Chumash Themes #6: The Binding of Isaac
A seminal event in Jewish national consciousness.
One day, God appears to Abraham and instructs him to sacrifice his son Isaac on an undisclosed mountain. Abraham sets out on the quest for the site early the following morning, accompanied by his sons Isaac and Ishmael and his servant Eliezer. For three days he journeys northward from Hebron, according to the Midrash in a state of constant torment.1 On the third day he observes a pillar of cloud over the spot that will eventually become the Temple Mount2 and concludes that he has located the designated sacrificial site. Upon enquiry, it turns out that the pillar is visible to Isaac as well, but not to Ishmael and Eliezer. Reasoning that whoever cannot see the pillar was not intended to participate, he sets out with Isaac towards the site, leaving Eliezer and Ishmael behind with the donkey.3
Isaac comments on the fact that while they are carrying wood and fire, there is nothing to sacrifice, and Abraham informs Isaac that God has requested that he, Isaac, be the sacrifice. This does not appear to faze Isaac, and father and son calmly proceed in perfect harmony.4
They build an altar and prepare for the ritual; the atmosphere portrayed in the text can only be described as tranquil. Abraham binds Isaac on the altar (according to Isaac's own request)5 and picks up the sacrificial knife. Just as Abraham is about to cut into Isaac’s neck, an angel instructs him to substitute the ram that has providentially wandered on to the site. God thanks Abraham for having passed an important test and, as the scene closes, Abraham predicts that a Temple will one day be erected on this site.
At the time of the incident Abraham and Isaac were ages 137 and 37 respectively.6 Jewish tradition regards this event as one of the cornerstones of the special relationship that exists between God and the Jewish people; it is considered Abraham’s ultimate test.
The Binding of Isaac (Akeidat Yitzchak in Hebrew) presents many problematic facets but let us begin with the most obvious. In the pantheon of Jewish values there is no crime more horrendous than human sacrifice.
God finds the practice so offensive that He makes a declaration that applies to no other offense:
But if the people of the land avert their eyes from that man when he gives his offspring to Molech, not to put him to death – then I shall concentrate my attention upon that man and upon his family; I will cut off from among their people, him and all who stray after him to stray after the Molech. (Leviticus 20:4-5)
How could God ask for a human sacrifice? How could Abraham, who had dedicated his entire life to preaching against the practice, accede to the demand?
Let's tackle this issue head on. Not all human sacrifice can be lumped in one basket. Before we can understand what the Binding of Isaac is, we must clearly understand what it is not. The sages of the Midrash distinguish between the binding of Isaac and the sort of human sacrifice that is abhorrent to God, illustrated in the following Biblical incident.
Sorely beset by an invading Jewish army, Mesha, the King of Moab summoned his advisors and asked them why God favored the Jews over the Moabites. Their answer: God’s preference can be traced back to the patriarch Abraham who willingly offered his son Isaac to God. The king inquired, 'Did Abraham actually go through with the sacrifice?' When he discovered that Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac had been aborted, he decided to outdo Abraham. If God had a taste for human blood, he would offer more. He promptly sacrificed his son and heir to God.7
This is human sacrifice at its most abhorrent. The King of Moab needed God’s help against his enemies. He had no wish to give his son to God. His sacrifice was a bribe indicating how much he was willing to offer God and was initiated to gain a desired advantage. The belief that God is hungry for human blood and can be bribed by the murder of a loved one is the abomination.
The Binding of Isaac and this story have nothing in common.
God could never demand the murder of innocent children as a bribe or a test of loyalty, and Abraham would certainly have refused any such demand. Before Isaac was born, when God informed Abraham [Genesis 15:1] that his reward was very great, his response was that no matter how great the reward, he considered it worthless as long as he remained childless. In Abraham’s eyes no possible gain, whether in this world or the next, could offset the loss of Isaac. Without Isaac to continue his traditions into future generations, his teaching would die with him, and his entire life would turn into an exercise in futility. Abraham was out to change the world through the creation of a nation. Without Isaac, he couldn’t do it. He was certainly not out to bribe God with Isaac’s blood.
