Studies in the Akeda

  • Harav Yehuda Amital
Translated by Kaeren Fish
In memory of Batya Furst z"l
Niftera 28 Elul 5765. 
Dedicated by her family.
I wish to briefly address some of the questions arising from the story of the akeda. This episode occupies a central place on Rosh Hashana. Rashi comments on the verse, “In the seventh month, on the first of the month, you shall have a Sabbath, a remembrance of sounding the shofar, a holy gathering” (Vayikra 23:24):
A remembrance of the verses of Zikhronot and the verses of Shofarot, to recall for you the binding of Yitzchak, in place of whom a ram was sacrificed.
We shall focus here on Chazal’s teachings and the view of the Rambam. The main questions are: Why did God want the akeda? Did God entertain any doubt concerning Avraham’s fear of God? What is unique about the story of the akeda in a time in which the sacrifice of children to Molekh was an accepted norm of pagan worship? And is blind obedience to God the main message of the akeda?
Along with these questions, there are additional issues of significance. In Sefer Ha-Kuzari, R. Yehuda Ha-Levi speaks of the perfected individual, who is in complete control of all his emotional and intellectual faculties, to the extent that he controls not only his desires, but also his imagination (an idea that I have not found espoused by any of his contemporaries). According to R. Yehuda Ha-Levi, the chasid is meant to command his imagination to conjure images of such elevated occasions as the Revelation at Sinai and the akeda:
Thereafter, the pious person causes his imaginative power to conjure before his eyes, in imitation of the divine characteristic that is being sought, the most wonderful images that are preserved in his consciousness by means of the power of preservation, such as the Revelation at Mount Sinai, and the episode concerning Avraham and Yitzchak on Mount Moriah. (Kuzari 3:5)
If we are obligated to mentally picture the act of the akeda, as the Kuzari suggests, we face a whole slew of new questions: How did Avraham react to the command? Was he able to reconcile himself to it, emotionally and intellectually? Did he accept it wholeheartedly, or with significant doubts? What were those majestic and terrifying moments of the binding of Yitzchak like? Did Avraham and Yitzchak talk to each other as they walked together, and if so, about what? Chazal address these questions in their midrashim and offer a range of different ideas.
To my mind, it is important first and foremost to emphasize one main point: According to all the descriptions offered by Chazal, Avraham never entertained for a moment the thought that the service of God entails human sacrifice. Avraham knew that this was the complete opposite of what God wanted. Moreover, in none of the midrashim have I found the slightest hint that Avraham sought, through the binding of his son, to attain life in the World to Come, in the spirit of the teaching, “Better one hour of beatitude in the World to Come than all of the life of this world” (Avot 4:17). There is not a single word about this in any of Chazal’s teachings on the akeda.
The midrash, and Rashi in its wake, note that Avraham proceeds towards the akeda thoughtfully and soberly. In explaining why the journey to Mount Moriah took three days, Rashi writes:
“On the third day” – Why did he not see it immediately? In order that people could not later say, “The command shocked and confused him and muddled his thinking; had he had time to think about it, he would not have gone ahead with it.” (Rashi, Bereishit 22:4)
Had the akeda not taken place on the third day, one might have concluded that Avraham acted out of a momentary lapse of his senses, out of a surge of religious ecstasy. Therefore, he is delayed for three days, to teach us that he acted rationally. This point is emphasized by the Rambam:
Had Avraham acted immediately upon receiving the commandment, he would have acted out of emotion, without reflection. But by acting several days after receiving the commandment, he acted out of genuine thought and reflection and consideration of the divine command and the love and awe of Him. There is no need to seek out any other idea that might have affected his emotions. For Avraham did not hasten to kill Yitzchak out of fear that God might slay him or make him poor, but rather to demonstrate to all how far one should go out of love and awe of God, not in the hope of receiving recompense and not for fear of punishment. (Guide of the Perplexed 3:24)
Chazal emphasize Avraham’s rationality in drawing a contrast between the akeda and the worship of Molekh that was prevalent in the ancient world. The Torah teaches:
To the Children of Israel you shall say: Anyone of the Children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, who gives of his seed to Molekh – he shall surely be put to death; the people of the land shall stone him with stones. (Vayikra 20:2)
The gemara explains:
R. Acha b. Rabba said: One who caused all of his seed to pass [before Molekh] is exempt, as it is written, “of his seed,” not “all his seed.” (Sanhedrin 64b)
Why should someone be exempt if he causes all of his children to pass before Molekh? Surely, if he is punishable for sacrificing one child, then he should be punished far more severely for sacrificing all of them! I believe that this teaching reflects a simple insight into human psychology. A person who sacrifices all his children to Molekh is mentally ill; he requires treatment, not punishment.
