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The Akeida of 2023
A challenging part of the Torah becomes uncannily apt for this week
You don’t have to be of a mystical orientation to see significance of the weekly Torah readings since the war started. The first was Bereishit; and as Yedidia Stern wrote in an incisive column in which he proposed naming the war as the Genesis War, “Israel is under attack because of its Jewishness, and from that Jewishness – its beginnings, its Genesis – we draw the strength that will lead us to victory. Afterward, we will move on to the task of the present generation: rebooting the Zionist enterprise – from the beginning.” Then, amidst our awareness of the destruction and the threats from all around became clearer, we had Noah, the story of seeking refuge from devastation caused by evil. This was followed by Lech-Lecha, in which we were reminded of our ancient roots in this land. And this week is Vayera, with the story of the Akeidah, Avraham’s test in which he is asked to sacrifice his son.
Personally, I have long struggled with the Akeida. If it is entirely inconceivable that God would actually want someone to kill their son as an act of religious dedication, doesn't this mean that Avraham failed to understand what serving God was all about, and that he ideally should have refused? On the other hand, if it is not inconceivable that God would actually want someone to kill their son as an act of religious dedication, then why did the story end with God telling him not to do it? Wouldn't this give the wrong message and undermine the lesson? What if God would later have asked Yitzchak to sacrifice Yaakov? I speculated on an answer a few years ago, but I do not find it fully satisfactory.
My dear and wise friend Rabbi Scott Kahn, creator of JewishCoffeeHouse.com and the Orthodox Conundrum podcast, recently started writing a column, Orthodox Conundrum Commentary. This week he describes how the story of the Akeidah is full of difficulties. Just as Avraham could not understand how God could have instructed him to sacrifice his son, we too cannot understand it. Yet, he says, there is a powerful message this year, relevant to this week in particular, as hundreds of thousands of Avrahams around Israel go through a similar test:
The Abraham of 2023 has been commanded to send Isaac to the place that God has said. Only God knows why, only God understands the mystery. Isaac stands on the precipice, ready to sacrifice himself for his father and for his God on the altar that Abraham has built. Abraham of 2023 is silent, unable to comprehend why God has commanded that he put Isaac in harm’s way, while also recognizing that there is no other option, that any other option would somehow be less painful, yet a concession to evil. Abraham of 2023 does not believe in child sacrifice, he does not believe in a cruel God, he does not believe in death for the sake of death. Abraham of 2023 believes in life, he believes in children, he believes in the eternity of Israel and the need to preserve that eternity through our families and on our land. He also knows that the will of God is inscrutable, that God sometimes commands him to bring his son to the mountain because some things are important enough that potential sacrifice is necessary.
Abraham of 2023 knows that Isaac sees the knife, and willingly approaches it in order to continue the eternal line of Israel.
Abraham of 2023 prays, like his great ancestor, that “We will bow down and return to you.”
And we pray that Abraham of 2023 once again hears the divine voice declare in the dark of night:
‘By Myself I swear, says God, that since you did this thing, not holding back your son, your only one, I will surely bless you and greatly increase your offspring like the stars of heaven and like the sand on the shore of the sea; your offspring will inherit the gate of their enemies. All the nations of the world will be blessed through your offspring, because you listened to my voice.’
May we all pass the test and reap the rewards.
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