Unbinding Isaac: A Rosh Hashanah Midrash

Traditionally, Genesis chapters 21 and 22 are read from the Torah on Rosh Hashanah–chapter 21 on the first day, chapter 22 on the second (though they are often read all at once in U.S. Reform synagogues). They relate, together, the story of Isaac’s birth (though not the promise of his birth), Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion from Abraham’s camp, and the binding of Isaac–the story of Isaac’s near-sacrifice on Mount Moriah.

What follows is my own lengthy, humanistic Jewish midrash on the binding of Isaac.

Chapter 22 is rather a curious text. There is the interpretation of it as announcing Judaism’s rejection of human sacrifices, something somewhat unique in its cultural context; there is the nature of the narrative itself, the idea that Abraham could be forced to destroy by his own hand the son he and Sarah had so long desired, and the sudden act of divine intervention at the last moment to forestall the sacrifice. Even the public reading of the portion is (or is intended to be) dramatic, coming as it does on Rosh Hashanah in the midst of a period of atonement and personal sacrifice.

That’s all pretty interesting, but it’s not what I’ll be writing about.

How does this all start? After the narrator’s voice tells us that God wishes to test Abraham, God comes to Abraham and says, “Take, if you will, your son–your only one–whom you love: Isaac. Then go to the land of Moriah, and make him into a burnt offering there, upon one of the mountains which I will tell you.” (My translation.)

It’s the “if you will” I want to start with.

The Hebrew for “Take, if you will” is kach-na. The kach is the “take.” The na is the “if you will.” It’s a little particle appended to the end of the verb, and it’s so small, but it indicates something so important.

It tells us that Abraham was complicit in his own testing. The request is framed in such a small way, but this is not exactly a command. God is perfectly capable, in the Torah, of issuing plainspoken commands. There’s no na in those cases: “honor your father and your mother” is cabed et-avikha v’et-imekha, full stop. Rashi, the commentator extraordinaire of the tradition, says, commenting on this precise phrase in this text, “Na is the expression of a request.”

Abraham could have said no. He did not. It is not until Abraham reaches out for the knife and is stopped that he interrupts his actions.

Is this whole episode Abraham’s virtuous submission to divine command? That’s one interpretation–and it would seem to be what the text drives toward when it concludes, toward the end of the chapter, that Abraham and Isaac would be made a great nation; but this was already promised to them. There was, one may think, no need for the extra test.

Rashi’s commentary goes on from kach-na to the next phrase: “your son–your only one–whom you love: Isaac.” Rashi imagines this as a conversation between God and Abraham:

“Your son.” “I have two sons.”
“Your only one.” “Each is the only son of his mother.”
“Whom you love.” “I love both of them.”
“Isaac.”

Rashi says the narrative has this form–the long, drawn-out sequence of God narrowing in on Isaac–because God wanted to be sure that Abraham would receive merit for each and every word.

Rashi and I part company here.

Taken from its theological context–taken from the need to justify both Abraham’s and God’s actions–the honing in on Isaac seems to me to increase the moral peril associated with Abraham’s position. Even on Rashi’s telling, Abraham seems to know he can forestall this moment for a bit. It’s not the first time Abraham is portrayed as having held off God’s avenging hand–but he must know where this is going.

But having been dragged, one word at a time, to the conclusion that he is being asked–not told, asked–to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham appears from the text to have begun the process matter-of-factly. And again, to be clear: the covenantal promises have already been made and, at least in part, fulfilled. Abraham need not have said yes.

But he did. And that leaves us in a terrible bind.

What are we to think of Abraham here? Rashi, and predecessor midrashic texts, find praiseworthiness.

I do not. Because, given a choice between reason and the absurdity of sacrificing the child you have been promised and just granted, Abraham in Genesis 22 chooses divine mandate. And that is not, day-in and day-out, a praiseworthy choice in a world where divine mandate–should you believe it exists (and I do not)–is not clear.

This is the literature of our People. But we must forge our own relationships with texts, with history, and with our own values. And choosing the absurd, the immoral, when we know we can do otherwise without penalty is not a choice we should make. And it is a particularly non-humanist approach to morality.

As we enter a new 5774, let us look at the binding of Isaac in a new light and consider how we can make better moral choices that reflect our values and our realities, rather than our fears. That is, let us unbind Isaac.

L’shanah tovah.

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