“It came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, Abraham; and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you.”
(Genesis 22:1 – 2)
Our reading of the third of the triennial sections of this week’s portion ends with the Akedah (“the binding”), one of the most difficult and challenging stories in the entire Torah. Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. God decides to put Abraham to the test. God tells Abraham to take his son, his only son, whom he loves, and offer him as a burnt offering on a mountain. That mountain, Moriah, eventually became the holy place where the Temple was built.
The story emphasizes the closeness of father and son as well as the enthusiasm of Abraham to carry out God’s command. Twice it says, “the two of them walked together.” At the crucial moment when Abraham binds his son, an angel puts a stop to the sacrifice. Abraham sees a ram to sacrifice instead of his son. Seemingly Abraham has passed the test. But this is already problematic. The father and son should have walked down the mountain together as they walked up together. But the Torah says that Abraham walked down alone. Where was Isaac? This is a great mystery. Perhaps the story is telling us that there is estrangement between father and son.
Jewish tradition teaches that this was the great act of faith. Abraham had passed the test. He was willing to go so far as to sacrifice his beloved son to obey God’s command. Obedience to God is the ultimate value. This is the reason we Jews read the story not only this week but on the Second Day of Rosh Hashana, one of our holiest days of the year. This is a story about faith; a faith in God so deep that Abraham could set aside his ethical scruples.
Not only Jews but the other Abrahamic religions see the value of this story. The Koran speaks of Abraham almost sacrificing Ishmael rather than Isaac. Ishmael was the father of the Arab nation. And the Christian existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard made this story central to his philosophy. In his book Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard calls Abraham “a lonely knight of faith.” He was willing to suspend the ethical in order to live in the presence of God. The truly authentic life is based on what Kierkegaard called “a leap of faith.” He attacked what he called the ethical life as inferior to true religious faith.
But is Kierkegaard correct? Did Abraham truly do the correct thing? Should we be reading this story on Rosh Hashana? Perhaps the fact that Abraham walks down the mountain alone, never to encounter his son again until he dies, is a hint that there was something wrong. Earlier, Abraham argues with God and bargains to save the two evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham says to God, “Should the judge of all the earth not do justly?” Abraham is willing to call God to an account when God does something not just. Why did he not argue with God here?
Perhaps Abraham failed the test. Perhaps religion is not about suspending the ethical as Kierkegaard would say, but rather living by the ethical. Even God must live by the ethical. And if God commands us humans to do something unethical, our job is to argue with God. Perhaps Abraham should have told God, “No, I will not offer my son as a burnt offering. It is wrong.” The story would have been a lot less interesting, but it would have made a point. Religion demands ethical behavior.
Today we see unethical behavior among many faiths done in the name of God. People believe that God is on their side and therefore all kinds of atrocities are justified. It is not simply Islamists who create acts of terrorism or Christians who murder doctors they believe performed abortions. I see in our own faith, religious Jews who harass and arrest women who dare to bring a Torah or sing their prayers at the Western Wall.
Perhaps the lesson of the Adekah is that faith in God is important, but doing the right thing exceeds even that in importance.