Abrahams sacrifice demonstrates the profundity of our covenant

Genesis 18:1-22:24

II Kings 4:1-37

by Rabbi Pinchas Lipner

The significance and centrality of the episode in this week's Torah portion, which recounts the Akeidah (the binding of Isaac on the altar), is undeniable.

In Genesis 22:1-3, the Torah relates that G-d tested Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. The language of G-d's command was deliberately vague and designed to be misunderstood (Taanit 4:1).

Isaac, from whom it had been promised that a great nation would emerge; Isaac, for whom Abraham and Sarah, his wife, had prayed and waited for years and whose birth in their very advanced years had truly been miraculous; Isaac, the source of all of their hopes and dreams for the future — was to be bound upon the altar and sacrificed.

This action would appear to nullify the potential of G-d's promise to Abraham that He would establish His covenant with Isaac. Also it put Abraham in a most awkward position. He had devoted his life to teaching the concept of monotheism to the world. He taught about the evil and repugnant practices of idol worship as well. Chief among these was human sacrifice. In addition and above all else, he was being asked to take an action so contrary to human nature — which is to protect one's child from harm at all cost — that it boggles the mind to think of what was being demanded of Abraham.

Nevertheless we learn that both Abraham and Isaac, already a mature adult, did not hesitate for a moment but acted with great alacrity to fulfill the will of the Almighty. As it developed, an angel of G-d stayed Abraham's hand because it was never intended that Isaac should be sacrificed. A ram, found stuck in a thicket, was sacrificed instead according to G-d's instructions. This is one reason for the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. We remind G-d, so to speak, of the merit of our forefather, Abraham, as we are being judged.

The incident of the Akeidah became the source of the discussion and teaching concerning G-d's abhorrence of human sacrifice. It was the last of the 10 tests, which Abraham faced and passed with flying colors.

The Akeidah has a profound message for all of us to consider. Abraham taught us by his action what is due the Divine commandment and what the love and fear of G-d mean. In spite of everything his head and heart must have told him, Abraham listened only to that which G-d, Himself, commanded and he ran to do His will. He did not ask himself first "Do I consider this an act of kindness, morality, fairness, rationality or political correctness? Does it meet my standards? Do I approve?"

Those questions didn't matter to Abraham because he understood then what we today often fail to understand — that using his own personal feelings and ideals as the guidelines for his behavior would essentially mean that he was worshipping himself. If he allowed himself to pick and choose to obey only those commands that appealed to him, made sense to his great but finite intellect and were convenient to him, he would not need G-d or His commandments. He might as well devise his own religion with his own set of personal convictions and mores. He could call it "Abrahamism."

That our religion is not and never has been self-interpretive is most evident in the behavior of our father, Abraham. When called upon to fulfill the will of G-d, despite his own inability to comprehend the command, the indescribable pain involved and the fact that it seemed to fly in the face of everything he believed, Abraham put aside all ego and personal reservations to fulfill the will of his Creator. In passing this test, he provided a wonderful example for his descendants for all time.

Shabbat Shalom!