This week’s Torah portion is Vayera, Genesis 18:1-22:24.
One of the most difficult narratives in our Bible is this story of the “binding” (akedah) of Isaac. How can the righteous God command Abraham to sacrifice his beloved and innocent child? And, secondly, how can a father ever think of carrying out such a command without the slightest dispute with God?
Let us begin with our first query: How can God make such a request? The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, in Fear and Trembling, maintains that herein lies the precise nature of the Divine test, the reason why Abraham emerges as the supreme Prince of Faith: God expects of his most trustworthy servant the “teleological suspension of the ethical”; in response to a command by the Almighty, the individual must still the ethical voice of his conscience. We hearken to the word of God not because it is good, but rather because it was from God!
Rav Yosef ibn Kaspi suggests a very different approach: the story was meant to teach Abraham that God abhors child sacrifice. Hence Abraham, a child of this world of idolatry, may have expected such a command; and perhaps the real test may have been Abraham’s (correct) decision to listen to the second “voice” of the angel of the Lord: “Do not lay your hand upon the lad.”
Several years ago, I saw Rembrandt’s celebrated painting of the Akedah in the Hermitage Museum in what was then Leningrad. I noticed that Rembrandt pictures Abraham’s hand outstretched with the knife, ready to slaughter Isaac, and an angel from the Lord stays Abraham’s hand, forcibly preventing the father from sacrificing his son. Why does Rembrandt add an element that the Bible does not record? Clearly, Rembrandt was disturbed by how Abraham could favor the words of a mere angel telling him to desist from the act that God had commanded.
Rembrandt concludes that the angel actually prevented Abraham’s action.
Rav A.I. Kook gives a most startling reason for Abraham’s preference for the angel’s command: The angel was Abraham’s conscience telling him not to slaughter Isaac.
Apparently, Rav Kook is saying that the inner voice of the human conscience is actually the “image of God,” the “portion of God from on high,” which was the angel of the Lord who came to Abraham; it was a voice from within, not a voice from without.
In fact, it is quite possible that Rav Kook is hinting at the possibility that since God’s words were nebulous, having said, “Bring him up there as an offering” (or a “dedication”), but never saying explicitly to “slaughter Isaac” (see Rashi), Abraham misinterpreted God’s words; God meant only that Isaac should be dedicated – in life, not in death! And this is what our talmudic sages say (B.T. Ta’anit 4a) when explicating the words of the prophet Jeremiah regarding the sin of idolatrous child sacrifice.
I do not believe that subjective human conscience can take precedence over the word of God; however, in the case of God’s initial command to Abraham – which leaves room for two different interpretations – it makes sense for Abraham to invoke the “angel of the Lord.”
After all, Abraham certainly knew the biblical portions prior to his ministry: God’s displeasure over Cain’s murder of Abel, the lame excuse of Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and the dictum following the story of the flood: “Whosoever sheds his fellow’s blood, his blood shall be shed by his fellow, since in the image of God was the human fellow created” (Genesis 9:6). These words previously given by God could very well have been the “angel of the Lord from heaven,” which gave the correct interpretation to Abraham of God’s true desire.
Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat.