As I mentioned last night, my sermons for these Days of Awe reflect the struggles we have had, as individuals and as a sacred community, for the past two and a half years. They are built around a quote from historian Howard Zinn in his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train:
“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage and kindness.”
Last night, I spoke of compassion as the fundamental trait God implants within each of us. This morning, I turn to sacrifice – which God calls on each of us to perform, at some point in our lives, to preserve and protect the lives of others.
Sacrifice is at the heart of this morning’s Torah portion, the Akedah, the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac. Whose sacrifice it is – well, that is a question that’s been debated for thousands of years. And it deserves our attention today.
We know the basics of the story as the Torah tells it. God calls on Abraham to take his beloved son, Isaac, for whom he had prayed for so long, and sacrifice him on a far-off high altar that God would guide him to. Abraham and Isaac make the three-day journey with their servants – but walk alone up the mountain, where Abraham binds Isaac to the altar and raises the knife to slaughter him.
At the very last second, an angel of God calls to Abraham, lauding him for his faith and allowing him to sacrifice a ram – which magically appears in the nearby thicket – in place of his son. And the angel promises Abraham an everlasting covenant because of his faith.
But the story is jarring and disturbing. Does our Israelite God really ask for child sacrifice, like so many of the gods of the ancient world? Does our first forefather really act without questioning God’s order or motive? Does Isaac really go so willingly – or so ignorantly – to his death? Why didn’t Sarah have a say in all of this – or even know about it? Why did the Torah’s redactors deliberately include such a troubling and discordant passage, when the narrative flow of the Book of Genesis would have been just fine without it? And why did they then fail to mention it a single time in the rest of the Torah? Why did they, so to speak, “set it and forget it”? And how in the world does such a disturbing little episode then come to be the foundation for three monotheistic religions?
We might find some of these answers when we ask the initial one: Whose sacrifice does the Akedah describe? I would suggest there are several possible answers.
- Abraham’s Sacrifice
On the face of it, the answer is simple: Abraham, who has waited and prayed and cajoled God for this child for so long, is making the greatest sacrifice anyone can imagine. He is slaughtering a beloved son – the only son of him and Sarah. He is not only bringing untold tragedy into his home, he is cutting off the conduit for the future blessings that God has promised him: generations of his seed, the land, the eternal covenant. God has given, and now God is taking away. Abraham doesn’t know why he’s being tested – or maybe punished — this way. But the Torah depicts this as a clear test of his obedience to God.
If we are disturbed by this, we are not alone. The rabbis were troubled too. So much so that they insisted that, of course Abraham would argue for the life of his own son at least as vociferously as he did for the strangers of Sodom and Gomorrah! Plus, God seems unusually wordy here. Therefore, they decided, God’s words to Abraham could not have been commands but were merely one side of a vehement conversation, for which Abraham’s replies are presumed but not explicit.
Take your son Why, I have two sons!
Your only son Well, one is the son of this woman and the other is the son of that woman!
Your beloved one Now how can a father possibly choose between them?
As Jon Levenson writes in his book Inheriting Abraham, the pain is so unbearable because, as the medieval Torah commentator Rabbi David Kimchi put it, Abraham “loved Isaac more than he loved himself.”
But for Levenson, Abraham’s sacrifice is even greater than that:
“Abraham’s own destiny is so entwined with that of Isaac, and the ‘great nation’ that is eventually to descend from him, that the demand is even harder than the demand upon any other loving father to offer up his beloved son. Psychologically, what is asked is not only an inexpressibly painful act of sacrifice; it is also an act of self-sacrifice . . . it is Abraham’s very future, the very promise that issued from the mouth of God, with which he must part.”
- Sarah’s Sacrifice
Jon Levenson’s description of the heartbreak of Abraham helps us understand his agony. But what about his wife, Sarah? What about her sacrifice? According to the Torah, she was blessed with this child of her old age because of her hospitality to God’s messengers as well as her husband’s. But also, according to the Torah, she is not party to God’s order, or to Abraham’s fulfillment of divine command. What did she know and when did she know it? And what impact did it have on her life?
Since Sarah is completely absent from this story in the Torah, her sacrifice has to be built through rabbinic writings. And there are plenty of them.
In one telling, Abraham does tell her he’s taking Isaac but not what he’s about to do to him. She sends them off with love and hope for their safe return.
But that is just too easy, isn’t it? The rabbis thought so too. So their Midrash gives us this:
“Satan went to Sarah and disguised himself as Isaac. When she saw him, she asked: “My son, what has your father done to you?” He answered, “My father took me down into valleys and up a certain mountain . . . He set up an altar and arranged the kindling and bound me on it. He then took the knife to slaughter me. If the Holy One had not called out, ‘Do not cast your hand on this boy,’ I would have been slaughtered.” He did not complete his sentence when Sarah’s soul had already gone from her.”