Avraham sets off to sacrifice “all his seed,” his only son whom he loves, Yitzchak – the essence of his dreams. This is even more striking in light of the Rambam’s view that the purpose of the forefathers was to establish a nation that would know God and serve Him. Avraham is willing to sacrifice his only son, and thereby to destroy with his own hands his entire life’s purpose. We cannot but conclude that the akeda was carried out after careful consideration, on “the third day,” not out of an uncontrollable urge, a momentary ecstasy, but after deliberation and thought.
Even the atmosphere of the akeda provides none of the signs that indicate grand heroic acts. Unlike the worship of Molekh, there are no thundering drums or dancing throngs. Just father and son, no one else; even the “young men” accompanying them are left far behind. Just Avraham and Yitzchak, walking together in silence.
The Rambam offers the following description of Avraham’s awakening to divine service:
After this mighty one was weaned, he began to explore with his mind. Though but a child, he began to think day and night, wondering, “How is it possible for this sphere to continue to revolve without having anyone guiding it and making it spin? Surely, it cannot revolve by itself!” He had no teacher, nor was there anyone to inform him. Rather, he was mired in Ur Kasdim among the foolish idolaters. His father, mother, and the entire nation were idol worshippers, and he would worship with them, but his mind was already exploring and gaining understanding.
Ultimately, he achieved the way of truth and understood the path of righteousness through his accurate comprehension. He knew that there was one God who controlled the sphere and created everything, and that no other god exists. He knew that the entire world was mistaken, and that what caused them to err was their worship of the stars and images, which made them lose awareness of the truth.
Avraham was forty years old when he became aware of his Creator. Once he knew, he began to present proofs to the inhabitants of Ur Kasdim and debate with them, telling them that they were not pursuing the path of truth. He smashed their idols and began to teach the people that it is fitting to serve only the God of the world. To Him alone is it fitting to bow, sacrifice, and offer libations, so that all the people in future generations would know Him. Conversely, it is fitting to destroy and smash all images, lest the nation err concerning them, like those people who thought that there was no God but those. (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Avoda Zara 1:3)
Avraham’s entire life constitutes a battle against the pagans who regarded human sacrifice as a proper form of worship. And now he is commanded by God to sacrifice his only son, contrary to all that he believes in. What went through Avraham’s mind during those moments? We cannot know. We might imagine that he wondered, “How can I return home? How can I look people in the eye after having preached my whole life against human sacrifice?”
According to one of the midrashim, Sarah died after hearing about the akeda (see Rashi, Bereishit 23:2). In other midrashim, Chazal describe at length Avraham’s deliberations prior to the akeda. They do not describe him as setting out with a sense of exaltation and inner peace. According to some, Avraham suffered terrible inner struggles.
“Satan” who appears in the midrashim, confronting Avraham in order to prevent him from carrying out the akeda, is in fact Avraham’s own sense of morality, outraged by the command and urging him, “Do not stretch forth your hand to the lad.” This understanding is expressed in the midrash:
Satan met him on the way and appeared to him in the guise of an old man. He said to him, “Where are you going?”
He said, “To pray.”
Satan said, “Why would someone on his way to pray have fire and a knife in his hand, and carry wood on his shoulder?”
He said, “In case we stay for a day or two, then we shall slaughter and cook and eat.”
Satan said to him, “Old man! Was I not there when the Holy One, blessed be He, said to you, ‘Take your son…’? Will an old man like you then go and kill a son given to him at the age of a hundred?! Have you not heard the saying, ‘That which he had, he threw away; now he asks from others?’ And if you suggest that you might have another son – will you then obey the accuser, by destroying a life for which you will be held guilty by law?!”
