Halloween Torah: The Akedah is a bloodcurdling tale of a menacing father who almost murders his kid, a nightmare waiting to keep you up all night.
5 Elements of a Really Scary Horror Story
What are the five elements of a really scary horror story? A scary story, something you might tell around a campfire, or perhaps by candlelight on Halloween, includes:
- Darkness. The main event happens late at night.
- The Unexpected: “Don’t go in that room.”
- A Villain: Someone who unexpectedly does something truly terrifying.
- An Innocent: A sweet, naïve person who faces something horrifying.
- Death: Someone always dies, or almost dies.
In the Torah’s scariest story ever told (parashat Vayera, Genesis 22), we find all five elements. In fact, read it with a scary soundtrack playing under it, and you realize that the Akedah is a bloodcurdling tale of a menacing father who almost murders his kid. It is a nightmare of biblical proportions, just waiting to keep you up all night.
We read [italics signify close translations of the Torah text; regular print are my additions]:
Akedah: The Horror Story
It was the deepest darkest part of the night. Abraham was asleep in his tent until a disembodied Voice suddenly woke him. God calls out to him, Abraham. [We know it was the middle of the night, waking him out of his sleep because later, vayashkem Avraham baboker – and Abraham gets up early in the morning.]
The Voice commands him to commit the most horrendous act: Take your son, your only son, the one you love [the scary music starts: dum, dum, dum], Isaac, and bring him to the land of Moriah, to a place that I will show you. Abraham, shocked and threatened, petrified by the power of this Presence, acquiesces immediately to the disembodied Voice’s command.
And Abraham quietly rises up early in the morning [making sure not to wake his wife Sarah.] He saddles his donkey himself, and takes two servants with him, and his son Isaac. He gathers up wood for the offering, and he steals off into the unknown to a place that God told him to go to.
Three days and three nights Abraham walks into the darkness, through the wilderness, with his son Isaac by his side, shivering with fear. Then Abraham lifts up his eyes, and there in the distance he sees the place. The top of a mountain, shrouded in fog.
He instructs to his servants quietly, with words that probably scared the bejeebees out of Isaac: You stay here and I and the boy will go up there.
So Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, piling it high on the back of his increasingly suspicious, intensely frightened but still compliant son Isaac. And his took in his hand the fire, and [cut to a blurry shot, until the camera pulls in closely, sinister music in the background, revealing a hand clutching] the knife. Long, sharp, sinister. And the two of them walked on into the night together.
And Isaac, scared to death, says to his father, “Dad, what is going on? I see that you have the fire, and the wood, and the knife. But where’s the lamb for the burnt offering?
And Abraham responded cryptically, “God will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” [More menacing music, as we, the audience, feeling the tension rising, realizes that since Torah has no punctuation, it is possible that Abraham means “my son” is the “burnt offering.” (see Rashi on Gen. 22:8).] Yes, Abraham is forewarning his son about the danger ahead. We want to cry out, “Isaac, don’t go up there.” But Isaac, innocently or naively or incredulously, walks forward together with his father.
On the mountain’s top, Abraham gets to work. Abraham builds an altar, as Isaac stands to the side shivering. Abraham places the wood on the altar. He ties up his son Isaac and lays him on top of the wood.
Suddenly, Abraham thrusts out his hand. And he takes ahold of the knife, raising it up high, to slaughter his son.
Then, at just that moment, the knife hovering ominously above Isaac’s throat, another disembodied voice – the Angel of God – calls out to him, “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. For now I know you fear God and that you did not withhold your son from Me.” And Abraham lifts up his eyes and sees a ram caught in the thicket by its horns. Abraham goes over and takes the ram, and slaughters it in Isaac’s place.
Five Troubling Questions from the Terrifying Tale
A terrifying story, read in every year on Rosh Hashana in most synagogues. A father who waited so long to have this son almost kills him. Commentators say that until Abraham was 99 years old, his wife Sarah was infertile. Isaac was the beloved child of his old age. During the Akedah, Isaac was either 3 or 13 or 33, depending upon how you read it. Nevertheless, Abraham takes his son up to the top of a deserted mountain, ties him up, and almost murders him in cold blood. It is terrifying on so many levels and leads us to ask five questions:
- What kind of God asks a person to sacrifice his child to show devotion and love?
2. What kind of child can endure the idea that his beloved father would be willing for any reason to kill him?
What strength it takes to endure. When they descended from the mountaintop, Isaac went one way and Abraham went another. And they are never together again, until the funeral when Isaac meets his brother Ishmael to bury their dead dad Abraham.
