The Purpose of the Akeida
AVRAHAM'S VIEW OF DEATH
And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Avraham, and said to him, Avraham; and he said, 'Here I am. And he said, Take now your son, your only son Yitzchak, whom you love, 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. (Bereishit 22:1-2)
When confronted with the Divine imperative, Avraham does not flinch; he marches to the place that God told him; the word of God would be fulfilled. The Torah only tells of Avraham's actions, and the narrative gives us no sense that Avraham hesitated in any way: Avraham awakens early and sets out on his macabre mission. We are not made privy to the thoughts racing through Avraham's mind. Did this grotesque commandment cause Avraham to question the promises God had made to him, or to question his basic understanding of God as merciful and good?
Readers of the text may be far more intrigued by those thoughts than by the actions which the Torah describes. On a logical level, Avraham faced a quandary: God had previously assured him that this son, and no other, would carry on his name and his mission; the covenant forged with Avraham was to be continued through Yitzchak and his children. If Yitzchak, as yet unmarried and childless, is to be slaughtered in sacrifice, can Avraham comprehend or contend with the thought that God's words would be proven false?(1)
The gnawing, haunting elements of the akeida [the binding of Yitzchak] stem from the permanence of death: If death can be temporary, if the body can be healed, reunited with the soul, then the harshest element of the akeida disappears. Can it be that Avraham's own experiences told him that the akeida was not the final act of Yitzchak's life-story? Avraham himself had been thrown into a fiery furnace - apparently with his father's blessing or acquiescence (2) - and emerged unscathed; perhaps he believed, with a conviction that few others can comprehend, that Yitzchak would live, even if he offered him as a sacrifice.
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LIFE AFTER DEATH?
This may be related to a possible resolution which seems to elude Jewish minds: Avraham was to have killed Yitzchak, and subsequently Yitzchak would return from the dead. The idea of resurrection is certainly a Jewish idea, and is considered a basic principle of faith; nonetheless, ever since the idea was hijacked (3) by Christianity and made a central tenet of that religion, Jews seem to distance themselves from the concept, despite the fact that we confirm this principle of faith in our prayers on a thrice - daily basis.
While this may resolve some of the questions that we have regarding Avraham's mindset, it is not the scenario of choice, for the simple reason that Avraham did not, in fact, kill Yitzchak. Nonetheless, various midrashim and commentaries prefer to read Yitzchak's death into the text.
Rav Yehuda said, 'When the sword reached his throat, his soul ascended and Yitzchak died. When He made his voice heard from between the keruvim saying "Do not raise a hand to the boy," (Yitzchak's) soul returned to his body, Yitzchak arose and stood on his feet. Yitzchak knew that this is how the dead would be resurrected in the future, and he said, "Blessed are You who resurrects the dead". [Pirki D'Rebbi Eliezer, Chapter 30 (4)]
The scenario described in this midrash is radically different than what we have come to visualize: Although Avraham does not actively kill him, Yitzchak dies on the altar. His soul ascends to heaven, but is returned to his body when the Voice of God rings out from between the keruvim, and Yitzchak experiences and comprehends resurrection.
The keruvim are familiar to us from the first parsha of Bereishit: God stations a pair of celestial protectors on the path leading back to the Garden of Eden. In our present context, the keruvim function as an oracle, (5) more in line with the description of the keruvim that stood in the Mishkan and later in the Beit Hamikdash in Jerusalem. In fact, this midrash apparently has more to tell us than the alternate akeida scenario; there is, encoded within it, a deep understanding of the function of the keruvim and of the Beit Hamikdash.
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THE CHOSEN PLACE
The akeida took place on a mountain chosen by God and shown to Avraham, a very specific mountain called Moriah. This is the very spot on which the Beit Hamikdash was constructed generations later, the spot upon which the Ark of the Covenant stood, shielded by the keruvim. Yet the confluence of space is not the end of the story: The sacrifice Avraham was called upon to offer was the first sacrifice in Jewish history, and it was performed on the precise spot that would later be the focal point of all sacrifice. Yitzchak is the first offering, the offering which consecrated the Altar that would stand on this very spot. The midrashic insistence that Yitzchak died at the akeida is no mere quirk: Mount Moriah is the place of sacrifice, and Yitzchak was sacrificed.
We should note that there are other connections between Yitzchak and the Mishkan/Mikdash: The Mishkan is consecrated in the month of Nissan, even though the materials were collected and assembled months before, on the 25th of Kislev. Why the delay? The consecration of the Mishkan had to take place in Nisan, according to tradition, because Yitzchak was born in Nissan.(6)
Because the verses tell us that Yitzchak was in fact spared, we tend to analyze the episode in terms of Avraham, to delve into his thoughts and follow his actions. However, if we can entertain the possibility that Yitzchak perished - actually or figuratively, potentially - as the Midrash suggests, we are thrust into an entirely different set of motives, considerations and thought processes. If we can take the conjecture one step further, as did the midrash, and include the resurrection, we gain insight into the inner workings of the Beit Hamikdash and the sacrifices offered there: God creates man, but man sins. The result - inevitable, irrefutable - should be death.
