The tradition lionizes Abraham. He is among our greatest of heroes. We recall his name every time we stand to recite the Amidah. We remember his fortitude, and remind God of our forefather’s devotion, in our prayers. Abraham was tested ten times and each time not only persevered but emerged stronger. Last week he left his native land when God commanded him to do so. And then at God’s insistence, he circumcised himself at the age of 99.
And this week we read of his final test: the command to sacrifice his son Isaac. We also read this story on Rosh Hashanah. God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son. Without hesitation he marches off early in the morning, with Isaac, to do God’s bidding. He carries with him all the tools for this sacrifice. Abraham and Isaac journey for three days to Mount Moriah. You might have thought that he would have changed his mind. You might have thought Isaac would inspire uncertainty, and doubt, about his faith.
Abraham was, however, single minded in his devotion. Only at the last moment does God stay Abraham’s hand. “Do not raise your hand against the boy…” God calls. In Isaac’s place Abraham sacrifices a ram. On Rosh Hashanah we sound the shofar in remembrance of Abraham’s devotion. We remind God of what our ancestor was willing to do. On the place where we believe Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac the Temple was built, and the Western Wall now stands.
I continue to ask, “Who would take a knife to their child? Who would sacrifice their son?” It is a harrowing story. And if I introduced you to someone who did what Abraham did you would rightly say he is crazy.
Franz Rosenzweig, the great 20th century Jewish philosopher, responds. He bravely suggested that that Abraham misunderstood God.
Many people think they know what God wants. And plenty of people continue to do crazy things in religion’s name. Rosenzweig also remarked that all we can be certain of when it comes to God’s revelation is its first word, “Anochi—I.” Everything after that word in the opening phrase of Sinai’s revelation, “I am the Lord your God…” is interpretation.
All we can know for sure is that God exists. Discerning what God wants of us, however, is a lifelong pursuit. We continue to interpret. We continue to struggle.
Too often people allow their certainty to blind them and impel them to make terrible decisions and even do horrible deeds. How else can we understand the demand to sacrifice a child? We tend to become overzealous of our interpretations. We shout, “I know what this means. I understand this. I am certain of God’s truth.” We tend to hold on to these certainties as if they are the greatest sources of meaning.
Perhaps this is what we should sacrifice.
And perhaps this is why God stays Abraham’s hand.