The story of the Akedah, of the Binding of Isaac, is indispensable to Rosh Hashanah. It is the reason we choose the horn of a ram over that of all other animals to be used as a shofar. We remind God of it again and again as example of the merit of our ancestors, and we ask that God overcome God’s stern judgment in favor of mercy, just as Avraham Avinu overcame his mercy in order to fulfill the Divine command to sacrifice his son. But we cannot dismiss our own feelings about this story, or more to the point, our own judgment of this story. Some of us see this story in the traditional way, as a story of heroic devotion to God above all else, a story of tremendous faith that whatever God ordains must be for the best. Others of us look at the command to sacrifice Yitzchak as cruel, and so see God as unworthy of worship. Others see Avraham as having failed the test, not passed it. How could he not have known for himself that to traumatize Yitzchak and Sarah at the very least, and even more likely, to shed innocent blood, even that of his own son, was the deepest moral wrong imaginable? He should have known better than to obey! Still others blame Yitzchak for not protesting. He went, literally, like sheep to the slaughter, and still, he was praised for his willingness to give up his own life before the Divine will!


Neither the traditional view that Avraham and his son are to be praised for their faith and devotion, nor the idea that the Akedah was a cruel, base, and immoral test, can be dismissed. We need to find a place for this story in our own religious imagination. We have at least two forms of morality before us in this story. One defines the good as what is commanded by God. The other is humanistic morality, that tells us that human life has ultimate and infinite value. If we look closely at the Akedah, we see it bringing both moralities together.


The beginning of the story is one of unquestioning obedience of God and unwavering faith in the ultimate goodness of God. Avraham rises early in the morning and saddles his donkey, and sets out immediately to carry out the command.


The end of the story teaches the value of human life. God stops Avraham from slaughtering his son, and provides a ram in Yitzchak’s place. This is consistent with the places in the Torah where we are commanded never to sacrifice our children as the other nations perform their “abominations,” sacrificing their children to Molech or to Ba’al Pe’or.


But did Avraham pass or fail the test? God praises him and rewards him afterwards. It seems, though, that the man who pleaded “Shall the judge of all the earth not do justice?” on behalf of Sodom and ‘Amorah should have done the same for his own son; not because of his feelings towards him, but because of his ethical obligations towards him. How can we understand the praise that God gives him afterwards?


Avraham may have broken from his father’s tradition of idol-worship, but only partially. He knew that idols were false gods, and he did seek a higher truth. But the same paradigm of what a god is stayed with him from his childhood. A god was a higher being to whom all obedience and sacrifice is due, even one’s own children. He failed to realize that a higher service of God was to see his son not as an extension of himself, but as an individual in his own right. It is only because he saw Yitzchak as his son, his heir, the one he loved, that he thought it a selfless and faithful act to offer him up as a sacrifice. Had he understood that the self-determination and individuation that he achieved by leaving his land, his home, and his father’s house were the birthrights of his son as well, he would have known better than to obey the command to slaughter him. 


As it is, the Akedah story tells us that Avraham’s process of lech lecha, of leaving home, was incomplete. To truly stand before the Divine, Avraham needed to know that about himself, and then, his service of God would have been more perfect. But he was a human being, and as such, even his lech lecha was incomplete. His son suffered as a result. God was known as magen Avraham, the shield of Abraham, but God was also known as pachad Yitzchak; the terror of Isaac. 


The shofar is bent like our hearts as we wrestle with our own imperfection, and the effects our imperfections have on those closest to us. Its sounds are the cries that we let out as we realize how much we need to repair in ourselves. We hear the long wailing tekiah, the groaning shevarim, and the sobbing teru’ah of Avraham’s and Yitzchak’s prayer, tears, and anguish as they stood before the Divine. We are left knowing that if Avraham Avinu was imperfect in his service of the Divine, so are we, and so will we always be. We might judge him a little less harshly, and even as we cry that our own imperfections have not been fully repaired, we may even judge ourselves a little less harshly, and take upon ourselves the task of teshuvah.

May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.

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