So it was from the very first sin in the Garden of Eden: A person who turns their back on the source of all life will surely die. Yet God does not carry out the death sentence. He allows us to repent. He creates a place and an instrument of forgiveness: Man can express his realization that he has sinned and deserves to die, and bring an offering in his place. And man, who up until that point is "as good as dead", is then reconnected with the source of all life; man is resurrected. All of the offerings brought by guilty, sinful man effectuate a type of figurative resurrection.
Yitzchak's death - or near death - represent the ability of man to return from death, to extricate himself from the limbo state between living and dead. This is what sacrifice does; this is the purpose of the Beit Hamikdash. Every layer of the akeida account leads in this direction: Avraham, who represents, chesed (kindness), offers up Yitzchak, who represents din (judgment). The offering is accepted: true judgment, the death sentence which is the letter of the law, is sacrificed in favor of life. Chesed will be the dominant trait in this place for all time. The akeida is the chanukat hamizbach - the consecration of the Altar - for it sets for all time the dynamic of the transformative and rejuvenating qualities of chesed, as expressed in the atonement effectuated by sacrifice.(7)
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In fact, the idea of resurrection is the major element of the Haftorah portion read with this parsha: In a dramatic scene, Elisha revives and resurrects a dead child.
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 God. 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.(8) 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. And he called Gehazi, and said, Call this Shunemmite. And he called her. And when she came to him, he said, Take up your son. Then she went in, and fell at his feet, and bowed to the ground, and took up her son, and went out. (2 Kings 4:32-37)
The background to this dramatic scene makes the connection with our parsha even more striking: As in the case of Yitzchak, this child was born to a woman and her elderly husband. The parents were informed of the birth by a messenger of God, in this case the prophet Elisha.(9) The woman's response to the news echoes the response of Sarah:(10)
And it happened one day, that he came there, and he turned into the chamber, and lay there. And he said to Gehazi his servant, 'Call this Shunamite.' And when he had called her, she stood before him. And he said to him, 'Say now to her, "Behold, you have been careful to take all this trouble for us. What is to be done for you? Would you be spoken for to the king, or to the captain of the army?"' And she answered, 'I live among my own people.' And he said, 'What then is to be done for her?' And Gehazi answered, 'Truly she has no child, and her husband is old.' And he said, 'Call her.' And when he had called her, she stood in the door. And he said, 'About this season, in the coming year, you shall embrace a son.' And she said, 'No, my lord, you man of God, do not lie to your maidservant.' And the woman conceived, and bore a son at that season that Elisha had said to her, in the following year.
The Haftorah began with acts of kindness: Elisha helps the poor, and the Shunamite woman and her husband go to great lengths to provide comfortable lodging for Elisha, the "man of God". All of this parallels the acts of kindness performed by Avraham at the start of our parsha. The text then goes into seemingly extraneous detail regarding the amenities prepared for Elisha's room:
And she said to her husband, 'Behold now, I perceive that this is a holy man of God, who passes by us continually. Let us make a little chamber, I beg you, on the wall; and let us set for him there a bed, and a table, and a stool, and a lampstand; and it shall be, when he comes to us, that he shall turn in there. (2 Kings, 4:9-10)
While the objects enumerated seem ordinary, there are those who see great symbolism in these utensils. The lamp and the table - the Menorah and the Shulchan - are reminiscent of the utensils of the Beit Hamikdash. The Reshit Chachma (11) [following a teaching of the Zohar (12)] explains that this is an attempt to emulate the essence and purpose of the Mishkan/Beit Hamikdash: to bring holiness into this world. (13) The Shunamite was attempting to build the Temple and bring holiness into her home through the acts of kindness for a holy man of God, the Prophet Elisha. In turn, she is blessed with a child, granted to her in miraculous fashion - despite her husband's advanced age. When this child perishes, he is brought to the "quasi-Temple" and resurrected.
With the story told by the Haftorah in mind, the parsha is cast in a somewhat different light, with the various themes and events gaining different emphases. Only in the context of the Haftorah do we understand that Avraham's chesed is not only the starting point, it is the point. The arrival of the long-awaited child may have seemed momentarily to be the point of the story. The tragic death of that child may have been seen as the sad end of that story. Yet the end of the story of the Haftorah is the end of the midrashic story of the akeida: The resurrection of the child gives new hope when all hope was lost. This is the essence of the Beit Hamikdash: to uplift man when all hope is lost, to breathe into him new hope, and new life. That is why the room prepared by the Shunamite is outfitted with the very same utensils as the Temple; that is why the akeida takes place on the very same spot where the Temple will one day stand. That is why the midrash describes Yitzchak's lifeless body on the altar, as if he were killed and resurrected, for on this hallowed ground many would find their way back to God, and back to life.
