A Subversive Reading of the Akedah

Alex Braver
September 19, 2011
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I wanted to pick up on Rabbi Dov Linzer’s point about our liturgical reminder of the Akedah in the morning blessings, a small paragraph that comes after the recitation of the entirety of this particular Biblical story each day.  When I first began engaging with these texts a few years ago, I felt slightly repulsed at the idea of re-reading this story every day upon waking, happy to leave it to the once-a-year weekly Torah portion and special Rosh Hashana reading.  The story challenges some of my core ideas about God and faith, in many of the ways explored in this month’s journal.  And so, as I began to read the paragraph following the Akedah in the daily morning blessings for the first time, my heart began to sink as I saw the first clause:

 

“Master of the Universe, just as Abraham our father suppressed his compassion to do your will wholeheartedly…”

Oh no—I thought—I don’t think I can finish this line, I don’t think I can pray that I should drown out the voice of my ethical instinct to blindly follow God’s will.  I assumed the rest of the sentence would read: “so too may we suppress our compassion to do your will wholeheartedly.”.  Should I continue reading, or just skip this and move on?  Why would this tradition, which I love, ask me to say and believe in such things?

What a relief, then, to see the actual end of the sentence:

 

“….so may Your compassion suppress Your anger from us, and may Your compassion prevail over your other attributes.”

Saved, at the last minute!  The prayer was not to drown out my reason with faith, but to drown out God’s anger with love.  And, what a subversive statement, almost to the point of incomprehensibility!  How do we get that lesson—that compassion trumps violence—from a text about Abraham’s willingness to let violence trump his own compassion?    It seems to me that the liturgy makes a statement that sounds like a comparison to the Akedah, but really isn’t truly comparable to the Akedah at all.  In a sense, it almost seems that we ask God to do the opposite of what Abraham did, while appealing to Abraham’s actions as a model.

I think that, sometimes, we have to choose which aspects of God we are to emulate.  During the Holidays, the liturgy loudly proclaim God’s Thirteen Attributes from Exodus 34:6-7:

‘The LORD, the LORD, God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth; keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin;

But we willingly ignore the rest of the verse:

and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and unto the fourth generation.’

 

The Biblical depiction of the Divine is complex and paradoxical—how else could we try to capture in words that which is utterly transcendent?  When confronted with such difficulties, what can we do but acknowledge them, wrestle with them, and then struggle to find how they fit into what we believe are the attributes of God?  I choose to believe in the God who gives mercy to the thousandth generation, and the God who stays Abraham’s hand…and that those Divine attributes will continue to triumph over anger and punishment.  If nothing else, reading the Akedah reminds me of this by the very fact that it is difficult, that Abraham is an exceptional case to the general rule, and that God’s compassion will continue to suppress God’s anger.

*Birkot HaShachar:

רִבּונו שֶׁל עולָם כְּמו שֶׁכָּבַשׁ אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ אֶת רַחֲמָיו לַעֲשות רְצונְךָ בְּלֵבָב שָׁלֵם. כֵּן יִכְבְּשׁוּ רַחֲמֶיךָ אֶת כַּעַסְךָ מֵעָלֵינוּ וְיָגלּוּ רַחֲמֶיךָ עַל מִדּותֶיךָ. וְתִתְנַהֵג עִמָּנוּ ה’ אֱלהֵינוּ בְּמִדַּת הַחֶסֶד וּבְמִדַּת הָרַחֲמִים. וּבְטוּבְךָ הַגָּדול יָשׁוּב חֲרון אַפְּךָ מֵעַמְּךָ וּמֵעִירְךָ וּמֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִנַּחֲלָתֶךָ:

Master of the Universe, just as Abraham our father suppressed his mercy to do Your will full-heartedly, so too may Your mercy suppress Your anger for us, and may Your mercy overcome Your other attributes.  And treat us, Lord our God, with the attribute of lovingkindness and the attribute of mercy.  And may your great goodness turn back your wrath from Your people and Your city and Your land and Your inheritance.
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Alex Braver is a rabbinic fellow at B'nai Jeshurun and a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has also served as a student chaplain, studied at Yeshivat Hadar, and tutored remedial math and English at a charter school in Boston. He graduated from Brandeis University in 2009 with majors in history and politics.

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