Devar Torah Vayera: Let’s say Yitzchak died at the Akedah (from 2013)

So, let’s start this off with an innocuous looking Ibn Ezra on the parsha. This Ibn Ezra deals with a problem in the text of the story of the Akeidah. After the Akeidah is over, the passuk (22:19) says:

וַיָּשָׁב אַבְרָהָם אֶל־נְעָרָיו וַיָּקֻמוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ יַחְדָּו אֶל־בְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּשֶׁב אַבְרָהָם בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע:

An obvious question presents itself. Where’s Yitzchak? Answers are given. Rashi, quoting the Medrash, says he immediately went to Yeshivas Shem V’Ever.  Radak says that it didn’t need to mention Yitzchak, because the main character and focus of the story is Avraham. Ibn Ezra says something slightly similar:

וישב אברהם ולא הזכיר יצחק, כי הוא ברשותו.

That’s fairly innocuous, and rather similar to the Radak. Which is why this dvar torah is not about the answer the Ibn Ezra gives. Its about the one he rejects.

והאומר ששחטו ועזבו, ואח”כ חיה אמר הפך הכתוב

Wait, what?!! Is there really an understanding of Akeidat Yitzchak where Yitzchak is actually killed, that Ibn Ezra felt the need to reject? But that would be crazy! That would be insane! How is that possible?
As it turns out, there really is such an understanding. And it is crazy. But it exists. And once you’ve heard it, its impossible to dismiss. You remember where you heard it, and who told it to you, possibly because you never forgive them. But the idea that Yitzchak was killed at the Akeida is an idea that exists in a couple of midrashim, and a coherent understanding of the story can be constructed on that basis. Of course, it raises a lot of questions.

But we see Yitzchak alive later in Chumash!
Well, obviously we know that, and whoever came up with this peshat knows that too. Which is why Yitzchak is in Gan Eden for two years, and then returns. And why 2 years are missing from Rashi’s count of Yitzchak’s life…..

Didn’t God tell Avraham not to do it?
Well, no. Look closely at the pesukim. In passuk 12, it’s not God who tells him not to slaughter Yitzchak. It’s an angel. Why should he listen to an angel when he’s carrying out the direct word of God? In fact, this angel is no mere angel….Clearly, this angel is Satan! And the last part of the test is to ignore Satan!

Why are you doing this to me?
Because I’m a horrible person who wants to rob you of your innocence. Plus, its pretty cool.

So, what I’m not going to do is to justify this understanding of the story point by point. If that is what you want, I recommend Rav Scott Kahn’s comprehensive shiur on the subject. You’re just going to have to take my word for it that this is a coherent and internally consistent peshat of the story of Akeidas Yitzchak.

What I instead would like to do is to discuss why this peshat even exists. It’s clearly not the simplest meaning of the text, and I find it hard to believe that the proverbial “guy at Har Sinai” would have understood the story in this manner. Quite a few elements don’t work within the biblical milieu, and the idea of a messenger of God being an unreliable tempter is problematic for other places in Chumash. The resurrection of Yitzchak after two years would seem to be a noteworthy enough event to have been put in the Torah rather being left out. And yet, the peshat exists, and it works, and there seems to be some elements in the text that actually work better in that peshat. The best explanation for Avraham coming down alone for the Akeidah is given by this story, so much so that Ibn Ezra has to specifically reject it. It’s definitely not “Peshat”, but it is “a peshat”, a defensible peshat, and a valid reading. Why should this be so? Why would the Torah include the possibility of reading the Akeidah in such a jarringly aberrant fashion.

The truth is, its very hard to point to one interpretation of the Akeidah as “Peshat”, because the Torah gives us so little information to go on. It gives us a very bare description of events, with occasional dialogue. We know nothing of the character’s emotions, how they felt, or what they were thinking, or of their philosophies and theologies. We have no idea what God hopes to accomplish by testing Avraham. We have no idea how Avraham approaches his task? Was he angry? Sad? Or even happy and excited to do God’s will? How aware was Yitzchak of what was going on? Did he believe his father about the sheep that God will provide? How did Yitzchak view his father, and how did he react to being bound on an altar? When he is told not to slaughter Yitzchak, how does he react? Is he relieved? Angry? Angry about what? Being lied to? Or not having the ability to follow through?  And again, what’s Yitzchak’s opinion on all this?

