Vayera 5782 – Akedat Yitzchak Unravelled

By: Larry Tobin

Vayera is one of the most challenging Parshas to understand. It is filled with mysteries from start to finish. Why did Sarah laugh when told that she was about to give birth to a son at age ninety? Why did Abraham advise Avimelech that Sarah was his sister? Why did G-d spare Lot? Why did Abraham only supply Hagar and Ishmael with bread and water when he sent them off into the desert? Why did Abraham go to Beersheva and not return to Sarah in Chevron after the Akedat Yitzchak? The greatest mystery, or at least the most oft discussed one is the Akedat Yitzchak: the sacrifice of Isaac. It is this last mystery that I will explore with you today.

First, it appears to me that Abraham was willing to sacrifice not one son, but two sons. Was Ishmael really expected to survive in the desert? A good starting point would be to examine the character of Abraham. Abraham clearly was a man who was willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of G-d. Sacrifice himself, but not others. He dedicated his life to developing and spreading a new world morality, thereby becoming the founding father of Judaism. Wasn’t this a man who bargained with G-d to spare the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. How could such a man agree to sacrifice his son Isaac without arguing, or at least bargaining, with G-d to spare him?

The great Jewish commentator, Ralbag, offers an explanation. Ralbag, Rabbi Levi ben Gershon, lived from 1288-1344. He is also known as Gersonides.  Ralbag lived in France under the reign of Phillip IV. On the 10th of Av, 1306, King Phillip expelled all Jews from France and confiscated all of their possessions. Ralbag was able to escape the expulsion since he lived in a province of France that belonged to Spain and was under the control of the Spanish Pope. Ralbag, as a result of this expulsion, dedicated his life to promoting world tolerance and Jewish ethics. Among his religious accomplishments was writing commentaries on the Bible and Talmud and his popular work Toalioth (Benefits), a renowned work on Jewish ethics. Among his lay accomplishments, and as a result of his love of astronomy, he invented an instrument used to study and observe stars and planets. He is also recognized for inventing a device that became the forerunner of the modern camera.  His commentaries, rest assured, carry great weight among Jewish scholars.

Regarding the Akedat Yitzchak, Ralbag notes that this situation differed greatly from Sodom and Gomorrah. In the latter situation, Abraham was not ordered to do anything. Hence, Abraham felt comfortable bargaining with G-d to spare lives. With respect to the Akedah, Abraham was told to sacrifice his son. Although heartbroken and despite the fact that it went against his nature, Abraham obeyed. Per Ralbag, if Abraham had been ordered by G-d to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, he would have unleashed his powers to destroy them. If Abraham had only been advised that G-d was going to take Isaac’s life, Abraham would have pleaded with G-d to spare Isaac.

Although I am not in the same league with the great Ralbag, allow me offer a personal perspective. Abraham was destined to become the father of two great nations: Jews and Arabs. But was he really worthy of this great honor? G-d, I suggest, tested Abraham through both Isaac and Ishmael forcing Abraham to prove his love of G-d. When Sarah asked Abraham to send away Hagar and Ishmael, Abraham would not consent. Only after G-d instructed Abraham to listen to Sarah did he consent. G-d, please note, had previously assured Abraham that a great nation would arise through Ishmael. Hence, Abraham in good conscience could send Ishmael into the desert with only meager supplies knowing that G-d would somehow protect Ishmael. Similarly, wasn’t Abraham assured that a great nation would arise through Isaac and that his (Abraham’s) descendants would be plentiful like the sands of the earth and the stars in the heavens? Therefore, although Abraham had been ordered to sacrifice Isaac, in his heart of hearts he had faith that G-d would somehow intercede and make things turn out right.

Not yet convinced that Abraham did the right thing by the Akedat Yitzchak? My eldest son David and I recently discussed the Akedah. He brought to my attention a most interesting viewpoint regarding this matter. Dennis Prager is a Jewish American writer, speaker, radio and TV commentator. He is also an historian and Biblical scholar. Mr. Prager has often stated that to understand history, one must view things in the context of the times and not view things through modern times and standards. Thus, to those who now attack some of our Founding Fathers as being racists whose statues should be taken down since they were slave holders, Mr. Prager opines that we should instead look at their amazing accomplishments.  That we should recognize that during the founding of our country slaveholding, which we now find abhorrent, was widely accepted by many. Similarly, regarding the Akedah, we need to recognize that child sacrifice to pagan gods was a widely accepted practice. Hence, when Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac to G-d, it may not have struck Abraham as an unusual request. The purpose underlying the Akedah, therefore, would be to teach Abraham a new morality which he could then spread throughout the world. The Jewish G-d, the true and only G-d, abhors human sacrifice. He will not permit it to occur in His name or in His honor.

I hope that you have gained a new understanding of the Akedah and that if you previously viewed it as a disgusting and offensive event that, perhaps, you now view it differently. It has been a pleasure speaking to you today. I thank you for giving me the opportunity to explore the Akedah and provide myself with a better understanding of this historic and world-changing event.

Shabbat Shalom

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