By Rabbi Betsy Forester
Beth Israel Center, Madison
The harrowing narrative of the binding of Isaac, which we read on Rosh Hashanah and again this month, eludes easy interpretation. Why does God need to test Abraham? After all, Abraham has been God’s faithful servant, following God to a foreign land and founding a new nation based on God’s word. Abraham has followed each of God’s commands to the letter. And, when God summons him, Abraham responds immediately, “Hineini,” here I am, and then hurries to fulfill God’s terrifying command. Why does he need to be tested?
We all know how the altar scene ends. An angel calls out just before Abraham slays his son, and again, Abraham answers, “Hineini,” here I am. The angel tells him not to harm Isaac, “for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son” (Gen. 22:12). A ram appears, taking the place of Isaac on the altar, and the angel speaks again to Abraham: “…the Lord declares: Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your favored one, I will bestow My blessing upon you…” (Gen. 22:16-17). It seems that Abraham has passed God’s test. Indeed, most commentators see it that way, and Abraham becomes the ultimate role model of one who fears God and faithfully obeys God’s word.
The musical notations in the text indicate a momentary stop, called a pasek, between the repetitions of Abraham’s name when the angel comes to stay his hand from slaying Isaac. The Zohar notes the significance of that pause: “The latter Abraham was not like the former” (Vayera 120 a-b). Abraham is changed after binding Isaac on the altar. The eager servant who says “Hineini” when God first calls is not the same person who says “HIneini” after the ordeal. Something has died in Abraham’s supposed passing of God’s test.
God never speaks directly to Abraham again after the incident, and it seems that Abraham never sees his wife, Sarah, alive again. The blessings proclaimed by the angel are not new, having been promised long before this incident. One finds that Abraham is no more blessed now than before, and in some critical way, he is diminished. How can that be?
Perhaps, fear and obedience are not God’s ultimate hopes for Abraham, and God is hoping for a different response from Abraham. Could it be that God would have given Abraham new blessings, or more intimacy, if Abraham had not hurried to Mount Moriah and bound his son on the altar?
Many commentators suggest that the point of the exercise is not for God or Abraham to learn anything about one another, but rather for ensuing generations to be inspired by Abraham’s faith and also to learn that God does not want human sacrifice, as was practiced widely by many of Israel’s neighbors at that time. That may be true, but there is a more useful lesson for us to take from the narrative.
Considering the binding of Isaac in its narrative context yields a more nuanced reading. The words “some time afterward” precede God’s command that Abraham sacrifice his son. Many commentators try to identify the events that cause God to test Abraham, and none fully explains why God would test Abraham at this point. However, a close look at the sequence of choices Abraham makes leading up to God’s bitter command points to a compelling reason.
Earlier in the same Torah portion, Vayera, Abraham has circumcised himself, he interrupts a visit with God to welcome three strangers into his tent with exceptional hospitality, and he argues with God over the fate of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah: “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” (Gen. 18:23). He also places Sarah in a compromising and dangerous position, banishes Hagar and Ishmael, and makes treaties with the Philistines. Abraham’s activities in three short chapters reveal a complex character whose actions are sometimes surprising, and one cannot help but note a division between the admirable first triad, and the questionable second triad. His essential character seems to change between the first triad and the second. Furthermore, after Abraham has set out to found a nation that will be different from all the others, his willingness to do as the other nations and sacrifice his child at this late stage in their relationship may be quite troubling to God. Perhaps God needs to know whether Abraham can be a fit partner to continue leading the new nation, or whether he is less aligned to the mission than God needs him to be at this point in the development of the nation.
Human beings are full of surprises. We are not as consistent in our actions as we might expect. We are always becoming, always creating ourselves. Sometimes we evolve in a linear fashion; other times, we strike out in a new direction entirely. The truth is that we are always being tested, and every moment is a defining moment. Cultivating our awareness of the significance of the choices we make through our speech and our actions can empower us to see ourselves more clearly at any given moment. And perhaps, like Abraham, God is present in the testing, helping us to see what is most essential and hoping for the best partnership we can offer.
May our defining moments hold blessings for ourselves, the Jewish people, and all of humanity.
Rabbi Betsy Forester is the spiritual leader at Beth Israel Center in Madison.