3. How can a mother survive this heartbreaking incident?
It would be scary for any mother. Abraham’s wife Sarah is asleep in the tent but then awakens to find her loved ones, and her beloved child, missing. We read about her death in the very next parasha (Torah portion). The Midrash explains that when Sarah hears the story, after Abraham comes down that mountain, she dies immediately of a broken heart.
4. What must this have done to Abraham’s faith?
It is just as terrifying for Abraham who faces the chilling challenge of determining just what his lifelong faith in God really demanded of him.
5. And what were the rabbis thinking?
Why do we read this horror story on Rosh Hashana?
Three commentaries help answer this last question, assuaging our fears, explaining why the Rabbis might have had us read this tale:
Perhaps the rabbis have us read the Akedah to show that no longer does Judaism demand child sacrifice. In an ancient world where child sacrifice to the gods happened all the time, and in our modern world where adults still strap bombs around the waists of children sending them off to blow up innocent people, Judaism says that life is so precious that we reject child sacrifice.
Perhaps the rabbis wanted to remind us that faith demands we be willing to do anything – comforted in the notion that God would not make us to do really terrible things. Of course, that explanation evades the real problem: that read one way, God did ask for a child to be tied up by a father who was a believer. That request itself, if accurate, would be unacceptably abusive by any diety.
Not a Sacrifice, but a Spiritual Journey
I read that the Akedah, imagining God’s intention more compassionately. In the Torah, God instructs Abraham v’ha’aleihu sham l’olah, to take his son up the top of the mountain to be an olah. The Hebrew word olah, comes from the root Ayin-Lamed-Hey, meaning, “to rise up.”
Must olah in this story mean, “sacrifice,” as in “the smoke of the sacrifice rises up”? Or might it be connected rather to a more familiar word aliyah, also from the same Hebrew root Ayin-Lamed-Hey. When people move to Israel, we say they make aliyah, a spiritual ascent, rising up to the Holy Land. When people bless the Torah, they are called up for an aliyah, to physically come up on the bimah (stage) and to spiritually ascend into proximity with our holy Torah scroll.
Rashi, the 11th century French Biblical commentator, explains that perhaps God meant, “When I said to you ‘Take your son’… I did not say to you, sh’chateihu, ‘slaughter him,’ but only ha’aleihu, ‘bring him up.’ Now that you have brought him up, introduce him to Me, and then take him back down. (Gen. 22:4).” Instead of wanting Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the Holy One might only wanted a “take your child to work” day. The Source of Spirituality might have intended that Abraham introduce his son to his other passion, to God, so the next generation would have a deep spiritual life just like Abraham did.
But Abraham misunderstood.
Why Does the Angel Praise Abraham?
But you might say to me, then why does malach Adonai (the angel of God) say “Now I know that you love Me?”
The angel’s words remind me of father who walked up to his freshly painted house, only to be greeted at the door by his young son who, with a big smile on his face, says, “Daddy, come see how much I love you.” The boy brings his father into the next room and proceeds to proudly show him a picture drawn in magic marker on the living room wall. It is a red heart, inside of which are the words, “Daddy, I love you.” How does a parent respond to such a display of love, especially after spending so much money to paint the house just right? You might want to kill your kid. You might want to yell at him loudly. But if we stopped first to think about it, we might say, with tears in our eyes, “I love you too, my son. Use paper next time. You may not write on the walls. But, I love you too!” Similarly, through the words of the angel, God, the patient One, who cherishes Abraham, teaches love and forgiveness as an example for future generations.
4 Lessons from this Horror Story
This is a troubling story. It’s a powerful story.
It warns us of the danger when believers think they know for sure what God wants – when we substitute our needs and our thoughts for what God needs and wants.
It points out the perils of parenthood when, caught up in our own passions, we mistreat our children or ignore them or harm them.
It cautions us of what can happen in our marriages we don’t share with one another the things that trouble us. When we forget that we can be shutafim, each other’s best partners, helping face the challenges of life.
And this horror story – at least how Rashi and I read it – reminds us, year after year, that our God did not ask Abraham to kill his son. Although that makes for a great horror story, it is not the Jewish way.
So when kids drive you crazy and you want to kill them, hold them close instead, give them a hug, and remember that Torah expects that you lead them into an inspired spiritual life.
What other stories in Torah scare you?