It is fair to say that one of the most renowned of the Torah’s narratives is the almost sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, the Akedah, which is recorded at the conclusion of this week’s Torah reading, Parsha VaYera. Briefly, Sarah is at last blessed with a child; a son named Isaac. Isaac will become Abraham’s heir and the beneficiary of the Covenant God had made with his father. About thirty seven years after his birth, God commanded Abraham: “Please take your son, your only one whom you love – Isaac” to the land of Moriah, an area identified with Jerusalem, and there sacrifice him as a burnt offering, an Olah. Pointedly, Abraham did not try to dissuade God, rather he responded in a fairly matter of fact fashion: “And Abraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son; and he cleaved the wood for the burnt-offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.”
When Abraham arrived at his destination, he built an altar, prepared the firewood, bound his son and then placed him on the altar top. As he moved his arm, with knife in hand, to slit Isaac’s throat, an angel of God called on him to stop. Speaking on God’s behalf, the angel told Abraham; “Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him; for now I know that thou art a God-fearing man, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me”. God however did not make an appearance.
This brief narrative offers a study in contrasts. At once you are overwhelmed by the sheer repugnance of God’s command and shocked by Abraham’s slavish acceptance of such a horrendous task, as much as you are awed by Abraham’s simple and powerful faith and his demonstration of complete loyalty to God. It was for very good reason that the narrative of the Akedah was picked to be read on Rosh Hashanah, in a hopeful gesture to remind God of the faithfulness of Abraham and thus provoke a further degree of compassion and forgiveness for his descendants.
God’s commandment to Abraham to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice is presented in the Torah as a test, “after these things God tested Abraham” (Gen: 22:1). Traditional commentators have found hidden in the narrative clues suggesting that Abraham had previously been tested by God, nine times, and that each of the challenges were successfully met. The editors of TheMishnah in the Pirkei Avot describe these tests as trials of Abraham. James Kugel in Traditions of the Bible observed that the image of Abraham in post -biblical literature became that of “Abraham the Tested”. Kugel astutely observed that Abraham’s path from his homeland had been one interconnected challenge to his faith and belief in God. He was given a land which suffered from drought; he was promised a great nation as his descendants when he was old and childless. Abarbanel a Portuguese commentator from the 15th Century noted that the Akedah epitomized the Jew’s determination to serve God no matter how difficult the circumstances. It represented the ultimate test because it was completely irrational. Like Abraham, a Jew must be determined to serve God no matter how difficult the circumstances.
In a very haunting omen, God’s command to Abraham was to make of Isaac an Olah. This was a specific type of offering; one that was completely burned. In her “The War against the Jews,” Lucy S. Dawidowicz discussed the term chosen by Jews to describe
their fate in the Second World War II, a Holocaust. She observed that; “At the most superficial level, the word ‘holocaust’ means a great destruction and devastation, but its etymological substratum interposes a specifically Jewish interpretation. The word derives from the Greek holokauston, the Septuagint’s translation for the Hebrew Olah, literally ‘what is brought up,’ rendered in English as ‘an offering made by fire onto the Lord, ‘’burnt offering,’ or ‘whole burnt offering’”. Thus the Akedah, a symbol of man’s ultimate faith in God, today provokes images of man’s ultimate crime against God.