By Dr. Theodore Steinberg
Parshat Vayera has the distinction of containing one of the most famous stories in the Tanach, the Akedah, the story of the binding of Yitzchak. So striking and important is that story that we read it not only this week but also on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. The story has been retold and employed in numerous settings throughout Jewish history, particularly during the time of the Crusades, but what relevance does it have today? Let me offer one possibility.
The story of Avraham is the story of test after test. Some of these tests Avraham passes and on some of them he doesn’t do so well. Usually we think of the Akedah as a pass, that Avraham does what he should and receives the appropriate praise, but actually the situation is not so clear.
Three times in the story Avraham responds to a call by saying, “Hineni,” which means, “Here I am. I’m ready.” And when he is prevented from sacrificing his son, the messenger who calls to him says, “Now I know that you fear God and you have not held back your son, your only one from Me” (Genesis 22:12). That certainly looks like a pass. And yet.
And yet, when Hashem told Avraham that He was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Avraham, unlike Noach before the flood, pleaded for the sinners. What if there are fifty? What if there are forty? What if there are only ten? For sinners he pleaded, but for his own son he didn’t plead. And after this story ends, Avraham returns home alone. We never see Avraham and Yitzchak together again, and the very next story tells of the death of Sarah, which some commentators see as the result of this episode.
Earlier, when Hashem had announced his plans for Sodom and Gomorrah, Avraham had asked, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do justice?” (18:25). But in today’s story we find no such question. What might Hashem have said had Avraham asked that question again? I like to think, with my admittedly limited knowledge of how Hashem thinks, that the answer would have been similar: “Now I know that you fear God, for you recognize the justice of God, for again you dare to remind God of the demands of justice.”
In other words, both responses might have been correct, because it’s not just the final decision that counts. It’s how we get to that final decision. As we read this story, we should be thinking about our own understanding of Hashem’s demand, for in reading the story closely, we, too, are being tested. What is the correct response to Hashem’s demand? One response requires absolute obedience and the other requires compassion, and it is difficult to know how to combine those two imperatives. So in his most complex test, Avraham passed, but he could, I think—or I hope—have responded differently and also passed, because the world is filled with ambiguity, and we, like Avraham are constantly being tested.
Dr. Theodore (Ted) Steinberg is a retired professor at SUNY Fredonia who today is a master teacher throughout Jewish Buffalo. Ted also serves as co-chair of Buffalo’s Jewish Community Relations Council.