During and after the devastating events of Abraham’s almost-sacrifice of his son, Isaac, the Torah fails to provide insight into the character’s inner struggles. We believe that this event, known as the Akedah (the “binding of Isaac), must have had profound and long lasting impacts on all of the biblical characters. In this Midrashic Monologue, we take time to sit with Abraham and hear his version of this story.
Even as I held up the knife, I knew that I had failed. In my passion to please my God, I lost my head, and my son Isaac nearly lost his life.
Three days before, I had heard God talking about Isaac, my son, my only one (from Sarah), the one who was so beloved. God said, V’haaleihu sham l’olah (Bring him up as an olah). I figured God wanted a sacrifice, because the word olah, from the Hebrew root Ayin-Lamed-Hey, means, “to rise up.” When you bring an olah, you light a fire, making a sacrifice, and the smoke rises up to God.
I had silenced my doubts immediately. After all, God had led me to this land, protected me from danger, given me my children. If the Holy One wanted me to sacrifice Isaac, who was I to question? In fact, I rose early to do God’s bidding, completing the preparations myself: I saddled my own donkey and chopped the wood myself. I was so eager to please that I forgot to consult with Sarah. I didn’t even kiss her goodbye.
What was I thinking? Maybe I wasn’t.
It has been years since that morning, but this akedah (the binding of Isaac), the almost-sacrifice of my son by my own hand, remains the most painful moment in my life. Some characterize this incident as an example of deep, unquestioning faith, saying I loved God so much I was willing to give up the child Sarah and I had waited so long to have. Others portray this as my people’s definitive repudiation of child sacrifice because ultimately I did not kill my kid. In each case, I seem heroic.
Yet each night as I toss and turn, I wonder how I could have so been such a dangerous fool. I completely misunderstood God’s intended purpose. That Hebrew root Ayin-Lamed-Hey, meaning “sacrifice,” also points to the word “aliyah,” meaning “spiritual uplift.” In retrospect, I realize that God did not specify sh’chateihu (slaughter him), but only ha’aleihu (bring him up). Did God want me to bring Isaac up top the mountain, to introduce him to my passion for the Divine, and then bring him back down? Was it supposed to be father-son, spiritual “quality time” (Tanchuma, Vayeira, 22)? Now, I think that must have been God’s plan, but then I made it into a nightmare.
In my haste, I sacrificed my most precious and important duty, the protection of my child. I caused our family significant stress and pain. I scarred my son for life. When Isaac closes his eyes at night, does he also see the horrific image of me raising up the knife?
Thankfully, the angel of God stopped me in time, providing a ram in Isaac’s place. Afterward, God was kind, but not pleased. Praising me – “I will greatly bless you,” reaffirming love for my descendants, God also signaled that humans may no longer employ cruel or intimidating means to show our love for God.
The angel’s words remind some of parents who return home only to be greeted by their smiling young child saying, “Come see how much I love you.” In the next room, the child proudly shows off a picture of a red heart, drawn on the wall, inside of which are the words, “Daddy and Mommy, I love you.” How does a parent respond to such a display of love? Many parents would yell loudly. But if we stop first to think about it, we might say, with tears in our eyes, “I love you too, my child. Try to use paper next time. And you may not write on the walls. But, I love you too!”
My mistake transformed my relationships with my boy, my God, and my wife. Isaac took off, and we never spoke again. I fear we will not reconcile before I leave this world.
God ceased direct communication with me, using intermediaries from that moment on. Sarah died before I could return home and tell her what I had done and that our son was safe. She died thinking I had betrayed her, and I know that even though God saved Isaac and me, I did betray her.
And me? Somedays I hate myself because I failed the real test. I loved God but I didn’t love God’s child sufficiently. Because I didn’t protect my Isaac. That’s the message for future generations: The ultimate way to show our devotion to God is by loving and protecting our children.
I can only pray that my sons, and their children, and all the generations that come after them will succeed where I have failed.