Thoughts on the Akedah (The Binding of Isaac)
When we think of the Akedah, the story of the binding and near-sacrifice of our ancestor Isaac upon the altar on Mount Moriah, our thoughts usually go to the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah and we recall countless sermons over the years interpreting that passage from Genesis 22. However, though it is rarely included in our public worship services nowadays, most traditional siddurim include this entire passage from Genesis in the introductory morning blessings, the birchot hashachar. It is introduced by a prayer most of whose phrases are taken from the Zichronot section of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf where we recall the binding of Isaac as a symbol of devotion to God. The prayer provides a Kavanah, which calls upon God to remember us compassionately as it recalls the merit of our ancestors, particularly Abraham and the promises, the b’rit, the covenant made with him and his offspring following that momentous event.
These introductory words are followed by the entire text of the Akedah story, Genesis 22:1 -19, that we will be reading this week as part of our weeklyTorah reading. This passage in the traditional prayer books is followed by a Y’hi Ratzon prayer (“May it be Your will”) again taken primarily from the Musaf liturgy of Rosh Hashanah. Even if we skip over this daily reading of the Akedah as is the case in many synagogues, the editors of the siddur remind us of these themes in the very next passage of Birchot Hashachar, the long section taken from the Midrash of Tanna D’vei Eliyahu. There we mention that “We are Your people, the children of Your covenant, children of Abraham Your beloved to whom You took an oath on Mount Moriah, the offspring of Isaac, his only one, who was bound upon the altar; the congregation of Jacob, Your firstborn son…”
The practice of reciting the passage of the Akedah each day either in the birchot
hashachar, these introductory prayers of the morning service, or in Sephardic tradition as part of the prayers of supplication, the Tachanun, following the Amidah, it seems to derive from the mystical tradition of the twelfth century. Several sources cite the Zohar, the primary text of Kabbalah as teaching: “It is good for Israel to mention in the diaspora (bagalut) every day the passage of the Akedah, for it will protect them from all evil occurrences, for a bat kol (a heavenly voice) goes forth saying (quoting from the Akedah, the words of the angel who stops Abraham passage) ‘al taas lo me’umah’ do not do anything to him.”
Thus, we find in the 14th century law code, the Tur, written by Rabbi Yakov ben
Asher, as he lists various prayers and biblical passages that one should say in the
morning, a statement that: “It is good to say the passage of the Akedah.” Rabbi Yosef
Karo, two centuries later, in his major commentary to the Tur, the Bet Yosef, explains
that the reading of this passage is in order to recall the merit of our ancestors and also to subdue our evil inclination in order to serve the Lord just as Isaac was willing to give up his life for God’s service. Karo includes this law, without explanation, in his shorter work, the Shulchan Aruch. The Magen Avraham commentary there says that it is not sufficient simply to read the passage, but one should contemplate it and recognize all the wonders of the Lord.
While some authorities are reluctant to include this passage in the liturgy of Shabbat
and holidays lest one arouse judgment against oneself on those holy day, others simply omit on those days the opening and closing passages which, as mentioned, are taken from the musaf liturgy of Rosh Hashanah, which is called the Day of Judgment and just read the biblical verses. Looking in two prayer books on my desk, I see in the Koren Siddur a note stating that most people do indeed omit those passages on those days, while in the Aliyot Eliyahu siddur, the editor does not mention any change for Shabbat and Yom Tov. Clearly, once again, we have variant practices in different communities.
In the days of the Crusaders, in the 11th century, we find chronicles that speak of the massacres of Jews in various European communities and of parents who decided then in the face of this onslaught by their enemies to take their own lives and those of their children rather than be slaughtered or tortured by these Crusaders or forced to convert against their will. In some of these passages, the comparison was made to Abraham and Isaac at the time of the Akedah. The fathers raised their knives looking toward heaven for divine intervention. Yet here, no angel appears to stay the hands of these fathers.
Modern poets and writers seem fascinated by the story of the binding of Isaac. It is a passage that for many calls into question the love and compassion of the Lord. How could a loving God give such a horrific commandment to one whom He professes to love:”Offer up your son, your only one, whom you love”? Others focus on the other side of the coin, the divine intervention that restrains Abraham’s hand from slaughtering his own son, from following the pagan practices of his neighbors.
It is not clear how old Isaac is at this juncture. When we read the story, he seems to be a little boy, trusting in his father as they walk up the mountain together. Many sages, however, see him as a grown man, 37 years of age, based on their tradition that Sarah, his mother, whose death is mentioned in the next paragraph in the Torah, died right after learning of the Akedah. Since Isaac was born when she was 90 and she died at 127, he must have been 37 years old at this time. If that’s the case, it seems that Isaac is a willing participant in this sacrificial act. The rabbis imagine him not only accepting the divine commandment but even instructing his father to bind him tightly, so he does not move and thereby invalidate the sacrifice.
In modern times, the Akedah is seen as representing the wars of the last century where parents sent their children off to fight the enemy in the World Wars and later battles in istant countries overseas. Too often the lives of children were sacrificed in the wars of their fathers, and no angel intervened to stop the killing of these young soldiers. There are many songs written on this theme, works by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen among others. As you might imagine, Israeli poets have also used this image to describe the wars to which so many Israeli parents have sent their sons and daughters, praying that they may be spared as was Isaac, Yitzchak.
One of these poems, written by Naomi Shemer, has been set to music with drums pounding in the background. She starts off quoting the text of the Bible, phrase by phrase, “Take – your son – your only one – whom you love. Take Yitzchak and offer him up as a sacrificial offering - on one of the mountains – in the place that I will show you. Offer hm up as a sacrifice - on one of the mountains in the land of Moriah.” She then adds, “And from all the mountains in this land shall ascend a great cry: here is the fire and here is the wood, and here he is, the sheep for the sacrifice. Master of the Universe, filled with compassion – do not send forth Your hand against the child – do not send forth Your hand against the child. Even if we live seven generations more and grow old, we will not forget the knife that was waved - we will not forget – Your son – Your only one – whom we loved – we will not forget – Yitzchak.” Shemer wrote this song in 1967 about a relative, a pilot who died named Yitzchak, but it seemed particularly poignant when it was played again after the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin, one of many Yitzchaks who have died for Israel.
Yehudah Amichai, one of Israel’s most beloved poets, also wrote on the Akedah and one of his poems is entitled, “The Real Hero of the Akedah” which begins by saying, “The real hero of the Akedah was the ram.” As the poem continues ostensibly about the poor innocent ram offered in place of Isaac, we realize that this poor sheep refers to those sacrificed for the plans of others, wars they didn’t ask for. As Amichai concludes, he writes, “The angel went home, Isaac went home, and Abraham and God left a while ago. But the true hero of the Akedah is the ram.”
Once again, today, following the butchery of Hamas, we see parents and grandparents sending their sons and daughters off to fight a war that nobody wanted, but since it has been thrust upon the people of Israel, we pray for God’s protection for these young people sent off to battle. May the Almighty spare them, bring them home safely once the battle is over. Bring the hostages home safely as well, we pray. As we read the biblical narrative of the binding of Isaac this shabbat, may a merciful God hasten to bring peace to the troubled land of our ancestors and to our troubled world.