The Akeda and the Covenant at the Basins

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman


Sometimes, a difficult section of the Torah can be explicated by following the literary allusions which tie it in with a totally different one. Parashat Mishpatim ends with a covenant ceremony on Mt. Sinai. We shall try and understand the nature of this "covenant of the basins" (berit ha-aganot 24:12-18) by comparing it to a different incident - akedat Yitzchak, based on a striking parallel in the language of both parshiot. The parallels extend beyond a common atmosphere, for both stories come to teach similar lessons.

1. Let us first compare the content of these stories. In both circumstances, a group of people gather at the side of a mountain; a select few ascend, while the rest stay below. In both instances, they are commanded to wait the return of those who ascend. In the berit ha-aganot we read "and to the elders it was said, 'WAIT HERE FOR US UNTIL WE RETURN TO YOU'" (Shemot 24:14). In the akeda it states "and Avraham said to his servants, 'YOU WAIT HERE with the donkey. The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and WE WILL RETURN TO YOU'" (Bereishit 22:5).

2. In addition to these verses, there are other parallel phrases. In Akedat Yitzchak it states, "On the third day Avraham looked up and saw the place FROM AFAR" (Bereishit 22:4). Similarly, in the berit of ha-aganot it says, "Then He said to Moshe, 'Come up to the Lord, with Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and the seventy elders of Yisrael, and bow low FROM AFAR" (Shemot 24:1).

3. In both of the stories an altar is built - "he set up an altar at the foot of the mountain" (Shemot 24:4), and - "Avraham built an altar there" (Bereishit 22:9). Avraham, on his altar, "offered it up as a burnt-offering (ola) in place of his son" (Bereishit 22:13). In the berit ha-aganot they offered burnt-offerings and sacrificed bulls as peace-offerings (shelamim) to God" (Shemot 24:5). (There is, however, a difference between the two accounts. In the berit ha-aganot the altar is underneath the mountain, and in addition to olot, shelamim were also offered, while in Akedat Yitzchak the altar was built at the summit of the mountain, and only olot were sacrificed. We will deal with these differences later.)

4. Chazal pay close attention to the time mentioned in the akeda - "Avraham rose EARLY in the morning" (Bereishit 22:3). Similarly, before the berit ha-aganot, Moshe "rose EARLY in the morning" (Shemot 24:4).

5. After Moshe ascends the mountain, it is written "Now the Presence of the Lord appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire (eish OKHLA) on the top of the mountain" (Shemot 24:17). The knife in the akeda is called a ma'akhelet (Bereishit 22:6), based on the same root as "okhla."

6. In berit ha-aganot: "He did not RAISE HIS HANDS AGAINST the leaders of the Israelites" (24:11); in the Akeda - "Do not RAISE YOUR HANDS AGAINST the boy" (22:12).

I think it is clear, based on all of the above textual comparisons between the two sections, that the Torah wants the reader to remember Akedat Yitzchak when reading the enactment of the berit. It is plausible that we are to use the Akeda as a background to the berit ha-aganot, as well as a literary model to understand it.

One phrase in the berit ha-aganot demands elucidation: "He sent na'arei benei Yisrael, and they offered olot and sacrificed bulls as shelamim to God" (24:5). There is a dispute among the commentators as to the identity of the "ne'arim." Onkelos translates the sentence as "He designated from the first-born of the Israelites." In his footsteps, Rasag, Rashi, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra and others, explain the word "na'arei" to mean that the bekhorim, the first-born men were chosen to offer the sacrifices.

This understanding is based on the assumption that only at a later date did the tribe of Levi and the sons of Aharon replace the first-born who were initially to have been the priests of God, based on the exchange recounted in Beha'alotkha (Bemidbar 8:14-19).

It makes sense that the first-born would be sent to offer the sacrifices, since at this time they were still the "priests." However, this explanation does not solve the textual problem, for we never find "na'arei" to mean the first-born.

The term "na'ar" has several definitions in Tanakh. Sometimes, it can refer to a baby, for example: "she saw that it was a child (na'ar) crying" (Shemot 2:6; see Rashi). It can also refer to someone who has yet to become a grown man, as in Shoftim (8:14), and I Shemuel (2:18). Often the term 'na'ar' means a servant or a slave: "A Hebrew na'ar was there with us" (Bereishit 41:12; see also Shemot 33:11). Additionally, it also may denote a man of war as seen in I Shemuel (30:17), "except 400 ne'arim who mounted camels and got away" (see also II Shemuel, 2:18). However, there is no other place where 'na'ar' refers to a first-born.

The Ramban explains:

"Perhaps it is because Scriptures mentioned the elders who are "the nobles of the benei Yisrael;" therefore it called the first-borns "ne'arim," for relative to the "elders" they were young. It thus emphasizes that Moshe sent them to offer the sacrifices not because of their status in wisdom, for they were not yet advanced in age, but only on account of the bekhora, through which they were appointed to offer sacrifices."

According to the Ramban, the term "ne'arim" suggests that although the first-born are individually unworthy of such an honored position, nonetheless they are granted this position due to their first-born status. The Ramban offers another possible interpretation of the phrase "na'arei benei Yisrael," one which he prefers over his first explanation: "In line with the plain meaning of Scriptures, na'arei benei Yisrael were the youth of Yisrael who had not tasted of sin, and had never come near a woman, for they were the most select and holy of the people..."

We are dealing with one of the most significant events in the founding of benei Yisrael as a nation, the forging of a berit with God in preparation of the acceptance of the Torah. Why are the ne'arim, whether they are the first-born or young lads chosen to represent the entire congregation in such a profound moment? Should we not have expected Moshe or Aharon to accept the mantle of leadership at such an occasion? What is different about such a moment from the consecration of the tabernacle or the inauguration of the priests, when Moshe performs the main role?

