Sacrifice My Son? What Was I Thinking?

Vayeira, Genesis 18:1–22:24

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Paul Kipnes

A father and son outdoors in a meadow

Did you ever wonder what Abraham thought about in the years following his “almost-sacrifice” of his son Isaac? In this midrashic monologue based on Parashat Vayeira, we imagine Abraham’s inner struggles:

“As I held up the knife, I knew I had failed. In my passion to please, I lost my head and my son Isaac nearly lost his too.

“Three days before, I heard God talking about Isaac, my son, my only one (from Sarah), the one who was so beloved (Rashi on Gen. 22:2). God said, v’ha-aleihu sham l’olah, “bring him up as an olah,” (Gen. 22:2). I figured God wanted a sacrifice, because the word olah, from the Hebrew root ayin-lamed-hei, means, “to rise up.” You light a fire, making a sacrifice, and the smoke rises up to God.

“If the Holy One wanted me to sacrifice Isaac, who was I to question? In fact, I rose early to do God’s bidding, completing the preparations myself: I saddled my own donkey and chopped the wood myself (Gen. 22:3). I was so pumped to please that I forgot to consult with Sarah. Didn’t even kiss her goodbye.

“What was I thinking? Maybe I wasn’t.

“This Akeidah (binding of Isaac), the almost-sacrifice of my son by my own hand, remains the most painful moment in my life. Some characterize this incident as an example of deep, unquestioning faith (Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit, p.190) saying I loved God so much I was willing to give up the child we waited so long to bear. Others portray this as a definitive repudiation of child sacrifice because ultimately I did not kill my kid. In each case, I seem heroic.

“Yet each night as I toss and turn, I wonder how I could have so been such a dangerous fool. I completely misunderstood God’s intended purpose (Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels, commentary on Pri Ha’Aretz:Vayera, Institute for Jewish Sprituality). That Hebrew root ayin-lamed-hei, meaning “sacrifice,” also points to the word aliyah, meaning “spiritual uplift.” In retrospect, I realize that God did not specify sh’chateihu, “slaughter him,” but only ha-aleihu, “bring him up.” Did God want me to bring Isaac up top the mountain to introduce him to my passion for the Divine, and then bring him back down? (Rashi on Gen. 22:2; B’reishit Rabbah 56:8). It was supposed to be father-son spiritual “quality time” (Tanchuma, Vayeira, 22).

“In my haste, I sacrificed the protection of my child. I caused our family significant stress and pain. I scarred my son for life. When Isaac closes his eyes, does he also see the horrific image of me raising up the knife?

“Thankfully, the angel of God stopped me in time, providing a ram in Isaac’s place. Afterward, God was kind, but not pleased. Praising me saying, “I will bless you greatly (Gen. 22:17),” reaffirming love for my descendants, God also signaled that humans may no longer employ cruel or intimidating means to show our love for God (Rashi on Gen. 22:12).

“The angel’s words may remind some of parents who walk into a freshly painted house to be greeted by their smiling young child saying, “Come see how much I love you.” In the next room, the child proudly shows off a picture of a red heart, drawn on the wall, inside of which are the words, “Daddy/Mommy, I love you.” How does a parent respond to such a display of love? Many parents would yell loudly. But if we stop first to think about it, we might say, with tears in our eyes, “I love you too, my child. Try to use paper next time. And you may not write on the walls. But, I love you too!”

“This incident transformed our relationships. Isaac took off, and we never spoke again. I fear he will skip my funeral. God ceased direct communication with me, using intermediaries from that moment on. Sarah died before I returned home and could tell her.

“And me? I cannot even stand myself. Because I failed the real test. I loved God but I didn’t love God’s child sufficiently (Rashi on Gen. 22:12; B'reishit Rabbah 56:7). Because I didn’t protect my Isaac. That’s the message for future generations: God wants us to love and protect our children as the ultimate expression of our love for God.

“It doesn’t get any clearer than that, does it?”

Rabbi Paul Kipnes, MAJE, a popular lecturer on raising spiritually balanced, emotionally whole children, is leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA. A former camp director and North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) regional advisor, Rabbi Kipnes and his wife Michelle November, MSSW, co-wrote Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals, and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness (Jewish Lights Publishing).

What Were They Thinking?

Daver Acher By: Rabbi Paul Golomb

A group of people cover their faces with blank thought bubbles

Few narratives in Torah are more intriguing and enigmatic as Abraham’s thwarted sacrifice of Isaac (the Akeidah, Genesis, Chapter 22). It has been analyzed and interpreted by numerous readers from Maimonides to Woody Allen. Few (if any other) biblical stories are as challenging. Biblical scholars have wondered why the narrative was inserted in the text at all. 

I would like to raise a different why. Why do we privilege this text with extra readings?  Jewish tradition reaching back to the Torah itself (Deut. 31) requires a public reading of the entire Torah. By the ninth century C.E., the conventional synagogue practice had been established of effecting this obligation by reading succeeding sections of Torah (parshiyot) over the course of a Hebrew year. Thus, the Akeidah must be read in the synagogue at least annually. It is read more often, as it is also the Torah portion for Rosh HaShanah. The Akeidah is not only recited twice, but it is also read on day when it is likely that a larger number of Jews than usual are in the synagogue. The Akeidah is not merely read, it is proclaimed!

I should caution that in traditional synagogue practice, the passage is read on the second day of the New Year. The preceding chapter, describing the birth of Isaac, is read on the first day. This chapter (Gen. 21) is suggested in the Babylonian Talmud (M’gillah 31a). The continuation to Gen. 22 is only prescribed because of the innovation of a second day, which the Talmud itself suggests was a later development. Indeed, the Haftarah accompanying the Rosh HaShanah Torah reading relates the story of the birth of Samuel; clearly a parallel to Gen. 21. The Akeidah is an appendage to the primary lesson of remembrance (of God’s promise to Sarah) and birth. 

We may ask: if the Akeidah is secondary to the birth of Isaac in the Rosh HaShanah liturgy, why do Reform congregations insist on reading on reading Gen. 22 instead of Gen. 21? Maybe it is not so secondary. In the traditional daily morning liturgy, two passages of Torah are recited. They are The Song at the Sea (Ex. 15) and the Akeidah. Gen. 22 is not read just twice a year – as part of Parashat Vayeira and on Rosh HaShanah – it is read every day!

The Akeidah strikes a nerve. Are there not occasions when the child is acting so provocatively or unruly that the parent says, “I could kill that kid?” (The absence of biblical or midrashic evidence that Isaac ever engaged in such behavior is irrelevant.) The parent restrains, but the provocation is real. Jewish thought frames God as a parent, and we Israel as unruly children; at very least, people who do not live lives thoroughly worthy of God’s blessing. Each day, we wake up to a future of both promise and dread, and in the face of our failings pray that God will restrain.

Gen. 22 remains enigmatic and open to myriad interpretations. Emotionally, however, it touches on core issues of life and death, rule and compassion. The tale cannot be ignored.

Rabbi Paul Golomb is senior scholar at Vassar Temple in Poughkeepsie, NY.

Reference Materials

Vayeira, Genesis 18:1–22:24
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 122–148; Revised Edition, pp. 121–148
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 85–110
Haftarah, II Kings 4:1–37
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 334−337; Revised Edition, pp. 149−152

Originally published: