Father and Son
One of the most dramatic episodes in the entire Torah, and certainly in the Book of Genesis, is the Akaida -- the binding of Isaac. From the moment Abraham receives the directive from God, until the angel appears and frees him from his horrific mission, the tension is palpable.
The Akaida has enchanted and haunted generations of readers, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.
The Akaida has enchanted and haunted generations of readers, Jewish and non-Jewish1 alike. While the "story" certainly makes for a good read, we are aware that there are numerous levels on which we can read the text, multiple lessons to be extrapolated.
On a literary level and on a Midrashic level, the story stands by itself; no parallels are needed to explain or embellish the ideas contained within it. There is, however, a textual and Midrashic theme which links the Akaida with the revelation at Sinai, an idea which needs to be understood and explored.
The suggestion of such a relationship with the revelation should not surprise us, for the Akaida was itself a "revelation" of sorts.
For example, at Sinai, the people saw the sounds:
At the Akaida there was also an element of Abraham seeing that which was said:2
And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, "Abraham." And he said, "Behold, here I am." And He said, "Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you." (Genesis 22:1-2)
God says that he will tell him the location of the execution; nevertheless, after three days, Abraham and Isaac see that which is said:
On the third day ... and saw the place afar off. What did he see? He saw a cloud enveloping the mountain, and said: "It appears that that is the place where the Holy One, blessed be He, told me to sacrifice my son." He [Abraham] then said to him [Isaac]: "Isaac, my son, do you see what I see?" "Yes," he replied. Said he to his two servants: "Do you see what I see?" "No," they answered. Since you do not see it, [he told them] "Abide here..." (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis LVI:1,2)
This cloud seen by Abraham and Isaac reminds us of the cloud which hovered over the mountain at Sinai:
And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there was thunder and lightning, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the sound of a shofar exceedingly loud; so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. (Exodus 19:16)
At Sinai, the people saw a cloud on the third day, the beginning of the revelation. But the connection is somewhat deeper than merely being revelatory.3
TO TEST AND TO UPLIFT
The text of the Akaida begins with a decree:
And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham ... (Genesis 22:1)
Here we are told that God "tested" Abraham; the Hebrew word is nisah. This word also appears in the aftermath of the revelation. The people are afraid of the awesomeness of the experience, and recoil:
And all the people saw the thunder, and the lightning, and the sound of the shofar, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they were shaken, and stood far away. And they said to Moses, "Speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die." And Moses said to the people, "Fear not; for God has come to test you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that you sin not." (Exodus 20:15-17)
In both of these cases the Torah utilizes a double entendre. The word nisah can mean both to "test" and to "uplift." God desires to uplift Abraham and the Jewish people respectively by these "tests," each of which are singular experiences in the lives of the forefathers and the nation.
Furthermore, the successful conclusion of the Akaida takes place when the angel declares that Abraham's "fear of God" has been established.
And the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham"; and he said, "Here am I". And he said, "Lay not your hand upon the lad, nor do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing that you did not withhold your son, your only son from me. (Genesis 22:11-12)
These word are echoed in the text cited above in the aftermath of the revelation:
...for God has come to test you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that you sin not. (Exodus 20:17)
Based on these observations alone one can build the case for some type of relationship between these two sections. The backdrop of the revelation was the shofar:
And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there was thunder and lightning, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the sound of a shofar exceedingly loud; so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the lower part of the mount. And Mount Sinai was altogether in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount trembled greatly. And when the voice of the shofar sounded long, and became louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by a voice. (Exodus 19:16-19)
The source of the shofar is, of course, the Akaida. The ram which was ensnared in the bushes provided the Jewish people with the shofar:
Rabbi Abbahu said: "Why do we blow on a ram's horn? The Holy One, blessed be He, said: 'Sound before Me a ram's horn so that I may remember on your behalf the binding of Isaac the son of Abraham, and account it to you as if you had bound yourselves before Me.'" (Rosh Hashana 16a)4
Rashi explains that the sound of the shofar heard at Sinai comes from the shofar of the ram of Isaac.5 The Ramban refers to a mystical secret: The sound which was heard at Sinai was actually "the awe of Isaac."6
The sound of the shofar heard at Sinai comes from the shofar of the ram of Isaac.
If the shofar of Isaac, or the awe of Isaac, is such an integral part of the revelation, we understand why the Akaida must be seen as some type of precursor to the events at Sinai.7 In fact, some sources see these events so closely related that they place the Akaida at Sinai!
Another exposition of the text: And the lord spoke unto Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai. This wilderness (Sinai) was called by six names: Mount of God, Mount Bashan, Mount Gavnunim, Mount Moriah, Mount Horev, Mount Sinai. (Midrash Rabbah - Bamidbar I:8)8
The area which we generally call Sinai is here called Moriah; the place God sent Abraham, which is usually identified with Jerusalem, is called in the Torah "Moriah."