In light of the parallel between berit ha-aganot and Akedat Yitzchak, perhaps we should see the berit as a type of "Akedat Yitzchak" in addition to its other purposes. Just as Avraham as an individual was commanded to sacrifice his son, so too all of Yisrael, as a congregation, are required to offer their sons, their ne'arim, to God. Of course, actual human sacrifice is an abomination. Thus, a ram was offered as a sacrifice instead of Yitzchak; correspondingly, the ne'arim sacrificed burnt offerings as a substitute for themselves. (See Ramban Vayikra 1:9 who explains all animal sacrifices as a substitute for self-sacrifice.)

The olot that the ne'arim offered were coming as "a soul for soul," a substitute for themselves. The multitude of literary comparisons between berit ha-aganot and Akedat Yitzchak enables us to understand why the ne'arim were specifically chosen to offer the sacrifices. The burnt offerings were a substitute of the na'arei benei Yisrael themselves, who were supposed to be offered to God just as Yitzchak, the son of Avraham, was four hundred years earlier.


Based on these parallels between the two stories, I would like to suggest another idea, one not necessarily based purely on the textual comparisons.

In some sense, these two accounts are diametrically opposed to one another. Avraham was asked to sacrifice, not only his son, but also his moral conscience. The setting which surrounds the Akeda is one of hardship, sorrow and death. After all, the request made of Avraham was to end a life, to alienate himself from reality and his surroundings.

In utter contrast, the berit ha-aganot is characterized by the linking of "they beheld God," together with "and they ate and drank" (Shemot 24:11). Meeting God at such an occasion is full of happiness and fervor. In addition, there were also feelings of deep identification with God: "and all the people answered with one voice, saying: all the things which the Lord has commanded we will do ... They said: All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do" (24:3, 7). The central element is a feast, marked by rejoicing and religious exhilaration.

Akedat Yitzchak is characterized by the fear of God, yir'at Elokim ("for now I know that you fear God" 22:12), and the offering of an ola. In contrast, berit ha-aganot is full of jubilation and love, and shelamim are brought in addition to the olot.

From this distinction we can abstract two diametrically opposing pictures of the encounter with God. One can strive to come close and meet God through personal submission, through feelings of sacrifice, pain, sorrow and trepidation, as demonstrated in Akedat Yitzchak. Another method to meet and identify with the Almighty is through feelings of grandeur, elevation of the soul, and joy - actively challenging and building life and not separating from it as depicted in berit ha-damim.

This sheds a new light on the two stories. Akedat Yitzchak is performed alone and in solitude. Avraham and Yitzchak ascend the mountain alone, no one knows of their mission. Their awesome experience remains a personal and intimate one, felt in the depths of their hearts. They build an altar high up at the summit of the mountain, where only they could experience the personal and private encounter with God.

In contrast, the altar of the berit ha-aganot is built at the "foot of the mountain." The entire people participate in this awesome experience with the Lord. This experience benefits the entire congregation, merging the individual within the larger congregation: "And all the people answered in one voice saying: All that Hashem has commanded we will do" (24:3).

The dialectic of these two episodes is related to a difference in the encounter itself. In Akedat Yitzchak, Avraham is the one making an offering to Hashem, he is the giver, he is trying to forge a bond with heaven. In berit ha-damim, Hashem is giving the tablets to the people, He is extending an outstretched hand to humankind and descending to a mundane human life. Avraham carries the fire and the knife (ma'akhelet) to the mountain, while Am Yisrael sees the "glory of God as a consuming fire ("eish okhla") at the top of the mountain" (Shemot 24:17). When man initiates the meeting, it takes the form of loneliness and anguish. In contrast, when man merits God's coming to seek him, it is a time of utmost joy and celebration.

Accordingly, we see yet another difference between the two stories. In both of the stories there is repeated mention of the verb "re'iya" (seeing). Avraham names the place "Hashem yir'eh, as will be said this day, behar Hashem yera'eh" (lit. the Lord will see) (Bereishit 22:14.). When Avraham recounts the events which took place on the mountain, he chooses the seeing ("yir'at") of God as the focus of his experience.

In relation to the berit ha-aganot, we read, "and they saw the God of Yisrael: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire,... they beheld God, and they ate and drank" (Shemot 24:11). Later on, the glory of God was exposed for the entire nation to behold. "Now the Presence of the Lord appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain" (Shemot 24:17).

There is major difference between the two events. In Akedat Yitzchak, God is the One who is watching the human sacrifice. The main characters in the Akeda are the humans who are seen by God, "on the mountain of the Lord there is vision" (Bereishit 22:14). God is the one who sees.

In contrast to the story of the Akeda, in the berit ha-aganot, the people are the ones who do the seeing. In the beginning it is done by the noblemen and afterwards by the entire nation. This relates back to a previous point, that at the time when man initiates contact with the Deity, he is the one acting while the Lord passively observes, whereas at times when God reaches towards mankind, He is active and the people are passive.

It may be possible that the offering of "sons" is also the instrument of this idea. Possibly, in order for people to see God and His glory, one must sacrifice one's own life, because, "man cannot see Me and live" (Shemot 33:20). When man requests to see the vision of the Lord, it is required of man to sacrifice of himself: "And you must redeem every first-born among your sons. None shall appear before me empty-handed" (Shemot 34:20).

[An expanded version of this article appears in Megadim, vol. 25 (Kislev 5757).]