Thursday, November 10, 2011

Commitment to a Soft Cause - Abraham’s Willingness to Sacrifice his son

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This past Sunday marked the celebration by the world’s Muslims of the decision by Abraham to sacrifice his son, Jews read about this choice in the weekly Torah portion this week of Vayera. Putting aside the name of the son to be sacrificed, Isaac in the Torah, Ishmael in Islamic belief, the idea of being prepared to kill a child or any person for God is quite confronting and troubling.

One way to think about the meaning of this story is about the need to commit to and sacrifice significantly for non-concrete causes, such as Inter-faith respect and bridge building. This conclusion is based on commentary that sees Abraham demonstrating intense love of an invisible God in the face of extreme and passionate displays of devotion to concrete Idol-gods.

To die for in the 21st century
It is useful to bear in mind that “sacrificing our sons” for a cause is something that is still done today when countries send their young men and women to fight and die. While individual parents don’t know if their sons or daughters will die (God Forbid), collectively as a nation we know what some of our children will almost certainly die, yet our representative governments send them anyway.  This does not make it ok but for me it adds some perspective, especially considering that in the end Abraham does not kill his son.

Summary of the key Text
1 It came to pass after these things (הַדְּבָרִים Hadvarim, in hebrew)  , that God tested Abraham, and He said to him, "Abraham," and he said, "Here I am." 2. And He said, "Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go away to the land of Moriah and bring him up there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains, of which I will tell you… 4. On the third day, Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar… 9. They came to the place of which God had spoken to him, and Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood, and he bound Isaac his son and placed him on the altar upon the wood.   10. Abraham stretched forth his hand and took the knife, to slaughter his son. 11. An angel of God called to him from heaven and said, "Abraham! Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am."   12. And he said, "Do not stretch forth your hand to the lad, nor do the slightest thing to him, for now I know that you are a God fearing man, and you did not withhold your son, your only one, from Me.[1]"

Traditional Explanations
The meaning of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son is explained alternately as Abraham actualizing his potential[2], a punishment[3] , settling an argument about who was greater; Ishmael or Isaac[4], or Abraham proving his devotion to God by his willingness to sacrifice his son. We have the angel Satan complaining[5] about the 100 year old Abraham’s failure to offer any sacrifices when he celebrated the birth of his miracle child. God responds that the whole celebration was only on account of his son, yet if God tells him to sacrifice him, he will do so immediately[6]. Alternatively, it is not Satan who questions Abraham’s failure to express gratitude but Abraham himself reflecting on the fact he did not offer an ox as a sacrifice to God[7].

Others see this as having a much wider purpose, Abraham teaching the world by example about righteousness and devotion to God, especially considering the fact that he had a three days “cooling off period[8]” in which he could have changed his mind but he did not[9]. This was a dramatic act that educated the world about God and how much one must love him[10]. When the angel states “Now I know that you are a God fearing man”, it is interpreted as if he said ‘now I have made known to everyone that you are God fearing[11]’.

Time to kill off something or to risk everything
In practical terms I think the underlying message is about a willingness to sacrifice for our ideals. Writers talk about the need to “kill your baby”, in terms of losing words or even chapters one wrote and loves for the sake of a better book or story. On a personal level it is about letting go of certain behaviours or excuses to adhere to standards I believe in. This is different to sacrificing for a goal. If Abraham went through with killing his son, he would be destroying the future of his ethical monotheism project[12]. This is more like a whistle blower working for a cause they love but then choose to destroy it because of a principle. It is also like those righteous gentiles who risked the safety of their beloved families to hide Jews in the Holocaust.

Pie for Sky
I find in the area of work that I am involved in, broadly diversity and ethical education, that there is a lot of lip service but not enough willingness to prioritize this work over other claims on resources such as time and money. More broadly, some in the non-profit and community sector become so focused on building their institutions and image and getting a larger slice of the charity dollar “pie” that the needs of their clients becomes secondary. We need to be willing to make the trade-offs involved in pursuing the “blue sky”, eg. our ultimate ideal of success of our mission, and sacrifice our share of the pie to achieve it. 

Trade offs
Our reading this week, has other trade offs as well. We have Abraham appropriately[13] prioritising offering hospitality to (what seemed to him to be) three Arab travellers[14], over a divine revelation[15].  In another trade off, peace between husband and wife[16] is given greater importance by God who quotes Sarah selectively as saying she herself was old, rather than telling the whole truth about Sarah calling Abaham old when she questioned the promise of them having children at an advanced age[17].  The truth is stretched again when Abraham calls his wife his sister out of fear for his safety[18]. Humble acceptance of God’s intentions is less important to Abraham than the possibility that the city of Sodom can be saved when he is told that God plans to destroy it[19].