He said to him, “It was not the accuser, but the Holy One, blessed be He. I will not listen to you.”
Satan left him and took on the guise of a young man, and stood to the right of Yitzchak. He said to him, “Where are you going?”
He answered, “To study Torah.”
Satan asked, “Alive or dead?”
He said, “Can one study after he is dead?!”
Satan said, “Unfortunate one, son of an unfortunate one! How many fasts did your mother fast until you were born; now this old man has lost his mind, and he is going to slaughter you!”
He said, “Nevertheless – I shall not go against the will of my Creator nor against my father’s command.”
Yitzchak then turned to his father and said, “My father, see what Satan said to me!”
He said to him, “Pay no attention to him; he came only with the intention of wearing us down.” (Yalkut Shimoni 1:101)
This is not a simple, easy story, but a sharp tale that emphasizes the humanity of the servant of God. Even the fear of God that fills his heart cannot blunt his humanity; even after the direct command from God, Avraham remains a loving father to his “only son whom he loves.” The midrash gives wonderful expression to this:
“And he placed him on the altar.” Avraham’s eyes gazed on Yitzchak and Yitzchak’s eyes gazed at the heavens. Tears welled and fell from Avraham’s eyes until the pool of tears was as tall as him. He said to him, “My son, since you have already expressed your readiness to relinquish your blood, your Creator will find a different sacrifice in your place.”
At that moment his mouth opened with a great weeping and he sighed a great sigh, and his eyes wandered, seeking out the Shekhina. He lifted his voice and said, “I lift my eyes to the mountains; from where shall my help come? My help is from the Lord, Maker of the heavens and the earth” (Tehillim 121:1–2). (Yalkut Shimoni 1:101)
Despite the explicit command to bind his son, Avraham is not resigned to the akeda; he weeps for his son. The midrash reveals Avraham’s ambivalence towards God’s command. On the one hand, he is a loyal servant who hurries to fulfill the will of his Creator; on the other hand, he is a compassionate and loving father who cannot suppress his feelings and who prays for his son, pleading that his life be spared.
This midrash describing Avraham’s emotional prayer at the akeda is also reflected in halakhic practice. It used to be customary on public fast days to add extra blessings to the Amida, as we learn from the mishna:
In the first blessing, he concludes, “He who answered Avraham at Mt. Moriah – may He answer you and listen to your cry on this day. Blessed are You, Lord, Redeemer of Israel.” (Ta’anit 2:4)
In the Torah, we do not find that Avraham prayed or requested anything on Mt. Moriah. According to some midrashim, he pleaded for divine compassion with regard to future troubles. The Talmud Yerushalmi teaches:
“He who answered our patriarch Avraham” – R. Bibi Abba taught in the name of R. Yochanan: Avraham said to God, “Master of the universe! You know that when You told me to offer up my son Yitzchak, I could have answered You and said, ‘Previously You told me, ‘Your seed shall be called after Yitzchak’ – yet now You say, ‘And offer him up there as a burnt offering’?” But I did not do so, Heaven forbid; rather, I overcame my inclination and performed Your will.
So may it be Your will, Lord my God, that when the descendants of Yitzchak my son are beset by trouble and there is none to defend them, that You Yourself will be their advocate: “the Lord will see” – that You will remember in their favor the binding of Yitzchak their father, and be filled with mercy towards them.” (Yerushalmi Ta’anit 2:4)
Clearly, this is not the plain meaning of the mishna. The plain meaning is that God answered Avraham’s prayer and supplication that the decree be annulled, and told him, “Do not stretch forth your hand to the lad.” This suggests that Avraham did not accept the divine decree, but rather cried out against the heavens: “Master of the universe, have mercy upon us and do not destroy us!” The Holy One, blessed be He, in His mercy, agreed and revealed His original intention, telling him, “Do not stretch forth your hand to the lad.” For this reason, we ourselves pray, “He who answered Avraham at Mt. Moriah – may He answer us.” Thus, we have a solid tradition concerning Avraham’s prayers at that time.
