Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Akeidah in Context: After What Events?

Now after these events it was that God tested Avraham(Genesis 21:1)
What events? What events could possibly serve as a pretext for sending a father to slaugh
ter his son? We usually dismiss the opening of the most intense story in the Torah as the Biblical version of “Once upon a time”. But re-reading the opening verses of the Akeidah one is struck by the exactness of the Biblical prose, more a poetry to be read slowly, with long pauses between the lines for maximum effect:
Now after these events it was
that God tested Avraham
And said to him: Avraham!
He said: Hineni [Here I am].
He said: Pray take your son,
your only-one, whom you love,
and go-you-forth to
the land of Moriah/Seeing,
and offer him up there
as an offering-up
Upon one of the mountains
that I shall tell you.’   (Genesis 20:1-3)
(א) וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה
וְהָאֱלֹהִים נִסָּה אֶת אַבְרָהָם
וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אַבְרָהָם
וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי:
(ב) וַיֹּאמֶר קַח נָא
אֶת בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידְךָ
אֲשֶׁר אָהַבְתָּ אֶת יִצְחָק
וְלֶךְ לְךָ אֶל אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה
וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם לְעֹלָה
עַל אַחַד הֶהָרִים
אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ:
The Torah does not mince words, and while many readers of the Akeidah stress the irrationality of God’s commandment, emphasizing the lack of pretext for God’s call to offer-up Isaac as the real meaning of the “Knight of Faith” moment, some commentators have pointed at a specific act of Isaac’s parents as the impetus for the Akeidah, a mistake or sin which brought God to seek to “test” Avraham (or Sarah). In this reading, the terrible ordeal is not an act of religious courage, but rather the psychological penance of the sinner.
Uncovering their words shows us again how the Akedah is used as the threshing floor of ideas, ideologies and moral conflicts. Tell me how you understand the Akedah and I will tell you what your most basic beliefs are.
The Punishment #1: Pre-mature Peace
Rashbam, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, grandson of Rashi, is well known as the champion of “pshat”, the simple/literal reading of the Biblical text. This is how he unpacks our opening verse:
Now after these events” – every place where it says “after these events” – it is to make a connection to the previous passage…. Here too it refers to “after the events” in which Avraham cut a covenant with Avimelech, the local Philistine king, binding himself, his children and grandchildren.
And for that God became incensed with him, for the land of the Philistines was given to Avraham – [and not to Avimelech]. Therefore God tested Avraham, taunting and tormenting him… saying: “You have become haughty in the son that I gave you, seeking to create a covenant between your sons and Avimelech’s sons – now go and raise him as an offering up and see what good your covenant with Avimelech has caused…”
 ויהי אחר הדברים האלה - כל מקום שנאמר אחר הדברים האלה מחובר אל הפרשה שלמעלה...
אף כאן אחר הדברים שכרת אברהם ברית לאבימלך לו ולנינו ולנכדו של אברהם ונתן לו שבע כבשות הצאן וחרה אפו של הקב"ה על זאת שהרי ארץ פלשתים ניתן לאברהם... לכן והאלהים נסה את אברהם. קנתרו וצערו  ... כלומר נתגאיתה בבן שנתתי לך לכרות ברית ביניכם ובין בניהם. ועתה לך והעלהו לעולה וראה מה הועילה כריתות ברית שלך
It is unclear from Rashbam’s interpretation what incensed God more – Avraham compromising over the promised land, a pragmatic move of the new father seeking to protect his son from war; or the cutting of a covenant with anyone other than God. In His anger, he punishes Avraham, “tormenting and taunting him” – with the test of the Akeidah. Rashbam doesn’t balk at Divine anger and torment - the religious meaning of the Akeidah for Rashbam is not to sacrifice one’s child - God never intended that as a holy act, rather the redirecting of Avraham from a covenant with Avimelech back to the covenant with God.
Alongside the ocntemporary political reading inherent here, I hear another point: Rashbam is highlighting the fact that Avraham lost his way, settled for less and compromised. He lacked the courage to “have it all” – a struggle many young parents face. While Rashbam’s God seems quite ruthless, it does provide a most powerful context for this test: Avraham, now a parent, is torn between his calling as parent, pragmatic leader and visionary careerist.

