Yesterday, during Shabbat services, Jews read Vayera (Genesis 18:1 – 22:24), the portion of the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) whose narrative includes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham’s expulsion of Hagar and Ishamel, and then as its climax, the Akedah — the binding of Isaac.
During yesterday’s service at the Havurah in my synagogue, I gave a d’var Torah (homily) on Vayera. Here’s a lightly edited version:
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The typical question we’re moved to ask about the Akedah is whether, in Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac at God’s command, he passed God’s test of faith, or spectacularly failed it. That is a big question, but it is too big for me this morning. It might also not be the right question. Because, actually, Abraham failed his test long before the Akedah, long before God called him to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah.
Early in our parsha, Abraham argues with God about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. He pleads, he cajoles, he tries to negotiate. God goes ahead and destroys the cities, but not before getting an earful from Abraham.
Emmanuel Levinas was no great fan of Kierkegaard’s famous description of the Akedah as the great leap of faith and Abraham as the knight of faith. Levinas particularly criticizes Kierkegaard for not discussing Abraham’s plea for Sodom and Gomorrah, which Levinas suggests was Abraham’s nobler, and more faithful, encounter with God. Levinas writes that in making that plea,
Abraham is fully aware of his nothingness and mortality. “I am but dust and ashes” practically opens the dialogue, and the annihilating flame of divine ire burns before Abraham’s eyes each time he intervenes. But death is powerless, for life receives meaning from an infinite responsibility,”
a responsibility, Levinas goes on to say, that is “completely tendered toward the Other.”
A few years ago, I was a fellow at the Tikvah Center for Law & Jewish Civilization. In the lobby of the building where I worked stands an imposing statue of Abraham plaintively looking up at God. The scene, as Joseph Weiler, the head of the Center, often emphasizes, is not the Akedah, but the argument over Sodom and Gomorrah.
In a deep sense, that argument was Abraham’s most important test of faith. And that was the test he clearly passed.
Abraham was tested in his commitment in a God who is not willful or arbitrary, or merely one supernatural force among others, but who embodies justice. He asks, “Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?” Theologians ask whether God decrees justice, or whether justice exists as an objective reality apart from God. But Abraham is not a theologian. He has encountered the God who embodies justice, whose reality is intertwined with justice, and he is calling that God to account.
Sometime later in the parsha, Sarah demands the expulsion of Ishmael. And Abraham does not argue. God says, “do as she says, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you.” And, by the way, Ishmael will be OK.
This time, Abraham does not object. He is silent. We can only speculate why. Maybe because the argument over Sodom and Gemorrah didn’t end incredibly well. Maybe because he is reassured that Ishmael will be safe, although I wonder how many of us would be satisfied with the exile of our children only because of a divine assurance that they would be fine. Or maybe because Abraham’s priorities have changed. He began as the universal monotheist, insisting on justice for all. Now he is the father of a people. And if it is through Isaac that his people will be born then Ishmael is, how should I put it, dispensable. Ishamel’s expulsion, his absence, seems to Abraham to be of no great historical importance. And Abraham is thinking now of history. And maybe, because he is thinking of history, his love for Ishmael has given way to his adoration of Isaac.
But Ishamel’s expulsion, his absence, turns out to make all the difference in the world. It is what gives the Akedah much of its significance. For God, having promised Abraham that his line would be continued through Isaac, now seems to nullify that promise and demand Isaac’s sacrifice. In some religions, the eldest son is necessarily fated for sacrifice. That is the test. But Isaac is not really the eldest son, he only becomes that once Abraham and Sarah reject Ishmael’s legitimate place. And, if Isaac is now sacrificed, with Abraham and Sarah as old as they are, that’s it. There is no spare. There will be no more chances. That is the test, or that is at least what renders the test so terrible, over and above the terror of killing any son.
It is almost as if God is telling Abraham, and for that matter, Sarah: “This is what you wanted!”
You wanted Isaac to be the eldest son, the only son, the son on whom your future will rest. You expelled Ishmael without an argument, without a plea to my justice or my mercy. Now learn what that decision leads me to ask of you. You didn’t care enough about Ishmael. Now let’s see what you do when I tell you to sacrifice Isaac.
Indeed, Rashi’s famous drash here suggests that Abraham, when the command is given, tries to undo the expulsion of Ishmael in a sense, or at least to avoid the implications of what he did to Ishmael. When God tells Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Rashi has Abraham answer, “But I have two sons.” God, in the Torah, says, “the son you love.” Rashi has Abraham respond, “But I love both my sons.” God, in the Torah, says, “Isaac.”
And we can even imagine expanding on Rashi’s drash: Abraham says, “But I have two sons.” And God responds, “Not anymore, not since you expelled one of them.” Abraham says, “I love both my sons.” And God responds, “Not enough.”
“Your only son, the son you love, Isaac.” Do Abraham and Sarah ever realize that, in demanding the expulsion of Ishmael, they made possible, and plausible, and terrible, the doom of Isaac, a doom that is only slightly mitigated by the fact that, in the end, he is not sacrificed.
So Abraham was tested long before the Akedah. And he failed. As Jews we must be both universal monotheists and tribal particularists. For that matter, we must be universal monotheists, tribal particularists, and family loyalists – lovers of our fellow human beings, our people, and our close kin – even when those three categories don’t entirely match up. We must be all these things. Abraham forgot that.
The Torah is full of stories of siblings in tension. Cain and Abel. Jacob and Esau. Joseph and his brothers. Each story has some common threads, but each story is also radically different.
Here, with Isaac and Ishmael, the rivalry is actually in Abraham and Sarah’s heads. Isaac and Ishmael do not seem to share it. There are even hints that after the Akedah, Isaac finds comfort with Ishmael and Hagar, in their part of the dessert. At the end of Abraham’s life, they bury him together. In a real sense, Isaac and Ishmael have a special, extraordinary, even unique, bond, for they are both the victims of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his children for what he assumed was a great cause. Maybe that is why Isaac wants to treat both his sons with love and loyalty, even if he knows that Providence will ultimately side with Jacob and against Esau.
And Abraham too seems to learn a lesson of sorts, or at least we can imagine that he does. Late in his life, he marries Keturah, whom some commentators identify with Hagar. She begets him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuaha. None of these six children will continue the line of the people of Abraham. But we can imagine (speculatively to be sure) Abraham in his old age thinking, “That’s OK. That’s OK. That’s not an issue. They’re still my children. They’re all my children. Each and every one of them is the child I love.”