Reflections on Akedat Yitzkhak

September 5, 2011
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Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

At this morning’s service, we encounter a Torah reading that can only be described as troubling, if not horrifying?  We must ask ourselves the question- why do we read this selection, out of all the inspiring possibilities in the Torah, on Rosh HaShana?  And why would it be included in the siddur to be read and re-read as part of our daily devotions?

I think it is a tribute to the great spirit which inheres in our tradition that we don’t shy away from struggling to understand, rather, we enshrine the study of this portion on our holiest of days.  Certainly, the notion that God would ask Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice defies our image of God as loving and compassionate.


Abraham’s response also defies our image of Abraham as a champion of justice. When God confided in him the intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorra, Abraham argues with legendary ferocity, challenging the Judge of all the earth to act justly.  Yet he offers not a word of resistance when it is his own child who is threatened.  How can this be?

Abraham is a model of the importance of civil disobedience in Judaism.  Even in the Army, where people’s lives depend on the unquestioning obedience to orders, we are required to disobey an illegal order.  How could Abraham not have understood the command to sacrifice his son as an illegal order?

A classic commentary comes from a non-Jewish source.  The Danish Lutheran theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, describes Abraham as the “knight of faith” in his extended midrash on this story in Fear and Trembling.   He suggests that righteousness demands action beyond the letter of the law.  As we read the akeda today, we are reminded that sometimes the action that seems to be righteous, that seems to be the ethical requirement, is not the path of holiness, all appearances to the contrary.  This “teleological suspension of the ethical” is at the heart of civil disobedience, an acknowledgement of those times when the law does not represent the highest morality.

In relating the story of the Akeda, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel commented on the fact that the angel appeared at the very last minute to stay Abraham’s hand. A student wondered what would have happened had the angel come a second too late?  Heschel replied that an angel cannot come too late, but we humans, made of flesh and blood, we may come too late.

Heschel was a role model in his devotion to tikkun olam, repairing the world.  His commentary reminds us of the importance of acting now, in both our personal lives as well as in our world.  We CAN be too late and there is nothing more painful than regret, than spending our lives wondering “what if” we had made a better choice.

Emily Dickenson expressed the overwhelming pain of regret for choices we have made incredibly powerfully in her poem on the theme of remorse, when she writes that- “Remorse is cureless; the disease not even God can heal.”  It is so hard to live with regret for the choices we have made.  The High Holidays offer us the opportunity to forgive ourselves and to release these feelings of remorse.


The refrain “hineni” resonates throughout this story.  God calls to Abraham and he replies- “Hineni- here I am.”  When the angel cries his name- again- “Hineni”.  We need to do teshuva for all the times this past year when we, personally,  did not answer- “Hineni”, when were we NOT present as we wished we had been-

to our friends, family, community- ourselves?  Abraham answers, “Hineni” – how have we been called to action in year gone by?

How have we responded?  Are there times when we were conspicuous in our absence?

I am reminded of a conversation I had with friend re:  a moment when I replied “no comment” when I was asked a question with challenging and controversial political ramifications by a newspaper reporter,  rather than risk giving offense.  She gently reminded me of the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that we remember more the silence of our friends than the hurtful words of our enemies.  In the year ahead, let us resolve to courageously reply “Hineni” when our voices need to be heard.


Sacrifice is clearly an overriding theme raised in this story.  What are the sacrifices that we make on a daily basis? Perhaps our health, our family, even our moral integrity for the sake of financial gain?  As we read of the akdeda, we might re-frame the question- what are the things for which we would be willing to sacrifice our lives?  What are the things for which we SHOULD be willing to sacrifice our lives?  Are there any?

In Hebrew, the word for sacrifice is “korban”, from the root “karov”- to draw close. A sacrifice is intended to help us feel closer to Go.  Are there sacrifices we make that bring us closer to God?

When we blow the shofar, the ram’s horn,  we remind God again of the binding of Isaac and draw on the merits of his faith.  “There are ten reasons for blowing the shofar, “ writes Saadia Gaon.  “The sixth is to remind us of the binding of Isaac who offered himself to heaven.  So ought we be ready at all times to offer our lives for the sanctification of God’s Holy name.”

Yet, the ultimate lesson is that in Jewish tradition we serve God by living, not by dying; a lesson which the world still needs to hear in our own generation.

The akeda can therefore be read as a polemic against martyrdom and certainly against child sacrifice.  Danny Siegel captures this feeling in his challenging poem:

“Knife, Birds”

Isaac should have knocked the knife away, slung it down the mountain, broken it on a rock, whatever – as soon as he saw Abraham unwind the rope from the ass’s saddle.
He should have shouted in his father’s
sad-eyed face,
“Your sadness is cheap!
too sophisticated,
too programmed,
weeping for Youth Dying Young
according to God’s will!
Stop crying!  Defy this mystery-laden
Master, this Voice of yours,
and love me, your visible son!”
Would not the birds,
stunned by the near-atrocity of the act, would they not have burst into a mighty Psalm-song to drown the clank of the knife rolling down the hillside and the roaring joy of Abraham?