So how then do we understand this baffling incident?
A Fresh Look
The ensuing discussion is based on the work of Rabbi E.E. Dessler.8 In order to understand his approach, we must learn a bit about the Jewish view of death and its cure, techiyat hametim, the resurrection of the dead.
Life would be wonderful if it weren’t for death that inevitably cuts it short. We tend to blame God for this terrible flaw; after all He is the Almighty and could have made our lives everlasting. The Torah tells us that we are blaming the wrong party. Not only did God create Adam to live forever; He designed human beings with the ability to pass the gift of eternal life to their offspring as part of the human genetic package. It was Adam who turned us into mortals, not God. The human origin of death is plainly set out in Genesis.
"Of every tree in the garden you may freely eat; but of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil you must not eat thereof; for on the day you eat of it you shall surely become mortal." (Genesis 2:17)
Fortunately, as anyone who has taken an elementary biology course knows, life is actually spiritual; it has no precise physical definition. Are viruses alive in their dormant state? Is a tissue of DNA replicating itself in a laboratory alive? What gives an organism the power to be ‘alive’ one moment and not the next when there is no apparent organic change in any of its components?
The fact that life is spiritual means that death is only a temporary phenomenon. Judaism teaches that there is no spiritual death; spiritual potential can never be entirely lost. It may lie dormant for very long periods, but it can always be revived. The humble virus was created to teach this lesson. It follows that we human beings can regain our capacity for immortality.
We can comprehend this clearly by considering the Jewish definition of humanity: a union of two opposites; a soul (neshama) in a body. The soul is ‘a portion of the living God above’;9 while the body is a lump of earth; “For you are dust and to dust shall you return” (Genesis 3:19). By this definition the soul is immortal; it remains permanently connected to the source of all life. As long as the soul is attached to the body, we are alive; through the medium of our souls our bodies also draw life from the source; when our soul separates, we die.
If the body and the soul were integrated into a single indivisible entity, the soul could never separate from the body and we would live forever. When God completed creation, He studied it and declared, "And God saw all that He had made and behold it was very good" (Genesis 1:31). Adam was a part of creation; this means he was also ‘very good’. A very good human being is one whose body and soul are perfectly integrated. He is immortal by definition.
We forfeit the description of 'very good' by dissolving the integration between our physical and spiritual selves. As this integration decreases, our grip on life becomes tenuous. When we connect to evil through our bodies we compel our souls to disintegrate from our bodies. Being a ‘portion of the God above,’ our souls cannot endure direct contact with evil. On the other hand, our bodies, being mere lumps of earth, do not have such limitations. When we connect our bodies to evil, we force our souls to connect to it as well since the body and the soul were fused by God into a single, integrated entity. But the soul goes along protesting vehemently. Even in the realm of the purely physical, it takes enormous force to keep two mutually exclusive entities welded together at a single joint. Such connections are tenuous at best and must inevitably sever when subjected to extreme pressure.
When we connect with evil, we place enormous strain on the soul/body junction. Over the course of life, the connection eventually breaks under the pressure and when the soul fully separates, our bodies revert to being lifeless lumps of clay once again and we die. To attain permanent integration, we must go in the diametric opposite direction – the body must become spiritual, detach itself from evil and fully integrate with the soul. Judaism teaches that the transformation of the body is the only point of our earthly life.
It is a demanding process. We accomplish it by constantly battling with our physical selves, channeling and uplifting our physical desires through the performance of mitzvot (commandments) and filling our minds with Torah knowledge. Each mitzvah and each word of Torah accomplish a small transformation. It is the increment of these small painful steps spread over a lifetime that accomplish the transformation required to achieve immortality.
