This essay is closely adapted from a *d’var Torah that the author delivered on the Sabbath of November 12 at Ansche Chesed, a Conservative synagogue in Manhattan.*
The text of parsha Vayera is as familiar as any in the Torah. It includes the Akeda, the passage we read not only in the annual cycle, but also during the High Holy Days. And the story it tells has become, more broadly, part of Western culture, invoked by everyone from Soren Kierkegaard to Bob Dylan.
We already know the outlines of the Akeda. Abraham and Sarah, now elderly, have been unable to conceive a child. In recognition of their goodness, God grants them a son, Isaac. Yet as the boy gets older, God commands Abraham to take Isaac to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him. Only at the last minute does an angel instruct Abraham to stay his hand, and only then does the Almighty provide a ram to be slain instead.
The Rambam teaches us to consider the Akeda as a metaphor for faith, and declares that Abraham passed the test. If we want to understand the Akeda in a historical context, then we can consider it Judaism’s answer to the pagan Canaanite religion that sacrificed children to the god Moloch.
Like the Akeda, Moloch is part of a wider intellectual heritage. Milton wrote of Moloch in “Paradise Lost,” and Allen Ginsberg in “Howl.” Muslims, like Jews, associate the Valley of Hinnom, where the child sacrifices were made, with hell, because no act seemed more unconscionable.
Yet we have to admit today that these explanations fall short. Child sacrifice isn’t something consigned to barbaric days millennia ago. I want to approach the parsha in light of the recent revelations from Pennsylvania State University by asking the question, “What kind of person kills a child?”
We know Abraham is not a bad person, and we know this even before he is hallowed in our tradition as Avraham Avinu. In this parsha, we see Abraham go to great effort to feed three strangers. We see him plead with God to spare the people of Sodom. Though he accedes to Sarah’s order to expel Ishmael and Hagar, Abraham gives them bread and water to help them survive in the desert.
Yet this same Abraham is ready to kill his own child, even though God’s command contradicts His promise that Abraham will become the father of a great nation. Abraham, who was willing to intercede for the sinners of Sodom, says nothing to God on behalf of his son. The text specifies that Abraham waited until the next morning to go to Moriah, and yet there is no indication that Abraham had a second thought. Rashi tells us that even after the angel spoke, and the ram appeared, and Isaac was saved, Abraham asked God if he shouldn’t at least wound Isaac, draw blood.
What kind of deviance is this?
If you have children, as I do, then you remember those moments when you bathed them, or when you zipped them into those fleecy pajamas with feet, or when they fell asleep on the couch after Sabbath dinner and you carried them into their beds. When you think of their helpless innocence, like Isaac’s, how can you conceive of lifting your arm, knife in hand, against your child?
Not so with Abraham. When Isaac asks his father where is the sheep for the burnt offering, Abraham lies. He says, “God will see to the sheep.” The truth is, “Isaac, you are the sacrifice.”
What kind of deviance is this?
We might think of the entire book of Genesis as the narrative of humans learning to be human and God learning to be God. The God of the Akeda is, then, if not a false God, an insecure and immature God. He is competing with Satan, trying to prove just how obedient Abraham can be. And maybe God is thinking that if a charlatan like Moloch can get people to sacrifice their children to him, then shouldn’t I, the one true God, be able to demand just as much?
There’s a midrash we need about the Akeda. It’s about who was watching all this happen. Who saw Abraham heading up the mountain with Isaac? Who saw Abraham tying up his own son? Who saw him preparing the fire? Who saw him lifting his knife? And why did no one say or do anything? That’s the midrash I want to hear.
We flatter ourselves in assuming that nothing like the Akeda could happen in our civilized time. We are, of course, totally wrong.
Some of us are old enough to remember the Kitty Genovese case from the mid-1960s. Genovese was a young woman attacked as she returned home one night to her apartment in the Forest Hills section of Queens. And the scandal of her murder was that, as A.M. Rosenthal of The New York Times memorably wrote, 38 witnesses watched the attack unfold and essentially did nothing. Nobody called the police until it was too late.
Then we learned recently about another Akeda, this one at Penn State University: a football coach who allegedly abused young children under the guise of his charitable foundation, to the point of a boy of 9 or 10 being raped by that coach in a locker room shower. We learned again of decent people worshipping a false god, or misunderstanding what the real God requires of us. The head football coach, the athletic director, the university president — none of them appears to have acted as quickly and boldly as necessary to halt the abuse. Hundreds of students rioted in the street in defense of the very people who failed a moral test.
The reputations of the legendary coach, Joe Paterno, and of Penn State mattered more than the safety of all those little boys. We’ve seen this scenario before, with the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts and in parts of the Jewish communal and rabbinic worlds where sexual predators have been tolerated or protected.
I know some of you may wonder why a d’var Torah is devoted to current events. Shouldn’t it be about etymology or historicity or gematria? About theology? But what’s important in Judaism isn’t just what we have to say about the Torah, it’s what the Torah has to say about us.
If we comfort ourselves with the interpretation that Abraham, in preparing to kill Isaac, was simply fulfilling his faithful duty, passing the true believer’s test, then the text leaves us with some reasons not to be so sure. Sarah goes away from Abraham, never to rejoin him before her death. And as Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has pointed out in a commentary on the Akeda, God never again speaks to his chosen one.
Samuel G. Freedman is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and the author of such books as “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry” (Simon & Schuster, 2001).