The Talmud discusses the meaning of the word Moriah:
What is [the meaning of] "Mount Moriah"? With regard to this there is a difference of opinion between Rabbi Levi ben Hama and Rabbi Hanina. [One says]: "Because from this mountain instruction went forth unto Israel." And the other says: "Because it is the mountain whence fear came upon the heathen." (Talmud - Ta'anith 16a9)
In the comments of Tosafot,10 the idea of instruction coming forth presents two possible understandings:
- Jerusalem, the place from which the law was taught, as the Prophet said, "From Zion shall Torah spring forth" (Yeshayahu Chapter 2).
- The original source of instruction: Sinai.11 There is a Midrash that makes an even more radical suggestion: Sinai was once part of Moriah (in Jerusalem):
And where did Sinai come from? Rav Yossi said, "From Mount Moriah it was separated (ripped?) like challah, which was separated from the dough. From the place where Isaac our Forefather was bound. God said, since Isaac their Forefather was bound there, it is an appropriate place for his children to receive the Torah." (Midrash Tehilim 68:9 Buber edition)12
Here we see, in the clearest possible terms, the link between the Akaida and revelation. The locale of the two is inexorably linked. The Akaida provided the conceptual prototype for the revelation. Understanding the Akaida can shed light on the revelation and understanding the revelation can shed light on the Akaida.
THE LINK TO EDEN
The Ramchal13 teaches that the major aspect of the revelation, receiving the Torah, was the distilling of good from the compound of good and evil which resulted from eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
The fall of man at the very dawn of history was caused by the combination of forces, which are good and evil. Standing at Sinai, hearing, seeing the word of God, broke that spell. The clarity with which the people saw the words left them without doubts concerning their collective and individual agenda.
Standing at Sinai, hearing, seeing the word of God, broke the spell of the first sin.
The idea of the Akaida is of a person or persons so dedicated to God that personal considerations are not factored into decisions. For that individual, God is not the most important thing in life, God is the only thing in life. God is life. That person is no longer controlled by good and evil; good has been extricated from the insidious mixture.14
And God sat and saw the father binding with all his heart, and the son being bound with all his heart, and the angels were screaming and crying. (Pirkei D'Rebi Eliezer chapter 30/31)
If we extend the idea, we will recall that eating from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil brought death into the world. The Gemara teaches that when the Jews stood at Mount Sinai they were "cured" of the metaphysical venom with which the serpent of old had infected them.15
Our Sages teach us that at Sinai the entire nation perished. The awe was apparently too great and the people could not sustain such a level of spirituality. Afterward God sprinkled dew upon them and the entire nation was resurrected.
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi also said: "At every word which went forth from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, the souls of Israel departed, for it is said, My soul went forth when he spoke. But since their souls departed at the first word, how could they receive the second word? He brought down the dew with which He will resurrect the dead and revived them." (Shabbat 88b)
This return to life is a symbol of a spiritual rebirth: The purity lost in Eden is regained. The nation is now cleansed from all evil, radiant and virginal.
The theme of resurrection is also present at the Akaida.
The theme of resurrection is also present at the Akaida, in a general sense. Isaac, bound to the altar, with the blade quickly making its way to his jugular, is saved from the brink of death at the last second. Isaac has "one foot in the grave," a knife at his throat. He is all but dead when the epiphany brings the message that Isaac may live.
The Midrash goes even further, opining that Isaac did, in fact, die on the altar!
Rav Yehuda said, "When the sword got to his neck Isaac's soul departed. When he heard the sound from between the cherubs, saying 'Do not lift your hand...,' his soul returned. He stood on his feet and ... said 'Blessed be thou God who revives the dead.'"(Pirkei D'Rrebi Eliezer chapter 30/31)
Just as the nation perished at Sinai and are brought back to life, so does Isaac die, and return to life.
This theme of resurrection is also the major theme of the Haftorah:
And when Elisha came into the house, behold, the child was dead, and laid upon his bed. He went in therefore, and closed the door upon the two of them, and prayed to the Lord. And he went up, and lay upon the child, and put his mouth upon his mouth and his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands; and he stretched himself upon the child; and the flesh of the child became warm. Then he returned, and walked in the house to and fro; and went up, and stretched himself upon him; and the child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes. (2 Kings 4:32-35)
The opportunity lost at the dawn of history is "fixed" at the revelation. The Akaida serves as the conduit of this divine benevolence, introducing the human ability to change one's fate, to worship God completely and wholeheartedly.
Why is the Akaida such a watershed? Why does this event stand out from all the deeds of the partriachs?
The Torah has no trace of communication between Adam and his descendants. Whatever he saw or experienced in that celestial garden remains a mystery. Neither does Noah engage in dialogue with his children. The only time we see him speaking to them is when he curses his son. In contradistinction, Abraham takes Isaac into his world. The Torah stresses that the two "walk together".
And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife. And both of them walked together. And Isaac spoke to Abraham his father, and said, "My father;" and he said, "Here am I, my son." And he said, "Behold the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" And Abraham said, "My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering." And both of them walked together. (Genesis 22:6-8)
They were on the same path, the same "wavelength", possessing a common destiny.