Abraham’s understanding of God is clearly limited.  This story is presented as a model of personal growth as Abraham achieves a more mature level of understanding.   We have to wonder- would he have done it if he had not been stopped?  When does religious fervor cross the line and become fanaticism?


The Torah describes Abraham’s encounter with God as a test?  Tests are part of life; in a real sense we are tested every day.

The High Holidays are about looking at the choices we have made with a critical eye; knowing that we are all human and will all, necessarily, have some failures.  We are tested in our business ethics, in our response to tragedy.  When we are hurt, our forgiveness is tested.  When we are blessed, our generosity is tested.  Our tests do not always have to be as dramatic as Abraham’s. And what, precisely, was the nature of his test?

Was it a test of his faith or of his moral sensitivity?

How have we been tested in the year which is drawing to a close?


Today’s parsha is known as “Akedat Yitzkhak”- the binding of

Isaac.  We relate to this saga because, in many ways, we are all caught in a bind. Not one of us can escape being wounded, it is an inevitable part of life.  It is our response to hurt that ultimately defines us.  It has wisely been noted that pain is required, suffering is optional.  As the Chinese say, “You cannot prevent the birds of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building nests in your hair.”  We all experience pain, and the only thing we can control is our own response to the challenges we face.  As we contemplate Isaac’s experience of being caught in a bind, and how it effected him, we think about how we are scarred by the trauma in our lives?


We can’t begin to imagine Isaac’s trauma in confronting the reality of his own father’s silence.  Some might argue that he was, indeed, scarred for life by this experience.  Certainly he is the least active of the three patriarchs. How was Isaac scarred?

For one thing, we note that he and Abraham never talk again.

We are left to wonder what his relationship couls have been with his father, and, in fact, how these events impacted his relationship with God?

Genesis 22 is also a painful reminder of how our choices effect our children. How far should we go in imposing our values on our children?  We all have hopes and dreams for our children.

What are they? What happens when our children choose a different direction?  Quoting Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once again-  “I would like my daughter to obey the commandments of the Torah, I would like her to revere me as her father. And so I ask myself the question over and over again:  what is there about me that deserves the reverence of my daughter?”

Abraham had to leave home, leave everything that was familiar in his life.  Isaac had to live with his father’s decision to obey this perceived divine call.  Jacob deceives his father to secure a blessing.  How sensitive are we in our own lives to the trauma of our parents?

Isaac calls Abraham “my father” no less than 12 times in the space of these few short verses.  The text is obviously directing our attention to the sense of relationship.   As the mother of a child who just moved to another state to begin her adult life,  this concept of the Akeda as a lesson in letting go and allowing your child to become their own person is hugely compelling.

In the kabbala, the Jewish mystical tradition, Abraham is associated with khesed- with lovingkindness, and Isaac is associated with gevura- with strength.  It is a measure of our lovingkindness towards the next generation that we permit our children’s power to emerge on its own, without being threatened or threatening.  The Torah ultimately tells us that Abraham and Isaac walked together; this is the ideal..


So, for us, the real question is-  will we be any different after our experience of the High Holidays this year?  When the call comes to Abraham, he wakes up early the next morning and responds with action.  If nothing else, we can learn from Abraham that crises will not be solved by ignoring them; one must confront difficulties in a forthright manner.  We learn that asking, “Why me?” in the face of challenges will not give us the strength we need to deal with a crisis.  Abraham’s demonstrated sense of commitment is an important role model for each of us as we renew our commitment to the paths of righteousness on these Holy Days.

For me, the most important lesson of the akeda is that it’s not about the big, one time, ultimate sacrifice.  In a way that’s too easy.  The real challenge is not to rise to the occasion of one grand, noble, enormous religious gesture.  Rather, it is to live our everyday, mundane lives with a consciousness of being in the presence of God and imbuing our existence with a sense of holiness

The whole theme of Rosh HaShana is that through teshuva, through repentance, through change and growth, we have a new chance at life.  Through the process of kheshbon ha-nefesh, reflection on the state of our souls, we can begin the year with a clean slate, forgiven for past errors and able to start over again.  What a remarkable opportunity- to re-write the script of our lives for the coming year.  May the story of the Akeda which we read on these days of awe inspire us with a sense of awe for the Creator and a renewal of our own faith.  May we express our appreciation for the gift of life without having to be reminded by pain and sorrow.  May we demonstrate the courage of our convictions, acting with boldness and passion when necessary.  And finally, may we be blessed in all our relationships to focus on the element of lovingkindness, having the strength to know that strength cannot be the ultimate value, knowing when we need to hold our loved ones close and we need to let go.

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell, Temple Chai, Phoenix

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