None of these questions have answers that are readily apparent in the text. I think this is because those answers are too important to be static. The Akeidah is a supremely important religious event, the pinnacle of the career of the founding father of Monotheism. Too much literary exposition ties it down to one character in one specific era. The story needs to be malleable, able to be adapted as the centerpiece of a religious message for every age, aimed towards every person. The Torah accomplishes this by writing in a style that provides the greatest latitude of interpretation for future generations, where each commentator must combine the sparse clues that the text provides with their own intuitions, colored by their own way of viewing the world, to produce their explanation.

This is not to say that all interpretations are merely mirrors of the interpreter. They are bound by a text, which says certain things, and they have to justify it within that text. As such, as much as interpretations of the Akeidah differ, a common theme can be seen to emerge. The confrontation between Man and God, and the difficulty of squaring God’s infinite demands with Man’s finite limitations, and what Man must sacrifice for God. The nature of those demands and that sacrifice, however is always seen through the lens of interpretation. For some, God’s demands placed upon the family and one’s emotional attachments, the command to sacrifice a son, is the most salient element. For others, the demands placed upon one’s moral sense are of the utmost importance. For others, the demands placed one’s understanding of God, how to reconcile his contradicting words, seems the most challenging.

Yet, all of these have a solution that is part of the story in front of us. In the end, everything ends up okay. You will not have to actually sacrifice your son, God will change his mind at the last second. Of course God doesn’t demand child sacrifice, don’t be silly. God only said to bring him up the mountain, he didn’t mean actually slaughter him, that would be crazy, and all the previous promises made to you still apply. The story contains both the problem and the solution to the problem.

But when Yitzchak actually dies?
Imagine Avraham, watching the miraculous son of his old age is consumed by the raging fire, reducing the promise of an heir to his religious revolution to a few glowing embers and a pile of ash. And as the last remnants of the great nation he was promised fade to the black charcoal, his life’s dreams following the last wisps of smoke into the mountain air,  what kind of thoughts went through Avraham’s head? He has no idea that Yitzchak will be revived in two year’s time, and that information is not volunteered; as far as he knows, everything has ended here at the summit Har Moriah. How did Avraham view a God who miraculously gave him a son, only to cruelly demand it back? Where was the justice from the Eternal judge?  What of the promises of a great nation that would follow in his footsteps? What would happen to the monotheistic vision with no heir to perpetuate it? Why would God so dramatically and painfully contradict himself?

Would we have answers to any of these questions? Do we, even now? Could we? What is all of our theological and philosophical speculation, our cleverest metaphysics and most pious theodicies, what is anything next to a small pile of ashes that was once the body of Avraham’s son, the receptacle of his hopes and dreams? What could have possibly given Avraham comfort at that moment?  No answers are given, because no answers can be.

And that is what God demands of Avraham in this version of the Akeidah; the most horrific reading of the story sees God demand the most terrifying demand of them all: To live without an answer, to carry on without a solution, to continue believing despite the inescapable finality of the problem, with no happy ending to escape to. Yitzchak is dead, that is all Avraham knows, and that is left is the cold pile of ashes left on the altar. There is nowhere for Avraham to run from that image, no comfort he can give himself. He has nothing left except the promises God has given him before, which now seem as cold and empty as the place where Yitzchak previously was bound.

But can it be that God changed his mind? Can it be that he lied to Avraham about his son being the ancestor of a great nation? How could the executor of Justice not execute justice?  Avraham is caught between two contradictory elements, his faith in God and the promises of a glorious nation to follow him, and the reality he sees in front of him, and there is no escaping the thick brush of contradictions and questions he finds himself in. And Avraham lifts up his eyes, and through the smoky haze, sees a ram caught in the thicket, its two opposing horns stuck in the thorns, paralyzing it in place. It is that ram, representing his conflicted, torn, yet unwavering faith, that Avraham offers to God, in place of his son. All he has left is a vague, absurd hope that “God will see” (22:14), and the silent, wordless acceptance of a reiterated promise (22:16-18). Does Avraham believe God? How can he not? But that promise seems incongruous in light of what’s just happened, as if it was made by a God far removed from the present reality. No matter. Avraham descends the mountain and returns to his home, unchanged, unwavering, yet very much alone.


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