Akeidat Yitzchak

Parashat Vayeira tells the triumphant yet tragic tale of Avraham Avinu?s tenth and final test, the Binding of Isaac (Akeidat Yitzchak). We tend to focus on the triumphant aspect, on Hashem?s declaration that He now knows Avraham to be G-d-fearing. But the Torah?s message lies equally in the subsequent estrangement of Avraham and Yitzchak.

The Torah states twice that Avraham and Yitzchak walked ?together? on their way to the Akeidah. But in the aftermath Avraham walks alone, and when Avraham died, Yitzchak was living elsewhere. Reading the Akeidah seriously requires us to explain why Avraham?s ultimate religious act cost him the intimacy of the son he so loved, and to discover whether or not this sacrifice was necessary.

In G-d?s initial appearance to Avraham, He commands him to leave ?your homeland, your birthplace, and your father?s house?. In other words, Avraham is required to leave his location, his culture, and his family. This commandment includes the phrase ?lekh lekha?, ?take yourself?, which next appears as the introduction to the command to sacrifice Yitzchak. By connecting the stories linguistically, the Torah implicitly describes the Akeidah as the culmination, or at least continuation, of Avraham?s original pilgrimage.

And Avraham?s spiritual life can plausibly be viewed as an extended journey away from family for the sake of religion. For when Avraham obeyed G-d and left his ?homeland? and ?birthplace?, his nephew Lot, and thus his ?father?s house?, travelled with him. This mistake is meliorated when Avraham and Lot separate, but it is only at the Akeidah that Avraham proves that his attachment to religion trumps his attachment to his ?father?s house?. Thus G-d declared that the original ?lekh lekha? would be to ?the land that I will show you?, but He only allows Avraham to be ?shown? the land after Lot?s departure, and Avraham only ?sees the place? when he commits to performing the Akeidah.

This capsule summary of Avraham?s life, however, rests on the assumption that the command to leave his ?father?s house? applied even to his own descendants, to his future family as well as his past. This assumption seems tenuous at best. As the father of a radically new nation, in a sense a second Adam, Avraham was required to be, like Adam, a man without a past journeying to an undiscovered country. But why should this require him to break all links with the future?

I suggest that Avraham?s obligation to sacrifice Yitzchak, to sever his link with the future, existed only because, and thus only until, he viewed the future as an extension of the past. So long as Yitzchak?s significance to Avraham lay in their biological connection, Avraham was compelled to attach significance to the circumstances of his own descent as well. When his willingness to sacrifice Yitzchak demonstrated that he valued him for his capacity to contribute rather than for his genes, he was ordered to spare him - ?do not send your hand against the child and do him no injury?.

But Yitzchak never came to terms with Avraham?s willingness to sacrifice him. He may have been willing to sacrifice himself - he may have understood that Avraham?s decision was objectively correct - but he still felt it as a betrayal of the parental relationship, as irreconcilably contradicting all prior demonstrations of affection and regard. Yitzchak could not continue a loving relationship which acknowledged that love is not the ultimate measure of value.

We do not face Avraham?s need to choose between G-d and his past. Our religion is grounded in a tradition, thus our relationship with G-d is necessarily mediated by the past. Avraham was required to sacrifice his father?s house; we are required to integrate and emulate our ancestors? history.

But on a more general level, Avraham and Yitzchak face universally shared spiritual conflicts during the Akeidah. Their relationship might, I think, shed helpful light on our own religious decisions, on the balance we must all maintain between religious and human commitments.

However, I will refrain from drawing morals, as I?d like you to confront the text rather than my opinions. And you should remember that this has been one of a great many possible interpretations.