By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
A little more than four decades ago, when I was telling my young children the story of the week’s Biblical portion, my elder daughter, Batya, tearfully interrupted my tale saying, “Stop lying to me Abba. Hashem loves everyone. He couldn’t have asked Abraham to do to Isaac what you said.” I have been wrestling with the import of the akedah story ever since. Now, I shall attempt to answer Batya’s question; How could God have made such a cruel request of Abraham?
“And it happened after these things that God tested ,or proved (Ramban) or held aloft as a banner (Maimonides, Guide) Abraham, and said to him, ‘Take your son, your only one, whom you love, and bring him up as a dedication upon one of the mountains that I shall show you’” (Gen 22:1,2).
The opening words, “And it happened after these things (or events)” suggest that the Divine commandment came as a result and a punishment of the two preceding Biblical events. Fascinatingly, the event immediately preceding the command of the akedah could be construed a transgression according to Israel’s political right wing – a sin of giving away part of the Promised Land of Israel – and the event before that could be considered a sin by Israel’s political left wing – a sin against Yishmael.
Let us first analyze the episode immediately preceding the akedah – the treaty Abraham makes with Abimelekh
the King of the Philistines, allowing him and his people to live in the Negev portion of the Promised Land (Gen 21:22-33). The Rashbam, maintains that “After the event in which Abraham made a covenant with Avimelekh, the Holy One Blessed be He became angry with him for that, since this land of the Philistines is subsumed under the (Divinely granted) borders of Israel… Hence God vexed and punished Abraham as if to say, “You acted in a high-handed manner against the son I gave you by making a treaty between yourselves (You and Avimelekh) and your children and his children, giving away the patrimony promised to Isaac…. Now go and bring him (Isaac) as a dedication and see how you will be benefited by this treaty!” (Rashbam ad loc)
Close to four-thousand years later, before the Partition Plan of Nov 29, 1947, a less generous division of land was offered to David Ben Gurion. Uncharacteristically, he found it difficult to reach a decision; he asked the one person in the Labor Party he truly respected Yitzhak Tabenkin, to make the decision for him, promising that he would go along with whatever Tabenkin decided. Tabenkin agreed, but requested time to take counsel with two people. The next morning, Tabenkin advised Ben Gurion to reject the deal. “I will listen to you,” said the Jewish leader, “But tell me, with whom did you take counsel?” “I asked two individuals,” answered Tabenkin,
“I asked my grandfather and I asked my grandson. I asked my grandfather who died ten years ago and I asked my grandson who has not yet been born. The land of Israel belongs to them!”
Abraham’s penultimate act prior to the akedah may be called, “The sacrifice of Ishmael”. It begins when the older and more sophisticated Ishmael mocks the younger and more naive Isaac which leads Sarah to demand that Abraham banish Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham at first demurs, but then complies with the Divine command that he heed his wife Sarah. This narrative has striking parallels to the akeda story which suggests that God’s request that Abraham sacrifice Isaac comes as a punishment for his having callously sacrificed Ishmael one chapter before!
The Bible describes the banishment of Ishmael:
“Early the next morning, Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba”. (Genesis 21: 14)
Rashi’s commentary on this verse, points out, “Abraham (sent them out with) bread and water and not with gold and silver”. This was nothing short of a death mission! And then we find the parallel phrases to the akedah: “Abraham rose early in the morning” (Genesis 22: 3), and “Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac” (Genesis 22:6) just as he placed the meager supplies of bread and water on Ishmael.
God sends Abraham with his “olah” on what seems to be a death mission and they too must wander towards an unknown destination (ibid 22: 3). In both incidents, it is an angel who saves both boys (21:17, 22: 11) and the angel who blesses each with the blessing of becoming a great nation. (21: 17 22: 15-19).
The command of Akedat Yitzhak comes as the punishment for Akedat Yishmael!
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.