Anyone familiar with the Sages could not imagine anything different: Could Avraham go off happily and gladly to bind his son? Avraham is still a human being, plagued with doubts, the doubts of a father who loves his son with all his being. He does not go with the hope of achieving life in the World to Come or treasures. Rather, he does so in order to fulfill God’s word, out of love for Him and fear of Him.
This humanity is also reflected in the midrashic description of Yitzchak. He too is depicted as a loving son, concerned for his parents’ welfare, asking, “What will become of you both in your old age? How will you manage?”
Yitzchak said to him, “Father, quickly perform God’s will and burn me well and take my ashes to my mother and lay them there so she can see them and say, ‘That is my son who was slaughtered by his father.’ Father, what will become of you both in your old age?”
He replied, “My son, we know that our death is close. He who comforted us until now will comfort us until we die.” (Yalkut Shimoni 1:101)
According to a different midrash, a different thought occupied Yitzchak at that time:
“When you return to Sarah, my mother, do not tell her suddenly, so that she will not harm herself: if she is standing on the roof – that she may not fall and die; if she is standing by the well – that she may not throw herself into it; or if she is holding a knife in her hand – that she may not kill herself with it”…
And the ministering angels said, “Come and see these two righteous ones: the father about to slay his son, and the son about to be slain – and neither one opposes the other.” (Avot De-Rabbi Natan, quoted in Torah Shelema, Vayera 92)
Great nobility of spirit is embodied in Yitzchak’s awesome expression of grace, kindness, and mercy. There is no promise of the World to Come, only his question – “ What will become of you both in your old age?” – and concern that the news be broken to his mother gently. This is a wonderful window into Chazal’s worldview. Avraham remains in all his humanity, full of doubts, struggling against his inner voices, praying and hoping, “Perhaps God will have mercy; perhaps He will be compassionate.” Yitzchak too is concerned for his parents, and offers his own prayer.
All of this brings us back to our original question: What is the point of this test? Rashi points out the difficulty presented by the story of the akeda and its message. In the wake of Chazal, he offers his own explanation:
“For now I know” – From now on I will be able to answer Satan and the other nations, who question the special love that I have for you. Now I have an answer, as all can see that you are one who fears God. (Rashi, Bereishit 22:12)
According to this explanation, the test of the akeda is actually meant for the nations of the world. This is a very difficult answer. The Rambam suggests a different interpretation:
The account of Avraham at the akeda comes to teach two great ideas that are principles of our faith. First, it shows us the extent of the love and fear of God. Avraham is commanded to perform a certain act, which is not equaled by any surrender of property or by any sacrifice of life, for it surpasses everything that can be done and belongs to the class of actions that are believed to be contrary to human feelings. He had been without child, and had been longing for a child; he had great riches and honor, and was expecting that a nation should spring from his seed. After all hope of a son had already left him, a son was born to him. How greatly he must have delighted in the child! How intensely he must have loved him! And yet, out of his fear of God and his love for performing God’s commandment, he thought little of that beloved child and set aside all his hopes concerning him, and consented to kill him after a journey of three days…to demonstrate to all how far one should go out of love and awe of God, not in the hope of receiving recompense and not for fear of punishment, as we have explained elsewhere. (Guide of the Perplexed 3:24)
Still, we are left with a problem: God does not demand human sacrifice! Concerning the worshippers of Molekh, the Torah says, “For every abomination to the Lord, which He hates, they have done to their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods” (Devarim 12:31), and the prophet includes child sacrifices among the matters “which I did not command, not did I speak, nor did they arise in My mind” (Yirmiyahu 19:5). So how is it that “in order to demonstrate to all how far one should go out of love and awe of God,” God commands Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchak? In order to make known to us the extent of love of God, is there really a need to command child sacrifice?
R. Kook addresses this question in one of his letters:
That profound devotion to idolatry on the part of primitive man, who viewed it as his be-all and end-all, until this devotion overcame even the natural compassion of parents for children and resulted in the establishment of the cruel sacrifice of both son and daughter as a fixed aspect of the service of the Molekh – this devotion is a dark, turbid consequence of the realization, hidden deep in the heart of man, that the divine reality is more precious than anything and that even that which is most cherished and beloved of man is as naught in comparison with it. (Iggerot Ha-Reiya 379)
R. Kook adopts the view proposed by Chazal, based on the verse, “And in every place incense is burnt and sacrifices are offered to My name, and a pure offering for My name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 1:11), that even the other nations – including idolaters – are really seeking God, but go about it in the wrong way. Behind the terrible cruelty of sacrificing their children to Molekh, which the Torah abhors and forbids in the strongest possible terms, is the recognition that “the divine reality is more precious than anything.”
