Shabbat candles: 5:33 p.m.
Torah: Genesis 18:1-22:24
Haftarah: II Kings 4:1-37
Havdalah: 6:32 p.m.
“Take your son…and bring him up as a dedication…” [Genesis 22:1]
Years ago, when I was telling my young children the story of the Akeda, “the sacrifice of Isaac” from this week’s Torah portion, my daughter, Batya, tearfully interrupted my tale saying, “Stop lying to me Abba and stop telling stupid and scary stories. Hashem loves everyone — that’s what you always tell us. He couldn’t have asked Abraham to do to Yitzchak (Isaac) what you said…”
Trembling, she then ran into the bedroom to complain to my wife — and refused to listen to my biblical renditions for the next two weeks. For the first time, I was forced to re-examine the biblical account from the viewpoint of a naïve, potential victim — and I saw the words of the Scripture in all of their awesome terror. I have been wrestling with the import of the Akedah story ever since.
Now, I shall attempt to answer Batya’s question; how could God have made such a cruel request of Abraham?
The opening words, “And it happened after these things (or events)” suggest that the Divine commandment came as a result, or a punishment, for the preceding biblical events. It is fascinating that the event immediately preceding the command of the Akedah could be construed a transgression according to modern Israel’s political right wing, the sin of giving away part of the Promised Land of Israel, and the event before that could be considered a sin by Israel’s political left wing, a sin against Yishmael (Ishmael).
Let us first analyze the episode immediately preceding the Akedah — the treaty Abraham makes with Avimelech the king of the Philistines, allowing him and his people to live in the Negev portion of the Promised Land [Gen 21:22-33]. The Rashbam, maintains, “After the event in which Abraham made a covenant with Avimelech, the Holy One Blessed-be-He became angry with [Abraham] for that, since this land of the Philistines is subsumed under the [Divinely granted] borders of Israel… Hence God vexed and punished Abraham as if to say, “You acted in a high-handed manner against the son I gave you by making a treaty between yourselves [You and Avimelech], and your children and his children, giving away the patrimony promised to Isaac. … Now go and bring him [Isaac] as a dedication and see how you will be benefited by this treaty!”
Close to 4,000 years later, before the Partition Plan of Nov 29, 1947, a less generous division of land was offered to David Ben Gurion. Uncharacteristically, he found it difficult to reach a decision; he asked the one person in the Labor Party he truly respected, Yitzhak Tabenkin, to make the decision for him, promising that he would go along with whatever Tabenkin decided. Tabenkin agreed, but requested time to take counsel with two people. The next morning, Tabenkin advised Ben Gurion to reject the deal. “I will listen to you,” said Ben-Gurion, “but tell me, with whom did you take counsel?” “I asked two individuals,” answered Tabenkin, “I asked my grandfather and I asked my grandson. I asked my grandfather who died ten years ago and I asked my grandson who has not yet been born. The Land of Israel belongs to them!”
Abraham’s penultimate act prior to the Akeda may be called “The sacrifice of Ishmael.” It begins when the older and more sophisticated Ishmael mocks the younger and more naive Isaac, leading Sarah to demand that Abraham banish Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham at first demurs, but then complies with a Divine command that he heed his wife Sarah.
Despite God’s command that listen to Sarah, the Ishmael narrative has striking parallels to the Akeda story, suggesting that God’s request that Abraham sacrifice Isaac comes as a punishment for the callous sacrifice of Ishmael one chapter before!
The Bible describes the banishment, or sacrifice, of Ishmael: “Early the next morning, Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba” [Genesis 21:14].
Rashi’s commentary on this verse, points out, “Abraham [sent them out with] bread and water and not with gold and silver.” This was nothing short of a death mission! And then we find the parallel phrases to the Akeda: “Abraham rose early in the morning” [Gen. 22:3], and “Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering (olah) and placed it on his son Isaac” [Gen. 22:6] just as he placed the meager supplies of bread and water on Ishmael.
God sends Abraham with Isaac, his olah, on what seems to be a death mission and they, too, must wander towards an unknown destination [Gen. 22:3]. In both incidents, it is an angel who saves both boys [Gen. 21:17; 22:11] and the angel who blesses each with the blessing of becoming a great nation [Gen. 21:17; 22:15-19].
The command of Akedat Yitzhak comes as the punishment for Akedat Yishmael!
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.