The Kabbalah teaches that without such integration, eternal life is impossible even in the Next World. For the World to Come is a physical world just as ours is, albeit one that operates on a higher spiritual plane; without bodies we cannot inhabit it. Physically, we will not be identical to our present selves, but we shall require some form of body there as well; in practice, attaining immortality means attaining it physically. We must spend our time in this world accumulating the enormous spiritual energy required to purify our bodies until they reach the state of purity they must have to participate and enjoy eternal life in the World to Come.
Return to the Binding of Isaac
Imagine that you had the ability to achieve this transformation and eliminate death, once and for all, by performing a single action. Wouldn’t you jump eagerly at the chance? The millennia of the painful history we studied in school, a product of the need to offer every human individual the opportunity to go through the snail paced process of integrating the body with the soul through the series of small laborious steps we have described could be avoided entirely if you could perfect the world in one fell swoop.
To Abraham and Isaac, this is what the binding of Isaac was all about.
Let us put ourselves in Abraham and Isaac's shoes and attempt to see things through their eyes given their assumptions.
Abraham and Isaac proceeded to the sacrifice eagerly because they were prophets and they knew God. In the light of their knowledge, the idea that God might harbor a savage lust for human blood was not merely sacrilegious, it was downright absurd. It was unthinkable that the Almighty would ever demand Isaac’s life as a tribute. Isaac was born through a miracle; his very existence was a gift of the Almighty’s generosity. If God wanted Isaac's soul back He could take it at any time without needing Abraham to murder him, and He surely had no interest in turning Abraham into a murderer.
Abraham and Isaac therefore concluded that the Binding of Isaac was not about tribute and death, it was about life. The sacrifice of Isaac would bring on the resurrection. The time had come to repair the broken world, undo Adam’s sin and restore man to immortal life. The conclusion; God wanted to make Isaac immortal!
Remember that immortality requires the sort of integration between the soul and the body that cannot be severed. The body we have inherited from Adam is incapable of integrating with the spiritual in this manner. Accomplishing this total fusion required a new body, and the Binding of Isaac was the opportunity to make the trade in. Bring me your old model and I will return you a new one! Imagine their excitement and enthusiasm.
The Binding and the Resurrection
Rabbi Dessler draws a connection between the Binding of Isaac and the resurrection:10
When the sword touched Isaac’s neck his soul flew out of his body but when the angel’s voice emerged from between the Cherubim, “Do not send your hand…" it returned. Isaac stood on his feet and glimpsed the resurrection; the dead would all rise and return to life just as he had. At that moment he authored the second blessing in the silent Amidah prayer, “Blessed are you God who revives the dead.”
Isaac personifies the resurrection in Jewish thought. In Hebrew his name is spelled Yitzhak; the Zohar11 rearranges the letters to express the idea; Ketz Chai, meaning the ‘life at the end’. Literally, the name Yitzhak is the verb to laugh expressed in the future tense. Isaac’s laughter is the laughter of the future – an expression of joy at the triumph over death. He is the living embodiment of the saying, "He who laughs last, laughs best."
Abraham and Isaac began the process of mending the broken world and returning it to the state of ‘very good’ it was in prior to Adam’s fall, thereby eliminating the need to die. When Abraham reattached Isaac’s soul to its Maker, the increased flow of life outwards from the Source of all resurrected Isaac; his restored life force was more spiritually intense and more intense; Isaac’s revival inaugurated a new historic era which could/would end in total the total integration of the physical with the spiritual. Human beings would no longer need to die.
When the sacrifice was aborted, Abraham realized that the process would not be completed right there and then, and he was positively disappointed.
And he said, “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad or do anything to him….” (Genesis 22:12). Rashi comments on the duplication, "do not stretch out your hand against the lad or do anything:" "Do not stretch your hand" means don’t kill him – Abraham said to himself, ‘So all this was for naught? Let me at least make a wound!’ That is why the angel had to admonish "Or do anything to him."
How strange! One would have thought Abraham would exult at the cancellation of the sacrifice. Explains Rabbi Dessler: Abraham realized what we do not; the opportunity to eliminate death was being cancelled along with the sacrifice.
