Purpose of the Akedah

What is the Purpose of the Akedah?

Akedat Yitzchak is one of the most important events in the Torah. The Akedah story is framed as a test of Avraham’s faith; it opens with Hashem asking him to sacrifice his son, Yitzchak. Avraham, with complete trust in G-d, traveled for three days and finally brought Yitzchak to Har Hamoriah and bound him to the altar. He was truly prepared to sacrifice his son when, suddenly, G-d interjected:

“Lay not your hand upon the lad, neither do anything unto him; for now I know that you are a G-d-fearing man, seeing that you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me to sacrifice [Genesis 22: 11-12].”
Extremely grateful for G-d’s show of mercy, Avraham sacrificed a ram to show his thanks. Several questions are evident after reading this famous story: Why did G-d nearly take away Avraham’s child, one he had yearned for interminably? Why would the sacrifice of Avraham’s son be a suitable test of faith? What would be the benefit of killing the one person who could continue on the legacy of the Jewish people?

Most commentators respond to these dilemmas by concluding that, through his actions, Avraham showed G-d his utter love and devotion, in addition to his willingness to sacrifice his treasured son. While there is truth to this explanation, delving into other interpretations of the Akedah has led to another conclusion. The Akedah proves that each man is responsible to have the upmost awe for G-d, and be willing to sacrifice everything in His name.

Methods of interpreting this sacrifice are not limited to Jewish academia. Philosophers and scholars around the world have tried to solve this question. One famous opinion is that of Christian theologian, Soren Kierkegaard. In his book, Fear and Trembling, he suggests that Avraham’s undying faith is incomprehensible to ordinary people. Avraham didn’t question G-d’s costly demand; he simply followed the command obediently and submissively. Kierkegaard presents four other ways Avraham could have responded to the test. If Avraham had chosen to follow one of these other paths, it would have been easier for mankind to empathize with his ordeal and made him more human. Nonetheless, Avraham needed to choose this response so that he could claim the title of the paradigmatic forefather of faith.

Kierkegaard continues to explain that there are two models of literary figures. On the one hand, there are tragic heroes, who follow the ethical and moral routes of life. The masses are more likely to be able to relate to their decisions. On the other hand, there are what Kierkegaard describes as the knights of faith. These are the people whose choices are limited within the realms of faith. They are willing to sacrifice everything in order to prove their trust in G-d. While the tragic hero is universally admired, no one can understand or relate to the sacrifices of the knight of faith (Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, and http://www.rabbisacks.org).

Kierkegaard offers three possible explanations of this distinction between the tragic and the faithful. The first difference between the two archetypes is the assumption that the ethical is universal, i.e., that it applies to all occurrences. With this assumption, Avraham is guilty of attempted murder, and as a result it is extremely difficult for mankind to empathize with his situation. Therefore, his sacrifice cannot be interpreted in terms of the universal ethical approach of Man, which is taken by tragic heroes. Kierkegaard famously solves this dilemma by stating, “there must be a teleological suspension of the ethical. Avraham suspended his obligation to the universal to fulfill his higher duty to G-d.” The knight of faith puts G-d’s wishes before his own ethical reasoning, which is why it is so hard for Man to relate to his decisions. The second difference is that the knight of faith has unwavering loyalty to G-d. In light of this definition, Avraham’s actions are analyzed without the input of ethics. As a knight of faith, all of his morality was forced to take second place behind his duty to G-d. The last difference is that Avraham did not reveal to anyone what he was planning to do. A tragic hero would always explain his actions to others to defend them through ethical reasoning. His awareness of the masses is what allows the tragic hero to be susceptible to Man’s sympathies. In contrast, Avraham, as the epitome of a knight of faith, acted alone. He did not share his plans with others, thereby isolating himself from the masses and preventing them for relating to his endeavors. Kierkegaard’s radical conception of the knight of faith expresses his belief that faith transcends all reason (Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, and http://www.rabbisacks.org).

While Kierkegaard interprets the Akedah as a suspension of ethics and reason, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik views it as an internal sacrifice. Rabbi Soloveitchik interprets the binding of Avraham to the altar as demonstration that mankind cannot always expect be triumphant. Sometimes we must lose in order to grow and become spiritually closer to G-d. Suffering and sacrifice is an essential part of the religious experience. “G-d tells man to withdraw from whatever man desires the most,” as He commands Avraham here, in order to force him to recognize His might and become closer to Him spiritually (Rabbi Soloveitchik, Divrei Hashkafa, and http://vbm-torah.org).

G-d requires man’s self- sacrifice, which is exemplified through struggle. G-d demands the ultimate sacrifice of Avraham- to give up his one and only son. Had he gone through with the sacrifice, Avraham’s life would have been filled with emotional distress, and yet he still chose to do what G-d demanded of him. Although Yitzchak was freed in the end, the process of sacrifice allowed Avraham to achieve a new spiritual connection with G-d. Man can only find himself once he has sacrificed. (Rabbi Soloveitchik, Divrei Hashkafa, and http://vbm-torah.org).

Rambam focuses on the prophecy in which Avraham received the command. He claims that Avraham’s determination to fulfill G-d’s word is a testament to the truth of the prophecy he received: if he had any doubt about its truth, he would not have tried to do what was seemingly so unnatural. The Akedah, as an early story of the Torah, cements the authority of G-d’s Word and the truth of His Prophecy.

