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Repost: Akedah: Abraham Failed God’s Test, but God Loved him Anyway!

Each Rosh Hashanah, we read the horrid tale of the Akedah (Genesis 22), the almost sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Commentators throughout the ages characterize this story as an example of the heights of faith. Abraham loved God so much he was willing to give up the child he waited so long to bear.

But in as much as this might have been a test of Abraham, I read the story as a clear indication that Abraham failed the test.

Consider this: Did God really command Abraham to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering? Read closely. According to one commentary, Midrash Tanhuma, it all hinges on one word – olah. In the Torah, God said to Abraham v’haaleihu sham l’olah, bring up Isaac as an olah. The Hebrew word olah, comes from the root Ayin-Lamed-Hey, meaning, “to rise up.”

Must olah here 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 Hebrew root Ayin-Lamed-Hey, meaning “spiritual uplift?” In this reading, God only said, “raise up your son with an appreciation of your devotion to Me.” Perhaps Abraham was so dazzled to be speaking to God that he became confused. What if he misunderstood God’s intended purpose?

Rashi, the greatest Biblical commentator of all time, also hangs his interpretation on the same word. He explains (on Genesis 22:2), perhaps God was saying, “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.” Instead of wanting Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God really only wanted him to spend some spiritual “quality time” with his son. Had Abraham only paid close attention, he might have spared himself, Isaac, and Sarah a significant amount of stress and pain.

But in a strange twist, the angel of God who stopped Abraham from killing his son responds with love, not rebuke. God praised Abraham. Why would God praise him if Abraham misunderstood the command? Perhaps God, through the angel, reaffirms to Abraham how much God loves him, but also signals that Abraham and his followers should no longer employ cruel or intimidating means to show their love for God.

This need not, however, be understood as condoning Abraham’s actions. Rather, the angel’s words remind me of that parent who walked into his freshly painted house. Dad is 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 was a red heart, inside of which were the words, “Daddy, I love you.” How does a parent respond to such a display of love, especially after spending thousands of dollars to paint the house just right? Most of us would yell, and yell loudly. But if we stopped first to think about it, we might say, with tears in our eyes, “I love you too, my son. Try to use paper next time. And 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.

Now consider this… Prior to the Akedah, each encounter between God and Abraham occurs in direct one-on-one conversations. But from this point on, God never again speaks to Abraham directly. All further communication is passed through an angel. Why? Because Abraham simultaneously passed and failed the test. He showed his love of God, yes, but he employed violent means to pursue that love. The use of an intermediary – the angel – proclaims a message for future generations: Abraham really didn’t listen to God’s teachings of compassion, did he?


  1. Greg Wolfe says:

    Beautiful. It is also interesting to note (can't remember who pointed this out) that at the beginning God says take your only son, the one whom you love, Isaac, but at the end the angel just notes that Abraham was willing to take his son, Isaac. The words "whom you love" are left out.

  2. Y'shar Koach! You have so much free time you can write beautiful pieces like this at this time of year? Amazing. Here's my three part test to prove that Abraham failed the test (one of which you recounted):

    1. He never talks to Isaac again. He returns home to Beersheva alone. The Talmud tells us that Isaac goes to boarding school at the great Yeshivas in Babylon.

    2. He never talks to Sarah, his wife, again. Midrash suggests that she got up after Abraham and Isaac left early that morning, figured our what was happening, and died of a broken heart.

    3.) Abraham never talks to God again.

    Every significant relationship in his life is over. He remarries a woman named Keturah (Midrash suggests it is Hagar) and his family reunites only at his graveside, Isaac, Ishmael nd Keturah standing together.

    Hey, maybe I'll give that sermon Thursday morning… things we sacrifice to get ahead… etc.

  3. Excellent D'var Torah, Rebbe Paul!! Yasher Koach. This view of the parasha, of Isaac being a Korban, an Olal, to elevate him spiritually and ''bring him closer'' (literal meaning of Korban) to G!d, is not one heard often, especially during Rosh Hashana, when we re-read this section of the Parasha. And it needs to be taught. Todah! Some of the proof text of Abraham's confusion is when Isaac and Abraham go up the mountain, Abraham tells Ishmael and Eliezar that “we BOTH will return to you.” (Gen. 22:05).

    In response to Greg, Tractate Sanhedrin 89B records Abraham's conversation with G!d:

    “G!d said, ‘Take your son.’

    ‘But I have two sons, which should I take?’

    'Your only one!'

    'But each of them is the only son of his mother!'

    'Whom you love!' G!d answered.

    'But I love them both.'

    'I mean Isaac.' G!d replied."

    And the Koran relates this episode with Ishmael as the son Abraham chooses.

    The Midrash questions how Abraham could say to G!d that he has two sons if he sent Ishmael away. The sages say that for Rosh Hashanah Ishmael and Eliezar came to visit Abraham. The Midrash says that Satan tried to talk Abraham out of sacrificing Isaac. Satan also says to Isaac, “Remember the cute toys that your mother, Sarah, made for you to play with? If you die, Ishmael will inherit them.” The Midrash does not explain how this argument would work on a 37-year-old man. Later, Satan forms a river to block their path. Abraham and Isaac wade into the water until it is up to their necks and plead to G!d to make the river go dry so that they can complete their mission.

    If you have time before Thursday's Torah reading, read please Soren Kierkegaard's 1843 book Fear and Trembling and his take on the Akedah.

    Philo of Alexandria (1st Century C.E.) wrote that if the sacrifice of Isaac (whose name means “will laugh”) were carried out, then all of the laughter in the world would be eradicated.

    When God calls on Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, G!d is called “Elohim” (Gen. 22:1-2). Elohim are judges. When G!d, through His angel, tells Abraham to stop, He is called “Adonai,” the name of G!d that is associated with kindness (Gen. 22; 11-12). Abraham learns, perhaps, that pure kindness must be tempered with judgment if one is really to be a father of a great people.

    Years later Isaac goes blind. The Midrash says that his eyes became blinded from the tears of the angels that fell in his eyes when it appeared that Abraham, misunderstanding G!d's instructions, would perform a human sacrifice.

    When we open our hearts into a clear channel,Navi, to hear G!d speaking to us, we need to test what we hear to see if it is of love, honesty, altruism, and purity. Ha Amokat Ha Daat is the delving of concentration, meditation. Hisbonenut is our ability to analyze the guidance we hear, to avoid making the mistake of Abraham.

    Shalom uvracha v shana tova!!

    Rabbi Arthur Segal http://www.jewishspiritualrenewal.org

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