Perhaps this is the lesson of the Akaida: There was no generation gap between the two. They shared a common goal and path. In the words of the Midrash:
'And both of them walked together:' one to bind and the other to be bound, one to slaughter and the other to be slaughtered. (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis LVI:3) At all events, "God will provide himself the lamb, son; and if not, thou art for a burnt-offering, my son." And both of them walked together: one to slaughter and the other to be slaughtered. (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 54:4)
Abraham and Isaac formed the first inter-generational bond, a living lesson in continuity. Sinai, too, is a place that binds all generations of the Jewish People together. All souls stood at Sinai and took part in the theophony. The root of the Sinai experience was at the Akaida, where the first two generations of our people, Abraham and Isaac, become bound together in their love of God.
The Ariz"al teaches (Sefer Halikuttim page 63) that the response to Isaac's query regarding the object which would be slaughtered is instructive: God will provide himself the lamb for the offering, my son. In Hebrew, the first letter of each word spells Hevel, i.e. Abel, drawing a clear line between Adam's failure to engage the next generation in dialogue and Abraham's succeess. This sets the stage for Sinai, where all Jewish people are linked for eternity by a common mission, a common destiny.
And both of them walked together.
- Kierkagaard's "Fear and Trembling" has become a classic in general philosophy, and his term "Leap of the faith" has entered the lexicon of religious and non -religious alike. (return to text)
- The Racanati obliquely makes this reference in his comments on Parshat Yitro. (return to text)
- The "third day" is noted in the Midrash as one of the parallels between the episodes. See Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 56:1 (return to text)
- See the comments in the Midrash where this idea is both redemptive and eschatological: Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit 56:9
"And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him (ahar) a ram. What does ahar mean? Said Rabbi Judan: 'After all that happened, Israel still fall into the clutches of sin and [in consequence] become the victims of persecution; yet they will be ultimately redeemed by the ram's horn, as it says, And the Lord God will blow the horn.(Zecharia 9:14)." Rabbi Judah ben Rabbi Simon interpreted: 'At the end of [after] all generations Israel will fall into the clutches of sin and be the victims of persecution; yet eventually they will be redeemed by the ram's horn, as it says, And the Lord God will blow the horn.' Rabbi Hanina ben Rabbi Isaac said: 'Throughout the year Israel are in sin's clutches and led astray by their troubles, but on Rosh HaShana they take the shofar and blow on it, and eventually they will be redeemed by the ram's horn, as it says, And the Lord God will blow the horn.' Rabbi Abba ben Rabbi Pappi and Rabbi Joshua of Siknin in Rabbi Levi's name said: 'Because the Patriarch Abraham saw the ram extricate himself from one thicket and go and become entangled in another, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: "Thus will your children be entangled in countries, changing from Babylon to Mede, from Mede to Greece, and from Greece to Edom; yet they will eventually be redeemed by the ram's horn, as it is written, And the Lord God will blow the horn ... the Lord of hosts will defend them. (Zecharia 9:14 f.)." (return to text)
- This idea is based on the Midrash in Perki D'Rebi Eliezer chapter 30 or 31 depending on the edition. (return to text)
- The term used for revelation is often "Mipi Hag'vura, which is the mystical appellation of Isaac. The fear which the people experienced at Sinai is connected to the fear which Isaac experienced when he found that he had unknowingly given the blessing to Jacob. See Ramban Sh'mot 19:13, and notes by Chavel. (return to text)
- There are many other connections, between Sinai and the Akaida, space does not permit a listing of all of them. Though I will mention one more, the servants of Abraham remain at the foot of the mountain, reminiscent of the hierarchy at Sinai. (return to text)
- See also Otzar Midrashim by Eisenstien page 162. (return to text)
- The Midrash echoes this idea. See Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 55:7 (return to text)
- Tosafot s.v. "Har" (return to text)
- See the explanation of the Chatam Sofer, in Responsa Chatam Sofer Yoreh Dayeh section 235. Also see the explanation of the Chatam Sofer in the name of his revered teacher Rav Natan Adler in section 233, that when Abraham sets out on his journey it says the land of Moriah, not the Mount Moriah, because the mountain did not exist yet. Abraham Korman in Haavot Vihashvatim develops an entire thesis based on this idea, that volcanic activity formed the mountain during the three days of Abraham's sojourn. (return to text)
- The Midrash continues to state that in the future Sinai will return to Moriah in Jerusalem. (return to text)
- See Maamar Hachochma, and see Siftie Chaim volume 3 page 57. (return to text)
- Abraham achieves this level when he is prepared to sacrifice his beloved son. Isaac strives for this level when he asks his father to tie him down, explaining that "the soul is strong but the body is weak".(Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 56:8)
Another comment: Rabbi Isaac said, "When Abraham wished to sacrifice his son Isaac, he said to him: 'Father, I am a young man and am afraid that my body may tremble through fear of the knife and I will grieve thee, whereby the slaughter may be rendered unfit and this will not count as a real sacrifice; therefore bind me very firmly. Forthwith, he bound Isaac. Can one bind a(n unwilling) thirty-seven years old man?" (return to text)
- Shabbat 146a (return to text)