November 21, 2018

Witness to Redemption

The episode of the Akedah, or the binding of Isaac, presents so many difficult questions. One of the most basic is: For whom is this human and Divine drama staged?

Who comes out ahead as a result of the Akedah playing out?

Is it for Abraham’s benefit? Abraham receives no new blessings or rewards. Additionally, it’s difficult to argue that he learns anything about himself or God that he didn’t already know.

Is it for God’s benefit? We can only make this argument if we are prepared to set aside deeply entrenched beliefs that God’s omniscience includes His knowing Abraham’s character and the degree of Abraham’s devotion. God, it would seem, does not need the Akedah.

So who is it for?

In Megillah (31b), an account is given of an encounter between Abraham and God. Abraham seeks reassurance that his (as yet theoretical) children will indeed inherit the land of Canaan. Despite God’s repeated promises to this effect, Abraham remains uneasy.

“Perhaps they will sin,” Abraham says, “and You will do to them as you did to the generation of the flood.”
Even though God then insists that He would do no such thing, Abraham persists: “How can I know? What will you do, God, to guarantee it?”

It could be that God’s response to Abraham’s request is the command of the Akedah. It could be that the Akedah is the means through which God guarantees Abraham’s children would never sin to the point of being worthy of destruction.

“Do you want to be sure?” God says. “Then take your son, your only son, the one whom you love, and offer him up as a burnt offering upon the mountain that I will show you.”

How would this ensure anything?

The answer becomes clear when we consider the impact the Akedah has had on Jewish history. As Rabbi Yitzchak Arama reminds us, the Torah records the whole story of the Akedah for us so that Jews throughout history could “virtually” witness the Akedah. As a result, Jews of all ages have been shaken and moved by this account of devotion to God without limits, of commitment to God without boundaries, of the willingness to spare nothing in the pursuit of God’s vision.

Who could then deny the assertion that the Akedah has repeatedly, over the course of Jewish history, saved us from the fate of the Generation of the Flood, from the fate of disappearing from this world without a trace? Because of our sins, we could have disappeared at the hands of the Babylonians. But Jeremiah rose repeatedly, risking life and limb, to convey the message of God that we must not believe that this is the end. That if we return, we shall be redeemed.

From what story did Jeremiah draw the inspiration to remain steadfast and loyal to God’s vision despite the fact that doing so might cost him his life? Like all of us, Jeremiah was a witness to the Akedah.

Which story inspired Esther to gather up her courage and enter Ahasuerus’ throne room, risking her own life to save her people?

Which biblical figures was Rabbi Akiva thinking about when he defied the Hadrianic ban on public Torah study?

On the day of his execution, what story must he have been thinking about when he described his sense of joy to his students over the fact that he now knew that he truly loved God with all his heart?

And in a slightly different but not unrelated vein, how did it happen that not only the Jewish people survived the Shoah, but that Judaism survived the Shoah?

Abraham asked: “How will I know that my children will live on forever?”

And God answered, “Take thou your son….”

In other words: You and he will model devotion and persistence even in the face of possible death. And all will see it, and know it.

There is, of course, a startling but crucial implication to this reading of the Akedah. It requires that we assume that Abraham and Isaac knew that whatever was going to happen when they reached the mountain — however the drama would end, however many of them would descend the mountain alive — they knew that they were participating in this tortuous drama not for themselves and not for God, but for the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren that they would never meet.

They did it for the unknown generations of people who would call themselves the children of Abraham and Isaac, for the generations that would need a model of love and devotion to God that they could latch onto and possess as their own, when their hour of trial would arrive.

“We do not ascend this mountain for ourselves,” father and son said to each other. “We ascend it to ensure the lives of those who will come after us.”

And for this reason, too, we hold them up as our models and heroes.

Yosef Kanefsky is the rabbi of the B’nai David-Judea Congregation, a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.