least old enough to recognize that something is wrong. “And [Isaac] said, “Here are the firestone and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” And his father responds, “G-d will see to the sheep for His burnt offering, my son.” Does this tell us that Abraham knows in his heart that G-d will not allow Isaac to die?
Abraham binds Isaac and just as Abraham lifts the knife over Isaac, an angel of G-d calls to him and stops the human sacrifice. Abraham sees a ram caught in the thicket and offers the ram as the burnt offering instead.
Again the angel calls to Abraham, “…because you have not withheld your son, your favored one, I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore…” (GEN 22 16:17).
But how does this drama affect Isaac? Try to imagine being tied up and seeing your own father poised with a knife above you, ready for the slaughter. Did Isaac have the same faith as his father? Does he understand and accept his father’s actions? How does this test change Isaac and how does it test the relationship between Abraham the father and Isaac, the son. Again, the script is silent. However, it should be noted that after Sarah dies and Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for Isaac, he makes the servant swear that under no circumstances may the servant take Isaac with him. Does Abraham fear that Isaac will not return?
Each year we try to understand why G-d would test Abraham. But the test may be more complex than initially perceived. Once the ram is sacrificed instead of Isaac and he returns, how do Abraham’s relationships with his household, his wife and his son change?
With these thoughts, we may view Abraham in a new light. Despite the potential disaster, Abraham faces this test with determination and courage. He accepts the consequences. He still demonstrates his loyalty to his family. Upon Sarah’s death, he purchases a place to bury her remains and then ensures that Isaac is provided with the proper wife as both comfort and insurance that the legacy will provide descendants.
We can learn from Abraham. We also must face difficulties and challenges with determination and courage; especially those tests and choices that may upset or anger others. Do we confront wrongs when we see them, especially when it conflicts with the values and ideas of other people in our community, at work or at home?
It is difficult to take action when those around us don’t understand why, when some of the very people we love may never understand our actions. It is that time of year to reflect on who we want to be. It is the time of year to ask G-d for the same courage as Abraham, to ask G-d for strength to confront seemingly impossible tasks.
It is not helpful to think “fat pig” but it is necessary to show concern for a person’s health. It is not helpful to have contempt for an ill-advised event, but it is helpful to share ideas, to jump in with assistance and most importantly to take a leadership role.
It is our job to confront and report an associate cheating or stealing even when others choose to look the other way.
It is our job to confront our loved ones when they are causing pain to the family.