God’s commands always emphasize life

By Rabbi Seth D. Gordon

“Take your son, your only son …” For many, Abraham’s response –taking the precious son for whom he had yearned as an offering to God — is irrefutable evidence that he possessed incomparable love for, and faith in, God. This appears to be the Torah’s presentation of Abraham and rabbinic teaching regarded this “akeidat Yitzchak” (the binding of Yitzchak) as the tenth and final proof of Abraham’s faith, which makes the aged Patriarch and his descendants worthy of God’s special blessings.

Understandably, others find Abraham’s response disturbing. Why would Abraham, defender of the innocent of Sodom, acquiesce to the apparent slaughter of his own innocent son? Where is his protest, his reluctance? Indeed, a remarkable midrash recasts God’s command as a dialogue: “Take your son” — “but I have two sons,” — “your only son” — “but each one is the only son of his mother,” — “the one that you love” — “But I love them both” — “Isaac.” Abraham still obeys, but his midrashic voice minimally expresses paternal protection. Yet the Torah would appear to present Abraham as an exemplar of religious faith incorporating innocent slaughter.

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A 50-year old film, An Affair to Remember, (Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr) is especially dear to romantics for its final, poignant, crowning scene. (I omit the details for future viewers.) If we evaluate the principal characters, we would conclude that they each make several silly decisions resulting in a tragic waste of precious years. But without those human flaws, the adoring legacy sealed by the movie’s emotional climax would never have been.

The Torah here effectively and affectively stirs in the sensitive reader wonder and indignation and protest against Abraham, and against Isaac and God, too. But, it could be argued, “Take your son,” is less about Abraham than it is about God, and about us, the readers through the ages. And even though God’s actions prompt powerful questions, we should consider the counsel of our Sages: “ein ha-mikra yotze midai p’shuto” — “Scripture does not lose its p’shat (contextual message).” Our study should first and foremost maintain the integrity of the full Torah narrative.

Therefore, however enlightening it may be to focus on the actions and qualities of one or more of the personalities, as p’shat, God clearly and emphatically declares that He does not want us to sacrifice our children.

A foundational midrash interprets the words, “and you shall live by them” (God’s laws) (Vayikra 18:5) — to emphasize life. It is the rare exception that we are bidden to sacrifice our lives. Moreover, in order to serve God, observe His mitzvot, and build a better world, we must be alive. Despite what humans may fail to see in their weaknesses, may assert in their zealotry, or may perversely proclaim in their hatred, God Himself reminds us here that sacrificing children is not the call of the God of Torah, the God of Abraham, the God of Israel, the One God of the universe. God may appear to disappear, but He also re-appears to save us from our own excesses and distortions. May we be receptive to His voice. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Seth D. Gordon of Traditional Congregation prepared this week’s Torah Portion.

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