But Rambam learns, from Avraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son, a much deeper tenet of Judaism: his absolute love and fear of G-d. It is not simply fear of punishment or expectation of reward that spurs Avraham to follow G-d’s Divine Command. Rambam asserts “it is man’s duty to love and to fear G-d, even without hope of reward or fear of punishment” (Rambam, A Guide for the Perplexed, http://www.teachittome.com/seforim2/seforim/the_guide_for_the_perplexed.pdf). G-d’s command contains no mention of the consequences of Avraham’s actions; after the Akedah, G-d refers to Avraham as “G-d-fearing” even though he did not actually go through with the sacrifice, but he doesn’t reward him with anything new either. The Akedah was not a test of obedience, but a test of true yir’at Elokim.

In contrast to Rambam’s two explanatory principles regarding prophecy and fear, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks sets out a four-part interpretation of the Akedah, focusing on the messages about G-d’s dominion and human parenthood to be learned from the incident. In the first part of his explanation, Rabbi Sacks defines the problematic nature of the Akedah. He claims that according to the Torah, child sacrifice is one of the worst sins a person could possibly commit. He brings the following proof from Jeremiah: “They have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as offerings to Baal—something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind (Jeremiah 19: 5).” The prophet Michah adds to the severity of this sin by poetically stating, “Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul (Micah 6: 7)?” One final example is Mesha, King of Moab, who is willing to commit child sacrifice so that the gods would grant him success over the Jews. He declares, When the king of Moab saw that the battle had gone against him, he took with him seven hundred swordsmen to break through to the king of Edom, but they failed. Then he took his firstborn son, who was to succeed him as king, and offered him as a sacrifice on the city wall. The fury against Israel was great; they withdrew and returned to their own land (Kings II 3: 26-27).

How can the Torah perceive the Akedah as a great achievement, while the worst pagans and idolaters are classified as the ones who commit child sacrifice? Rabbi Sacks bases his explanation on this seeming contradiction. (http://www.rabbisacks.org/vayera-5771-the-binding-of-isaac-a-new-interpretation/).

As the premise of the second part of his interpretation of the Akedah, Rabbi Sacks states that G-d owns and creates all beings and objects. This belief is the foundation of Jewish law. G-d, who created all, is the undisputed ruler of the universe, has the right to tell people in which way they can derive benefit from the universe He created. “The key narratives of the Torah are there to teach us that G-d is the ultimate owner of all.” Since G-d rules all, he therefore can cause Avraham to bind and sacrifice his son. This event in the Torah attests that G-d is the ruler of everyone (http://www.rabbisacks.org/vayera-5771-the-binding-of-isaac-a-new-interpretation/). This explanation on its own is dissatisfying; it seems almost “immature” for G-d to threaten to destroy his creations simply to prove his dominion. I do not believe this narrative is there to prove G-d’s rule over mankind rather we should look to Rabbi Sacks’ more developed explanations for a more satisfactory answer.

In the third part of his interpretation, to provide further context for the gravity of the sin of child sacrifice, Rabbi Sacks reminds us that in the Ancient Roman times, pagans sacrificed their children to show total ownership over them. Parents used to legally own their children. Children had no rights. If a parent wanted to kill their child, they had the ability to do so because they had possession over them. On the contrary, the Torah sees child sacrifice as one of the worst possible sins. Therefore, through the Akedah, the Torah shows that parents do not own their children, rather G-d does. Parents are merely the people who watch over them for G-d. The Akedah really represents Avraham relinquishing ownership of Yitzchak to Hashem. “That is what the angel means when it calls to Avraham, telling him to stop, ‘You have not withheld from Me your son, your only son. ’” The binding of Yitzchak to the altar is a dismissal of the notion that children are property of their parents (http://www.rabbisacks.org/vayera-5771-the-binding-of-isaac-a-new-interpretation/).

Lastly, Rabbi Sacks expands even further on the idea that parents do not own their children with his fourth account. G-d demonstrates this through Yitzchak’s unnatural birth: Sarah, Yitzchak’s mother, was biologically too old to give birth to a child. So her birthing Yitzchak allows for G-d to show a rift between parents and children. G-d does this so children have space to grow as individuals, detached from their parents. The binding of Yitzchak truly shows Avraham’s parental excellence. An ideal parent is one who is aware that he or she does not have ownership over their child (http://www.rabbisacks.org/vayera-5771-the-binding-of-isaac-a-new-interpretation/).

Kierkegaard, Rabbi Soloveitchik, Rambam, and Rabbi Sacks have very different yet equally brilliant opinions. Whether they learn about the nature of G-d or the nature of humanity’s worship of G-d, their perspectives truly shed a new light on how I view the Akedah. I have decided to combine a few of their ideas to answer my thesis. I like the theory that parents are not the owners of their children. Hashem is the parent to the all children. Even though G-d is the parent to the children, all people are still obligated to do what He demands. We all must love and fear G-d unconditionally. To show our love and fear, we must sometimes do extreme things, even to the point of self-sacrifice. We learn from the Akedah that faith needs to exceed all reason beyond the point of doubt. Even when we’re having bad days, we need to keep our faith in G-d and believe that bad things happen for a reason. We need to have total trust in G-d’s plan for us. Even if things don’t seem to be going the way we had hoped, we need to believe that we are on the path He has for us and that everything will be okay. Avraham’s faith never faltered and neither should ours.

Student Studying at Midreshet Lindebaum