Torah | Staying present with texts that challenge morality


Genesis 18:1–22:24

2 Kings 4:1–37

This week, we read one of the most troubling texts in our Torah: the binding of Isaac, in Hebrew known as the Akedah. God calls to Abraham, and he answers, “Hineni,” “I am present.” God proceeds to test Abraham, asking him to sacrifice his favorite son on Mount Moriah.

The drama builds as Abraham wakes early and saddles Isaac with the wood for his own sacrifice. Discomfort mounts as Isaac asks, “Father! Here are the firestone and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” Abraham answers that God will provide the sacrificial animal,  and in the end that is exactly what occurs. At the moment when the knife is wielded above Isaac, an angel of God calls to Abraham again. Abraham again answers, “Hineni,” “I am present.” The angel of God stops the ordeal and Abraham sees the ram caught in a thicket nearby. The danger has passed.

Last summer, I met a woman who grew up Catholic and so hated this story that it is what she remembers most as she drifted away from the church. As she heard the narrative, she, like so many Jews, couldn’t fathom how she was to put faith in a God who could ask a parent to sacrifice his son. I told her that, historically, this text may have been a polemic against other communities that condoned child sacrifice. Evidence is found in Leviticus 18:21: “You shall not let any of your seed pass through the fire to Moloch,” an Ammonite god. A few weeks after our conversation, Mary expressed that, after many decades of estrangement from her tradition, this new knowledge repaired her relationship with God. Talking about this troubling piece of text unlocked a gate that had been closed off for years.

I can understand how great a problem this narrative posed for her. There is for some of us a moment when we encounter something in our tradition, a text, a law or a teaching, that is so morally problematic we want to just walk away. I wonder how many reach that impasse when they read this text. Ironically, since Abraham’s acquiescence in the Akedah usually is held up as the height of obedience to God, this story pushes many to surmise that religion asks too high a price in the modern, freethinking world: namely, blind faith.

We have learned the lesson well that we are to struggle: with God, with our texts, with our tradition. But there remains an assumption that the struggling must end by “making nice with our texts.” We can deconstruct and figuratively rip at our stories all we like, but ultimately we feel we are supposed to discover an “aha,” some deep meaning or logic.

One way we might address a difficult text is to admit that not all of our stories will be redemptive for all of us, and that’s OK. There is still much to learn from a story that brings us more discomfort than enlightenment. But the act of engaging with text instead of running from it might just unlock some place where we were closed off. For Mary, the breakthrough was the possibility that the ancient tradition may have been just as uncomfortable with the sacrificial request as she was. That realization was the result of re-engaging with the text after many years, instead of keeping her back turned to it.

We may agree or disagree with Abraham’s decision to obey God’s command, but when he is called upon, he answers God with “Hineni.” When we engage with our texts and our tradition, we are saying that we are present, and we open ourselves up to new ways of seeing the world. Mary taught me that it is always possible to unlock some piece of text, ritual or commandment, even after many years. A locked gate that had kept her from her tradition and a relationship with God was suddenly opened.

We don’t know where or when that unlocking might occur. We may spend years struggling, or we may pick up where we left off long ago. Whatever the gates that are blocking you in our tradition, you can’t predict where you might find the keys. To find them, however, you will need to be present. You will need to be able to answer, “Hineni.”


Rabbi Mychal Copeland is a rabbi and senior Jewish educator at Hillel at Stanford. She can be reached at [email protected]

Rabbi Mychal Copeland

Rabbi Mychal Copeland is spiritual leader at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco and author of "Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives."