II Kings 4:1-4:37
For my first Torah column, I’d like to get right down to business and start with something challenging. This week’s parshah contains what might be the most difficult story in the Torah: the Akeda, the binding of Isaac.
Each time we read this story we ask: Why does God have to test Abraham’s faith by asking him to sacrifice his beloved son, for whom he waited for so many years? And, even though Isaac is spared just in the nick of time, does the Torah want us to learn that Abraham passed the test because he was willing to kill him?
Perhaps the key to making sense of this story is in asking different questions than the ones we usually ask. What if, instead, we asked: How does this story reflect the reality of our lives? Isaac lies on the altar with a knife held above him until an angel of God calls out to Abraham to stop. So too, our fate lies with that same unpredictable Voice; we never know whether we will face health or illness, good fortune or tragic disappointment, life or death.
The reality is that our lives, like Isaac’s, hang by a thread. What if we read the Akeda not as a test of obedience, but as a test of how we respond to that capricious quality of life?
How do Abraham, Sarah and Isaac respond to that test? Immediately following the Akeda, the Torah reports that Sarah dies, and the rabbis fill in the details in a midrash: It was the almost-sacrifice of her son that kills her. Even though Isaac is spared, the very knowledge that he could have been killed is too much for Sarah to bear.
The near-miss experience is life altering: You find out the tumor is benign, or you survive the accident by a hair’s breadth, but you know that’s not always the case for everyone. As Torah scholar Avivah Zornberg teaches, the Akeda topples Sarah’s faith in God’s providence and in the world’s coherence. Sarah literally cannot live with the possibility that life is absurd, random and sometimes even cruel.
Unlike Sarah, Isaac survives the traumatic experience, but his blindness later in life, according to the rabbis, is a result of the Akeda. Not only does Isaac lose his vision, but also he seems to be generally shut down; unlike the other patriarchs, Abraham and Jacob, Isaac is a passive and fairly minor character.
Isaac demonstrates another possible response to the question of how we live knowing how very precarious life is. We might shut down and close our eyes because life is too frightening or too difficult.
Abraham offers a different response to the Akeda. He experiences the same erratic God and the same life upheaval as Sarah and Isaac, but he continues on, living fully while facing life’s challenges. In the Akeda story alone, Abraham three times responds “Hineni,” here I am, when called upon.
“Hineni” is the Torah’s way of saying “I’m fully present, ready to serve, ready to face whatever life asks of me.” Somehow Abraham is able to hold the contradictions of the Akeda — that he must sacrifice his son and believe in God’s promise for the future — and live with life’s contradictions that include pain and hope, loss and faith.
Abraham does not give in to despair like Sarah or withdraw in avoidance like Isaac, and after the Akeda and the death of Sarah, he continues on, looking to the future, fully engaging in life. He finds a wife for Isaac and he himself remarries and has more children.
In this way, Abraham did pass the test of the Akeda after all, but not just in the way we usually think of it — that is, by submitting to God’s command. Rather, Abraham passed the test of being able to experience the incomprehensibility of God and the uncertainty of life, while keeping his spirit intact, along with his hope for the future and his ability to live life fully. So may we.
Rabbi Chai Levy is associate rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. Her columns replace those of Rabbi Michelle Fisher.