The Punishment #2 :The Ostentatious Bar Mitzva
Who do we celebrate with? Who do we invite into our circles of gratitude? For the Zohar, the edict of the Akeidah was given as a response to this question, decided in the heavens as Avraham and Sarah were celebrating Yitzhak down below. Focusing on a different “event” which preceded the Akeidah, the celebration of Yitzhak’s coming of age, the Zohar tells the following story:
That pernicious prosecutor [Satan?] was standing at the doorway. As soon as Sarah said “God has made a mockery of me” – the prosecutor immediately rose up before God and said: Master of the World, you have called him “Avraham who loves me”, yet Avraham made a meal and did not offer anything up to you, nor to those more unfortunate then he [מסכנים]…”
Immediately God said: Who in the world is like Avraham? God did not move from there until he overturned all that joy, and commanded to offer up Yitzhak as a sacrifice, and for Sarah to die in sorrow over her son. And all this sorrow was caused because they did not offer anything to those less fortunate than they. (Zohar I:11a)
וההוא מקטרגא על פתחא, אמרה שרה צחוק עשה לי אלהי"ם, מיד סליק ההוא מקטרגא קמי קב"ה ואמר ליה, רבון עלמא את אמרת אברהם אוהבי, הא אברהם עבד סעודתא ולא יהיב לך מידי, ולאו למסכני, ולא קריב קדמך אפילו יונה חד, ותו אמרת שרה דחייכת בה, אמר ליה קב"ה, מאן בעלמא כאברהם, ולא זז מתמן עד דבלבל כל ההיא חדוה, ופקיד קב"ה למקרב ליצחק קרבנא, ואתגזר על שרה דתמות על צערא דברה, כל ההוא צערא גרים דלא יהיב מידי למסכנא. (זהר ח"א יא.)

In Avraham’s haste to leave the company of the unlucky and sterile as he joined the ranks of the successful and fertile, the great host relinquished his commitment to those less lucky then him – and with God. Perhaps, suggests the Zohar, forgetting God and forgetting the needy are the same thing. Only be returning to the prospect of losing everything can Avraham be brought back to being the person who loves God, and doesn’t turn a blind eye to those less fortunate than he.
The Punishment #3: Sarah and Hagar
Modern-day readers have suggested a third sin which the Akeidah might be a punishment for: the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael. Prof. Uriel Simon shows the many parallels between the two narratives: an edict banishing a son, preparations early in the morning, divine intervention saving the child from the father’s death-sentence, etc. Comparing Genesis 20 and 21 is an eye opening experience in Biblical literary parallels – perhaps it is after “Those events” that the Akeidah was decided upon? Avraham, claims Prof. Simon, must be taken through the same experience he inflicted on his “unchosen” child as a punishment for his behavior. If the above Rashbam can be read as a call to only focus on God/Jews, ignoring the other inhabitants of the land, Prof. Simon points us in the opposite direction.
In a similar vein, Rabbi Lynn Gottleib, in her poem “Achti” (sister in Arabic), turns our attention to the unsung victim of the Akeidah, Sarah, suggesting she is just as much the perpetrator of it. In Gottleib’s reading the Akedah serves as a punishment or re-education for Sarah, who taken through the process of losing her own son, realizes the pain and suffering she inflicted on her employee-turned-rival Hagar:
Only at the end
When I witnessed my young son screaming under his father's knife
Only then
Did I realize our common suffering.
Forgive me, Achti
For the sin of neglect
For the sin of abuse
For the sin of arrogance
Forgive me, Achti,

For the sin of not knowing your name.