Posted by: Subway Conductor | November 6, 2020

A Derasha on Parshat Va’year

This week’s Torah portion continues the narrative of the life of the first Jew, Abraham. The best-known episode in the life of Abraham comes in the seventh aliyah – the Akeida. It is another example of a very problematic story about a patriarch. G-d commands Abraham to take his son Isaac and offer him up as a sacrifice. One of the many questions that can be asked on this story is: where is the Abraham that we saw earlier in this week’s portion who stood up to defend the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah? When he was informed that G-d was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness, Abraham goes to bat for them, challenging G-d. This scene has become emblematic of the character of Abraham as someone who argues with G-d, particularly over a matter of justice. “Will You sweep away the innocent with the guilty?”  He then proceeds to bargain with G-d. “What if there are fifty innocent people in the city?” He bargains all the way down to ten. “Will you destroy the city if there are ten innocent people?” Where is this Abraham now when he is commanded to kill his own son? Not only does he not protest or challenge G-d, he gets up early in the morning to go ahead and carry out the command. From Abraham’s example we learn that one should hurry to do a mitzvah. Don’t put it off.

According to tradition. Abraham faced ten tests. In Pirkei Avot we read, “Our father Abraham was tested with ten trials and withstood all of them to demonstrate how great was the love of Abraham our father.”  (Pirkei Avot 5:4) The Mishnah does not tell us what the trials were. There is some variation in stating the ten trials in other sources, but Maimonides gives the list as follows:

1. G‑d tells him to leave his homeland to be a stranger in the land of Canaan.
2. Immediately after his arrival in the Promised Land, he encounters a famine.
3. The Egyptians seize his beloved wife, Sarah, and bring her to Pharaoh.
4. Abraham faces incredible odds in the battle of the four and five kings.
5. He marries Hagar after not being able to have children with Sarah.
6. G‑d tells him to circumcise himself at an advanced age.
7. The king of Gerar captures Sarah, intending to take her for himself.
8. G‑d tells him to send Hagar away after having a child with her.
9. His son, Ishmael, becomes estranged.
10. G‑d tells him to sacrifice his dear son Isaac upon an altar.

This last trial puts everything on the line. It is not only that Abraham is told to kill his beloved son, but the covenant with G-d is put into question by this act. The relationship between Abraham and G-d is based on a promise that G-d will multiply Abraham’s descendants so that they are “as numerous as the stars in heaven” and they will inherit the Land of Israel. If Isaac is killed, what happens to that promise? If one wants to answer that Abraham does have other descendants, we must remember that he has been assured that the promise will be fulfilled through Isaac.  So this final test of Abraham’s faith shows not only that he is willing to sacrifice his son, but he is willing to trust that G-d will somehow uphold His side of the covenant no matter how impossible it appears to him. How will Isaac’s descendants possess the Promised Land if Isaac is killed? This is a supreme test of Abraham’s faith in G-d.

Of course, we should also understand that this story is a strong negation of child sacrifice. It is almost impossible for us to understand how any parent could intentionally kill their own child. We would go to any length to protect out child. Yet, we know as a historical fact that child sacrifice was practices in the Ancient Near East. The prophets in the Bible excoriate those who engage in this practice. The Bible tells of the King of Moab who sacrificed his son in order to propitiate the Moabite god to allow him to be victorious over Israel. Beyond the borders of the Middle East, child sacrifice was practices in other parts of the world.  Indeed, there is abundant evidence, both archaeological and literary, that the Mayans in South America practiced human sacrifice including child sacrifice into the 17th century.  The Torah wants to end this abhorrent practice and the story of the Akeida makes a very strong statement regarding it. By G-d seemingly commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son and then, in the middle of the act, telling him to stop and not even to lay a hand on his son, the point is made in the strongest possible way. The story continues that a ram was offered up in place of Isaac. Hence animal sacrifice is substituted for child sacrifice. Animal sacrifice does become a central feature of religious ritual in biblical times and continued until the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Akeida presents us with a powerful illustration of Abraham’s faith in G-d and a powerful rejection of a form of worship of G-d that was a common practice in Israel’s immediate environs.

Good Shabbos!


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