R. Kook then goes on to write:
When the divine illumination had to appear in its purity, it revealed itself via the powerful religious enthusiasm made manifest in the trial of the akeda, which clearly demonstrated that passion and devotion to the divine reality need not be based on a knowledge of God clothed in the degrading garments of paganism in which the spark of divine goodness completely lost its way, but can be based on a pure apprehension of God.
The message of the akeda, according to Rav Kook, is that one can achieve the same “passion and devotion to the divine reality” without tangible, pagan elements, but through faith in an abstract God.
Many years ago, I read Azriel Carlebach’s book India: A Travel Journal. He describes a fascinating conversation with a guru in India. The latter claimed that Western culture had failed miserably, including its three great religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. As proof he cited the events of the First and Second World Wars. And how did he explain this failure? He argued, “The reason is that you speak about abstract faith, about a God who has no human attributes. Therefore, people who believe in this God are capable of carrying out the most terrible atrocities. We in India have a human god, who is jealous and has desires, who has a body and a bodily form. Such a god can speak to us and educate us to be human.”
What sort of faith did Avraham seek to disseminate in the world? Avraham engaged in an ongoing argument with the people of his generation. He claimed that God’s way is “to perform righteousness and justice.” The God who is not human demands of us human sensitivity and moral behavior. The Eastern religions, in contrast, ignore moral problems of justice and fairness. People die in the middle of the street, and no one says a word. The main thing is to have a religious experience, “connect” with the gods, and feel a spiritual high.
One of my students once told me that it was only when he visited India that he could understand the power of the “inclination toward idolatry,” that amazing religious experience. Look around and you can see the sheer force of worshipping a tangible god: in its name, thousands of people are willing to sacrifice their children, day after day, at any moment.
What about our own faith? Does it allow us to reach an advanced spiritual level of totality and devotion? Avraham establishes a one-time example: our faith can bring a person to the loftiest heights of self- sacrifice! Through the act of the akeda, Avraham showed that even faith in a God “who has no body and no bodily form” can raise a person to such a lofty spiritual level that he is willing, for its sake, to sacrifice his son. This is the message of the test of the akeda. Once Avraham demonstrated his willingness, the truth was revealed that God has no desire for human sacrifice, and therefore Avraham hears the voice of the angel of God, instructing him, “Do not stretch forth your hand to the lad.”
It is this message that the Rambam seeks to convey. The entire story of the akeda comes to teach us “the extent of the love and fear of God.” Of course, it also becomes clear that this act, which represents “how far one should go,” is not what God desires. The Holy One, blessed be He, the merciful and compassionate God, does not wish fathers to sacrifice their sons. God does not seek their death and does not require that we sacrifice them; on the contrary, “that they may live by them [God’s commands] – and not die by them” (Yoma 85b). Thus, the point here is not child sacrifice, but a completely different issue: how to persuade the world that it is possible to serve – with powerful religious passion – an abstract God who has no form. Is the appeal of this abstract faith doomed to a small, select group? Can only a tiny group of intelligentsia, capable of holding an abstract faith, cleave to God and His Torah, while the rest of the world remains stuck in a crude, tangible idolatry? This is the existential problem that God addressed with the command of the akeda.
After Avraham demonstrated his willingness to sacrifice his son, it was clear to all that even abstract faith can bring a person to the highest level of fear of Heaven. Avraham did not understand this at first, and perhaps that is the reason that the three-day journey was necessary. Only after three days of walking “with Yitzchak his son” did he realize this was the great message that he was to convey to the world. Only then did he understand that he had been entrusted with the task of disseminating to the world the faith in God – a faith which, though not tangible in anyway, could bring one to “the love and fear of God” to the point of giving up his life. The Rambam concludes with the words:
And the angel said to him, “For now I know” – meaning that through this act, as a result of which you will be known as one who “fears God” completely, all of mankind will know the extent of fear of God.
