The Akedah

September 8, 2011
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Pam McArthur, Sudbury, Massachusetts

Our text today is chapter 22 of Bereishit, the book of Genesis; the familiar story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. The text opens with the words, ”vay’hi achar hadevarim ha’eileh and it happened after these things v’ha’elohim nisa et Avraham – God tested, or tempted, or experimented with Abraham. A theologically challenging statement, only one of many in this narrative.

God calls Abraham by name and Abraham answers “hineni” –– his signature answer I am here, I am fully present, ready to do whatever you ask.

And God says, “take your son, your only one, asher ahavta, the one you love.”  This is the first time the word ahav to love is used in the Torah. The closeness of the relationship is further emphasized as the text refers again and again to Isaac as Yitzchak b’no Isaac his son, and to Abraham as Avraham aviv Abraham his father. We can hear their love as they speak to each other with the call “avi!” my father and the response “b’ni” my son, and in the repeated phrase “vayeilchu shneihem yachdav” and they walked on, the two of them together. Rashi understands this to mean they walked on b’lev shaveh of the same heart. This is a deeply loving bond between parent and child.

Then God steps into this loving relationship and says take Isaac and raise him up as a burnt offering. Another major theological difficulty. During these High Holy Days we call out zochreinu l’chaim, melech chafetz bachaim, remember us for life, God who desires and delights in life v’chotveinu b’sefer hachaim, l’ma’ancha elohim chaim write us in the book of life for your sake, God of life. This is fundamental to my understanding of God: God yearns always toward life. So I struggle with this story that seems to portray God as playing around with life and death.

You know what happens: the journey, the altar, the knife; the angel who intervenes and the ram that is slaughtered. Abraham receives blessings from God, but when Abraham returns from Mt Moriah there is no mention of Isaac. What happened to Isaac and how was their love reshaped by this defining event? … Another question.

I am not going to attempt to answer the questions raised by this text. Having acknowledged a few of the difficulties, what I want to do for today, is to hold my questions in abeyance, to set them aside as I focus on one brief but critical moment: the specific act of binding that gives our narrative its name, Akedah.

The binding occurs in the middle of verse 9: Va’ya’akod et Yitzchak bno and he bound Isaac his son.

Va’ya’akod [and he bound] from the root ayin-kuf-dalet is a hapax legomenon; a word that occurs only once in the Tanach. Only once; only now. The singularity of the language led me to wonder why Isaac was bound. Nothing else in Torah is bound this way, sacrifices were not; why was Isaac bound?

Midrash Tanhuma states that Isaac engaged in this whole drama willingly, with full comprehension and intention. Not only that, but he asked Abraham his father to bind him. He asked to be bound so that he might not inadvertently flinch as the knife came down, thereby preventing a clean cut, thereby making the ritual invalid.

In this view, the sacrifice was an act that Isaac believed whole-heartedly was the right thing to do and yet – knowing himself, knowing human nature – he was afraid he would be unable to carry it out. And so he asked his father for help. He asked to be bound to the right course of action.

I sympathize with Isaac. In my own small way, how many times have I set my feet on a path with firm resolution, only to go off course! How many times have determination and inner discipline failed! My examples hardly compare to the akedah; they are small and ordinary, each one fairly innocuous perhaps but together they add up to a way of life.

At this season, with the self-reflection of the month of Elul carrying us through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – this is the time to consider them. The exercise machine, bought with such commitment, that now gathers dust. The doctor’s appointment I delay. The prayer and Torah study I don’t make time for. The friend who I know is troubled but I haven’t made a phone call.

There are many reasons why it happens this way – I have my list, you may have your own. But the why is not really the point. The point is what I learn from Isaac and the Akeidah: to acknowledge that, on my own, I will sometimes turn away. And to know that I can ask for help and support; I can ask to be bound.

Taking that step is not easy. I have to admit a weakness – maybe one I hoped was unknown or ignored. I have to take on responsibility. In asking for support I create a witness to my intention, making an outward commitment to real change. But of course this is the path of teshuvah – not only recognizing where I have failed but taking steps toward real change.

I am thinking that I can, more often than I do, turn for help. Like Isaac I can turn to the one or two people closest to me and say, “this is my intention but I’m afraid I won’t do it. Will you help me?”

And beyond this, I have an option that Isaac did not. He called “avi, my father.” I can call “ami – my people.” You, my people, all of you. You are my teachers and my guides. You help keep me on my chosen path. With your teaching and your example, with your expectations of me, with your questions and challenges, with your commitment to being here to learn, to teach, and to do, with every time I come to you and you answer hineni, you bind me on this path that leads, I am sure of it, toward righteousness. I thank you. And may it be said of us vayeilchu kulam yachdav they walked on all of them together.

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