The Torah itself connects the near-sacrifice of Isaac at the end of Genesis chapter 22, to the death of his loving mother Sarah at the beginning of chapter 23.
This is not lost on the rabbis, who see that “Sarah died in Kiryat Arba and Abraham came to mourn Sarah and to weep for her” – “came,” because he was nowhere near her when she needed him. We might say that Sarah herself was sacrificed to fulfill Abraham’s quest.
- Isaac’s Sacrifice
So we see that the rabbis themselves re-imagine and re-write the story in many different ways. The rabbis also focused on the possibility that this is really Isaac’s sacrifice.
In one “reconsideration,” the rabbis look closely at the language of the Torah passage. Not once but twice along the three-day journey, the text tells us, וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו, and the two of them walked off together. The first time is when Abraham lays the wood for the sacrificial fire in Isaac’s arms. The second time follows almost immediately: Isaac sees the firestone and the wood but asks, “Where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” And Abraham answers cryptically: “God will see to the sheep, my son.” Or perhaps: “God will see to the sheep – my son.”
Yachdav, the rabbis recognize, means not just that the father and son are walking physically side by side, but that they are “together” in their understanding of what is about to happen.
Surely, Isaac is not an ignorant child. In fact, according to one midrash in the Talmud, Isaac selflessly offers himself up to ease his father’s pain:
“Rabbi Itzchak said, “At the time that Abraham sought to bind Isaac, his son, [the latter] said to him, ‘Father, I am a young man and I am concerned lest my body shake from fear of the knife and I will trouble you, and lest the slaughtering will be invalid and it will not be considered a sacrifice for you. Rather, tie me very well.’ Immediately, [the text says] ‘and he bound Isaac.’ Could he really tie up a man of twenty-six years (or even thirty-seven)? Clearly, it was with his consent.”
But the rabbis don’t leave it there. In the rabbinic mind, Abraham was so intent on fulfilling his vow to God, that there was no stopping him – by an angel or any other means. And here the rabbis again closely examine the text, and the fact that Abraham names this site Adonai Yireh, “and God will see.” Well, what is it that God sees? “I see the blood of the Binding of Isaac.” This early midrash – nearly two-thousand years old — imagines that Isaac was indeed sacrificed by his father, and only the tears of the angels in heaven resurrected him.
Here we have not just a sacrifice by Isaac but truly the sacrifice of Isaac – a story that later Christians will adopt as their own.
The connection between Isaac’s sacrifice and this day, Rosh Hashanah, our Day of Judgment, is clear in the rabbinic mind:
Rabbi Abbahu said: Why does one sound a blast with a shofar made from a ram’s horn on Rosh HaShana? The Holy One of Blessing, said: Sound a blast before Me with a shofar made from a ram’s horn, so that I will remember for you the binding of Isaac, son of Abraham, in whose stead a ram was sacrificed, and I will ascribe it to you as if you had bound yourselves before Me.
“When the descendants of Isaac become involved in transgressions and bad deeds, may You remember for their benefit the Binding of Isaac and leave the Throne of Judgment for the Throne of Mercy, and, filled with compassion for them, may You have mercy upon them.”
- Our Sacrifice
The sacrifice at the heart of this story could be that of Abraham. Or Isaac. Or Sarah. But I think there’s a much bigger reason why it’s traditional to read the Akedah on Rosh Hashanah, on our Day of Judgment. And that is because this day, God is teaching us the value, and the need, of our own sacrifices to bring healing to this world.
In these Days of Awe, God asks us to sometimes sacrifice our comfort to alleviate someone else’s suffering. To sacrifice personal gain for the benefit of our neighbors. To sacrifice self-righteousness and our own ego for self-awareness and someone else’s dignity. To be willing to give up time or money or the use of our God-given skills for something from which we are unlikely to benefit. That’s what makes it a sacrifice. That’s what makes it meaningful.
Today is the day we celebrate the birthday of the world, and when we read the words of the Akedah, and when we heed the sound of the Shofar. That’s no coincidence. Let’s keep in mind that the mystics believe that what we do here on earth has cosmic consequences – affecting even God. So today, God is entrusting us with Creation itself. I said last night that every small act of compassion we take can have a huge impact. Now we realize that every small sacrifice we make can help save a world.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission here on earth. As we say together: Amen.
©2022 Audrey R. Korotkin
 Bereshit Rabbi 55:7-8.
 Jon D. Levenson, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity & Islam (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012), p. 69
 Midrash Tanhuma, Vayera 23.
 Genesis 23:2.
 Bereshit Rabbah 56:8-11
 Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Pischa 7.
 Bavli Rosh Hashanah 16a
 Leviticus Rabbah 29:9, Levenson p. 96.