A happy new year, but less so for Isaac

The Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah is one of the most powerful but also most disturbing episodes in the Bible – the Akedah, or sacrifice of Isaac. 

You know the story: God tells Abraham to prove his devotion by sacrificing his son Isaac. (Cue up Springsteen singing “Prove it all night.” Or if you want to be more literal, Dylan at the start of Highway 61 Revisited.) Abraham takes Isaac to the top of Mt. Moriah, and when the boy asks why there is no lamb for the ritual sacrifice, he says only that God will provide the lamb.

Ram spice box

Abraham ties Isaac up, gets out the knife and is prepared to kill him when, in perhaps the original instance of deus ex machina, an angel shows up and tells him to stop. Miraculously a ram appears in the bushes to take the place of hapless Isaac. 

This is horrible on so many levels. What kind of God would make such a demand on a parent? What kind of parent would go along with such a request, without even a protest?  

How can Judaism glorify and praise Abraham’s mindless – inhuman – obedience? What kind of psychological scars would this incident have left on Isaac? And what about the ram? 

In one of the first high holiday services that I attended at Temple Sinai, Rabbi Steven Chester gave an entire sermon on the Akedah from the point of view of the ram – who committed no sin, harmed no one, was merely going about his ramly grazing when he was casually eliminated, collateral damage in God’s game of chicken with Abraham. 

In all honesty, I don’t remember the details of any other high holiday sermon. But I remember that one. 

Of course there have been all kinds of justifications of the Akedah over the centuries: 

  • God never really meant for Abraham to kill his son. He was just testing him.  

That’s nearly as bad in my book. Why should God design such a vicious test? Isaac may not have perished physically, but I suspect he suffered a death of the soul – betrayed by his father, toyed with by God. Like the ram, Isaac was collateral damage. 

  • Abraham never meant to go through with it.  He was just testing God.  

Ditto. How dare Abraham use his son as a pawn in his chess game with God? 

  • The point of the Akedah story is not that God asked Abraham for a human sacrifice, but that in the end God repudiated human sacrifice. For that historical era, this was actually a progressive and humanist statement.  

Well, that holds a little more weight with me but not much. The Akedah story isn’t just about human sacrifice, but about unquestioning obedience to God – about setting aside reason and even the deepest human bonds of love to carry out God’s will. 

And we know where that leads today – to suicidal jihadis, Quran-burning preachers, zealots who murder abortion providers, the dust of 9/11. 

If I ever get my current two novels sold, I have a germ of an idea for the next one: Not giving away any details, but it would be a modern take on the Akedah. 

Now, none of my thinking on this is remotely new. There is loads of anguished  writing about this. Rabbi Chester, in fact, has over the years made a personal project of collecting poetry and fiction on the Akedah. 

In that sermon that made such an impression on me, he quoted from Yehuda Amichai’s poem The Real Hero about the ram: 

The real hero of the Isaac story was the ram,
who didn’t know about the conspiracy between the others.
As if he had volunteered to die instead of Isaac.
I want to sing a song in his memory—
about his curly wool and his human eyes,
about the horns that were silent on his living head,
and how they made those horns into shofars when he was slaughtered
to sound their battle cries
or to blare out their obscene joy.

(You can find the full text of The Real Hero here, from a U.C. Press translation by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell.)

The British poet Wilfrid Owen wrote about the Akedah in 1916 in his Parable of the Old Man and the Young, which is more about World War I than about the Bible. (Owen died on the battlefield two years after writing this poem.) You can find Owen’s poem, and a couple of others about the Akedah, here

Much more recently (hot off the electronic presses, in fact!) rabbinical student and poet Rachel Barenblat just posted a cycle of poems about Abraham, Sarah and Isaac on her blog The Velveteen Rabbi. Here’s one of them that I particularly love. But it’s worth visiting her site to read them all

6. The angels say

Avraham failed the test.
For Sodom and Gomorrah he argued
but when it came to his son
no protest crossed his lips.

God was mute with horror.
Avraham, smasher of idols
and digger of wells
was meant to talk back.

Sarah would have been wiser
but Avraham avoided her tent,
didn’t lay his head in her lap
to unburden his secret heart.

In stricken silence God watched
as Avraham saddled his ass
and took Yitzchak on their last hike
to the place God would show him.

The angel had to call him twice.
Avraham’s eyes were red, his voice hoarse
he wept like a man pardoned
but God never spoke to him again.

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7 Responses to “A happy new year, but less so for Isaac”

  1. James Richardson Says:

    The most insightful comment I ever heard on this came from a 15-year-old, who noted that God never spoke to Abraham again after this. Her interpretation was that God was testing Abraham, and the test was to see if Abraham would question God about this cruel mindless demand. Abraham flunked the test, and God never spoke to him again.

  2. James Richardson Says:

    And I suppose she may have read that poem!

  3. Ellen Says:

    I really like that last poem. It is the first interpretation of that section of the Bible that even remotely makes sense to me. Thank you for sharing…and, what an interesting Rabbi she’ll be.

  4. Kaveh Says:

    Interesting interpretation in the last poem, but still puzzling. A harsh God to put Abraham to that test, to demand that of him, given their relative power, and to never forgive him after ‘failing’ the test. Sorry, the word abusive comes to mind…?

  5. Tom Moore Says:

    Things haven’t changed so much since then, really. Now it’s the government, not God, who asks parents to send their children to be killed in wars, or kills them directly when the children protest. George Segal made a sculpture of Abraham and Isaac to be displayed as a memorial at Kent State. It was so close to the mark that Kent State refused it, and now it is displayed next to the chapel at Princeton (the artist lives nearby).

  6. John Mangels Says:

    Nicely done. Powerful. I think your poem at the end might have it right.

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