1. Rabbi Soloveitchik cited his grandfather, Rav Chaim, as applying one of the rules of hermeneutics in this case: When two verses contradict one another, the third, reconciling verse is sought. In this case, the third verse was the commandment of the angel who told Avraham to cease and desist. See Halakhic Man Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (translated by Lawrence Kaplan) page 143 footnote 5.
2. See Midrash Rabbah Bereishit 38:13, where it is reported that Terach delivered Avraham to Nimrod.
3. It is my assumption that a misreading of the akeida by early Christians is what made the crucifixion and resurrection a central part of their religion.
4. Rav Mordechai Cohen reports a tradition that Avraham actually severed most of Yitzchak's trachea and windpipe - rendering him a "kosher" offering; see Siftei Cohen Bereishit 23:2,where he cites this tradition in the name of the Zohar. The source in the Zohar has eluded me (and others). In fact, Rav Mordechai did not actually find this passage either; he states that he heard that such a teaching is recorded in the Zohar.
5. See Shmot 25:22.
6. Pisikta Rabbati Piska 6.
7. The consecration of the Mishkan also had a "sacrifice," Nadav and Avihu died that day. See Vayikra 10:3 and Rashi's comments. According to mystical sources they returned - their souls transmigrated, see Explorations Parshat Shmini.
8. The Radak describes what we would call today "mouth to mouth" resuscitation: Even when a miracle is performed, it is preferable that it appears like a natural process.
9. Many mystical sources teach that children born in miraculous circumstances are more susceptible to "harsh judgment" and death. Some examples of these "miracle children" are Yitzchak, Binyamin, Chabakuk, and Yona.
10. The Pirkei D'Rebbi Eliezer (Chapter 32) heightens this connection.
11. Reshit Chachma Sha'ar Ha'anava chapter 3.
12. Zohar Volume 2, 133a: "And she said to her husband, 'Behold now, I perceive that this is a holy man of God, who passes by us continually. Let us make a little chamber, I beg you, on the wall; and let us set for him there a bed, and a table, and a stool, and a lampstand; and it shall be, when he comes to us, that he shall turn in there.( 2 Kings, 4:9-10) Here we have an allusion to the order of prayer: "Behold now, I perceive" refers to the concentration of mind during prayer; "that this is a holy man of God"" refers to the supernal world which sits upon its Throne of Glory and from whence emanate all sanctifications and which sanctifies all worlds; "who passes by us continually" - with the sanctification wherewith the worlds above are nourished, he also sanctifies us here below, for there can be no completion of the sanctification above without sanctification below, as it is written:' I shall be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel' (Vayikra 22, 32). "Therefore, let us make a little chamber": let us have an ordered service as a dwelling for the Shekinah, which is called 'wall', as in the verse, 'And Hizkiyah turned his face to the wall' (Yishayahu 38, 2). This dwelling place, created by our prayers and praises, consists of a bed, a table, a stool, and a menorah. By our evening prayers we provide Her (the Shekhina) with a bed; by our hymns of praise and by reciting the section of the sacrifice in the morning we provide Her with a table. By the morning prayers, which are said sitting, and with the proclamation of the Divine Unity (the Shema), we provide Her with a stool; and by means of those prayers which must be said standing (Amidah) and of the Kaddish and Kedushah prayers and benedictions we provide Her with a menorah. Blessed is the man who thus endeavours daily to give hospitality to the Holy One. Blessed is he in this world and blessed shall he be in the world to come. For these four groups of prayers equip the Shekinah with beauty, joy and lustre, to greet Her Spouse with delight and ecstasy day by day, through the worship of the holy people. The bed was given to Yaacov to prepare, therefore he (composed) the evening prayer; the table was prepared by King David in the Psalms which he wrote ('You prepare a table before me',"(Tehilim 23, 5)); the stool was prepared by Avraham, through his close union with God, wherewith he benefited the souls of all the sons of men. The menorah was prepared by Yitzchak, who sanctified the Name of the Holy One before the eyes of the whole world, and lighted the supernal light in that sanctification. Therefore the Holy People must direct its mind towards the supernal world, and prepare for the Lord of the House a bed, a table, a stool, and a menorah, in order that perfection and harmony may reign undisturbed every day, both above and below.
13. These objects may also be connected with the three commandments bestowed upon women, Challa, niddah and lighting candles. These three elements were also found in Sarah's tent. See Rashi on Bereishit 24:67 and Sefer HaLiquitim, Shoftim chapter 15.