Disturbingly, Lot prioritised his duty to protect his visitors from the angry mob over his love for his daughters.  He wrongly offers them to the mob for rape or even to be murdered[20]. An alternative view asserts that Lot did not seriously offer his daughters, but was like someone who throws himself in front of a potential murder victim and says “kill me instead” but knowing he will not[21]. Lot’s daughters do not remain pure when they break the rules against incest to sleep with their drunken father[22] in order to either preserve the human race[23] or in their desperation to have a child in spite of being tainted as survivors of Sodom[24].  While this is not condoned, in the end King David descended of a child born from that choice, and ultimately the Messiah himself is destined to be a descendent of David and this forbidden union. Abrahams love[25]  for his son Ishmael is sacrificed for the interests of Isaac, either preserving his spiritual integrity[26], securing his inheritance[27] or even saving his life[28]. Abraham banishes Ishmael who with his mother gets lost in the desert and nearly dies[29]. This real world series of choices is rounded off with the ultimate trade off for Abraham is the choice between obeying God and allowing his son to live.

Matching the Molech Zeal
One contemporary interpretation[30] discusses the context of Abraham’s choice. It was a time in which worship involved absolute self-surrender til it triumphed over parental pity so that children were offered up to the idol Molech (perhaps only passed through the fire to be toasted).  As barbaric as it was, it displayed a conviction that the divine was most precious. Yet this worship was focused on a concrete symbol. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son demonstrated that the fierceness of devotion to the divine on the higher spiritual plane can be no less ecstatic than that demonstrated toward the concrete and physical god of Molech. Without Abraham’s example, “mankind would either have remained sunk in the mire of primitive feelings, though vigorously active, in its relationship to the divine or in slightly thawed frigidity lacking the quality of life in depth”

To stand for anything, is to prioritise it over other things. If we care about peace, it might be at the expense of justice. If we care about coexistence and building bridges, it will mean energy diverted from internal priorities. If we choose to stand for something “soft”, we might find that others who like what we are doing might still be much more interested in supporting hard causes like building a house of worship or even fighting their enemies. Yet, we are called on to make meaningful sacrifices, for non-concrete causes.

[1] Genesis 18, translation from, with minor moficiations
[2] Ramban on Genesis 22
[3] Chizkuni (2006 Mosad Harav Kook version, Jerusalem, p.82), suggests that Abraham was wrong to make a covenant with Abimelech, king of the Philistines despite God’s promise of the Philistine land to Abraham, so God caused Abraham pain.
[4] Talmud Sanhedrin 89b
[5] This is linked to an alternative translation of the Hebrew word  הַדְּבָרִים Hadvarim in the first verse of the text about the binding of Isaac (22:1). Hadvarim has two meaning in Hebrew either matters or words. In the alternative translation we have it saying  It came to pass after these words (of Satan) that God tested Abraham”
[6] Talmud Sanhedrin 89b
[7] Beresheet Rabba
[8] Genesis 22:4
[9] Maimonides in Guide for the Perplexed/Rabbenu Bchai
[10] Saadia Gaon –cited in Nachshoni, Y, (1988) Studies in the Weekly Parsha, Bereshis, Artscroll, Jerusalem, p.102
[11] Chizkuni, (2006) Mosad Harav Kook version, p.83
[12] Based on talks of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
[13] as per the statement, “Welcoming guests is greater than receiving  the divine presence (Talmud Shabbat 127a)
[14] Rashi on Genesis 18:4 ,
A Midrashic story, well known to Jewish children, relates that when non-believers came to Abraham’s tent they were persuaded to thank God for the food. On the surface this was simply about hospitality rather than converting others. In a parallel story within an Islamic tradition, Abraham once refused to feed an idol worshipper, God then reprimands Abaham by asking how old the traveller was. Then pointing out that all these years God himself was happily sustaining this idol worshipper yet Abaham could not bear him for a few moments.
[15] Genesis 18:1-2, an alternative view is that Abraham’s divine revelation was actually a prophetic vision, as he dozed off in the heat of the sun and the three visitors is actually part of his vision (Radak)
[16] Jerusalem Talmud Peah Halacha 1, and Rashi on Genesis 18:13
[17] Genesis 18:12-13
[18] Genesis 20:2
[19] Genesis 18:20-33
[20] Radak
[21]  See Torah Shlaima, vol 1 p794, Midrash Hagadol, chapter 6, with explanation by Drashat Even Sho-iv in the name of Rabbenu Chananel  
[22] Genesis 19:30-38
[23] Beresheet Rabba 51
[24] Radak in name of Yosef Krah
[25] Talmud Sanhedrin 89b
[26] Shmot Rabba 1
[27] Genesis 21:10 see Bchor Shor
[28] Tosefta Sotah 6
[29] Genesis 21:14-16
[30] Rav Kook, cited in Leibovitz N, New Studies in Bereshit, Genesis, p.204


  1. It is interesting that both Hannah, who gave up her son to serve God, and Abraham,and his willing to sacrifice his son, are the stories told on Rosh Hashana. Never one to deal well with the literal, my favourite perspective is ,like Zalman, that on this holy day, as we begin the Days of Awe, it is well to be reminded that we must be willing to give up that which we love the most, or hold most dear, for something that is bigger than ourselves. For me, it is such a wonderful story for that time of year, as long as I hear the poetry, rather than the facts.