According to the Rambam, the Akeda also holds another message – teaching the veracity of prophecy:
The second purpose is to show how the prophets believed in the truth of that which came to them from God by way of prophecy. We shall not think that what the prophets heard or saw in allegorical figures may at times have included incorrect or doubtful elements, since the divine communication was made to them, as we have shown, in a dream or a vision and through the imaginative faculty. Scripture thus tells us that whatever the prophet perceives in a prophetic vision, he considers as true and correct and not open to any doubt; it is in his eyes like all other things perceived by the senses or by the intellect. This is proved by the consent of Avraham to slay “his only son whom he loved,” as he was commanded, although the commandment was received in a dream or a vision. If the prophets had any doubt or suspicion as regards the truth of what they saw in a prophetic dream or perceived in a prophetic vision, they would not have consented to do that which is unnatural, and Avraham would not have found in himself sufficient strength to perform that act, if he had any doubt [as regards the truth of the commandment]. And in truth, it was proper that this lesson of the akeda be taught through Avraham and Yitzchak, for Avraham was the first to teach the unity of God, to establish the faith [in Him], to cause it to remain among coming generations, and to win his fellow men for his doctrine, as Scripture says of him, “I know him, that he will command,” etc. In the same manner as he was followed by others in his true and valuable opinions when they were heard from him, so also the principles should be accepted that may be learned from his actions, especially from the act by which he confirmed the principle of the truth of prophecy, and showed how far we must go in the fear and the love of God.
This is the way we have to understand the accounts of trials: we must not think that God desires to examine us and to try us in order to know something that He did not know before. Far be this from Him; He is far above that which ignorant and foolish people imagine concerning Him, in the evil of their thoughts. Note this. (Guide of the Perplexed 3:24)
Had Avraham entertained the slightest doubt as to whether God had really spoken to him and commanded him to slaughter his son, would he have bound him in order to offer him? And had God not commanded him, “Your seed shall be called after Yitzchak”? Therefore, the Rambam concludes, the akeda comes to prove to the world that “whatever the prophet perceives in a prophetic vision, he considers as true and correct and not open to any doubt; it is in his eyes like all other things perceived by the senses or by the intellect.”
As we know, prophecy occupies a central place in the Rambam’s teachings. Not only is there one God, but He addresses and speaks to His creatures. Were it not for prophecy, the Torah could not have been given, and therefore, “faith in prophecy precedes faith in the Torah” (3:45). This is the second message of the akeda, and one of the central messages of Judaism. According to the Rambam (ibid.), this is also the deeper significance of the Holy of Holies. The Tablets of the Covenant symbolize the principle, “I am the Lord your God,” while the cherubim symbolize prophecy. The divine voice emerges from between the cherubim and speaks to Moshe, master of the prophets. In the Rambam’s view, the institution of prophecy is the foundation of Judaism.
The Rambam asserts that there are two cornerstones of the Torah. One is the love of God, which we learn from Avraham, who sets out to fulfill God’s will even though this entails the end of his dream to leave descendants who will become a nation with a great message for all of mankind. The second is the power of prophecy. Only the certainty of prophecy allows Avraham to carry out God’s command. Avraham carries out the command to sacrifice Yitzchak, thereby teaching us that even faith in an intangible God can inspire a person with the same religious passion that seemed to exist only among idol worshippers.
This message has special significance in our generation. Our ancestors in previous generations served God with a simple, warm, passionate faith, without questions or doubts. In contrast, our religious experience is full of questions, conceptual and philosophical problems, and complex thinking. The message of the akeda confronts us with a great challenge. We must prove that even in our complex world, one can achieve through faith the same religious fervor of Avraham and of preceding generations.
“The end of the matter, when all is said and done: fear God and keep His commandments, for that is the whole of man” (Kohelet 12:13). The “man” and his humanity are the essential condition for fear of God. The test of the Akeda reveals Avraham in all of his humanity, as a person and as a prophet, bearing a message of love and fear of the Creator, who has no body and no bodily form.
[This sicha is excerpted from Rav Amital’s book, When God Is Near: On the High Holidays (Maggid, 2015).]