Each Rosh HaShanah, we read the horrid tale of the (Genesis 22), the almost-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Commentators throughout the ages characterize this story as an example of the heights of faith. Abraham loved God so much he was willing to give up the child he waited so long to bear.
But in as much as this might have been a test of Abraham, I read the story as a clear indication that Abraham failed the test.
Consider this: Did God really command Abraham to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering? Read closely. According to one commentary, Midrash Tanhuma, it all hinges on one word – olah. In the Torah, God said to Abraham v’haaleihu sham l’olah, bring up Isaac as an olah. The Hebrew word olah, comes from the root Ayin-Lamed-Hey, meaning, “to rise up.”
Must olah here mean, “sacrifice,” as in the smoke of the sacrifice rises up? Or might it be connected rather to a more familiar word aliyah, also from the Hebrew root Ayin-Lamed-Hey, meaning “spiritual uplift?” In this reading, God only said, “raise up your son with an appreciation of your devotion to Me.” Perhaps Abraham was so dazzled to be speaking to God that he became confused. What if he misunderstood God’s intended purpose?
Rashi, the greatest Biblical commentator of all time, also hangs his interpretation on the same word. He explains (on Genesis 22:2), perhaps God was saying, “When I said to you ‘Take your son’… I did not say to you, sh’chateihu, ‘slaughter him,’ but only ha’aleihu, ‘bring him up.’ Now that you have brought him up, introduce him to Me, and then take him back down.” Instead of wanting Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God really only wanted him to spend some spiritual “quality time” with his son. Had Abraham only paid close attention, he might have spared himself, Isaac, and Sarah a significant amount of stress and pain.
But in a strange twist, the angel of God who stopped Abraham from killing his son responds with love, not rebuke. God praised Abraham. Why would God praise him if Abraham misunderstood the command? Perhaps God, through the angel, reaffirms to Abraham how much God loves him, but also signals that Abraham and his followers should no longer employ cruel or intimidating means to show their love for God.
This need not, however, be understood as condoning Abraham’s actions. Rather, the angel’s words remind me of that parent who walked into his freshly painted house. Dad is greeted at the door by his young son who, with a big smile on his face, says, “Daddy, come see how much I love you.” The boy brings his father into the next room and proceeds to proudly show him a picture drawn in magic marker on the living room wall. It was a red heart, inside of which were the words, “Daddy, I love you.” How does a parent respond to such a display of love, especially after spending thousands of dollars to paint the house just right? Most of us would yell, and yell loudly. But if we stopped first to think about it, we might say, with tears in our eyes, “I love you too, my son. Try to use paper next time. And you may not write on the walls. But, I love you too!” Similarly, through the words of the angel, God, the patient One, who cherishes Abraham, teaches love and forgiveness as an example for future generations.
Now consider this: Prior to the Akeidah, each encounter between God and Abraham occurs in direct one-on-one conversations. But from this point on, God never again speaks to Abraham directly. All further communication is passed through an angel. Why? Because Abraham simultaneously passed and failed the test. He showed his love of God, yes, but he employed violent means to pursue that love. The use of an intermediary – the angel – proclaims a message for future generations: Abraham really didn't listen to God’s teachings of compassion, did he?
Image: Laurent de La Hyre's "Abraham Sacrificing Isaac," 1650