The Road to Life
But not entirely. The Binding of Isaac breached the walls of death and placed our feet on the road that ends in Techiyat Hametim, the resurrection of the dead.
As we stated in the introduction, the scene fades out with Abraham's prediction that the Temple will be erected one day on the site of the altar he and Isaac built together. This prediction is the expression of the change in the world he and Isaac had wrought through their act of reattaching the human soul to the Almighty. The pre-Binding world contained no vestige of a Temple; post-Binding, the magic mirror of the universe had begun to reflect the first vestiges of the Temple.
Resurrection and the Temple
The Temple is a living manifestation of perfect integration between the spiritual and the physical. God’s presence, entirely spiritual, becomes physically manifest; we can detect His presence in the Temple with our physical senses. The Divine presence in the Temple is called the Shechina, a derivative of the Hebrew word 'Shochen,' meaning residing or resting12 in a way of everyday mundane existence. Such an integration of the spiritual with the physical is the first harbinger of the perfect integration of the resurrection.
Abraham and Isaac were not mistaken. The Binding was about resurrection and the elimination of death. The total actualization of the integration of the physical to the spiritual was premature at this early stage in human history, but the incident gave humanity its first grip on eternal life. It brought the Shechina down to the top of the mountain. If we can climb the mountain and bring it down to the valley, and from there into our homes, we will reach the level of integration that makes death impossible. The Divine presence is life; if we connect to life we cannot die.
"Many peoples will go and say, “Come let us go up to the mountain of God, to the House of the God of Jacob.”13 Why does the prophet specify the God of Jacob? Is the Temple only the House of the God of Jacob and not also of the God of Abraham and Isaac? The prophet wants to teach us that when the Messiah comes, the Temple will go beyond the definition of Abraham, who referred to it as a ‘mountain,’ and beyond the definition of Isaac who referred to it as a ‘field,’ and correspond to the definition of Jacob who referred to it a ‘house’ – "he named that place ‘the House of God’.”14 Our forefather Jacob did not die.15
Transforming the Physical
What does the transformation of the physical into the spiritual mean in more down to earth terms? How can we relate to the idea of integrating them into a single entity? Can we also do some of this integration, and if so how? Finally, how do the emotions experienced by the participants of the Binding express integration?
Following this episode, God tells Abraham "for now I know you are a God fearing man, since you have not withheld your son, your only one, from Me" (Genesis 22:12). The commentators take exception to this statement. Abraham was a world renowned tzaddik by this time; he had leapt into the fiery furnace of Nimrod to exalt the Holy name, he had spent his entire life trying to bring the world to the recognition of God. How can God say ‘now’ I know you are God fearing? Isn’t this an insult? What about the first 137 years of Abraham’s life?
The Gaon of Vilna offers the following explanation:16 Human beings are innately spiritual, but our spirituality tends to be limited to the things that inspire us. Some of us are inspired by prayer, some take to the heady intellectual pleasure provided by Torah study, while still others find a sense of transcendence in the holiness of the Shabbat. We may observe the other commandments that do not inspire us, but we perform them as obligations; a sort of religious tax we are forced to pay. If we are not yet fully observant we tend to avoid the uninspiring commandments altogether.
While all religious people can be correctly described as God fearing, nevertheless, the inspirational service of God is energized by love, not fear. Fear of God requires the whole hearted performance of spiritual tasks that go against the grain as well as those you spontaneously enjoy. We feel alive when we experience the heady rush of positive feelings. Whenever we can, we avoid the torment of negative emotions or even the sense of emotional numbness. We want our Divine service to provide us with a heady emotional high.
As long as Abraham was doing acts of kindness which conformed to his essential character, serving God was always a rewarding personal experience. But slaughtering your beloved son is impossible without harnessing the energy of rage. If you can only energize actions with the emotions that are part of your essential character, then the Binding of Isaac is a deed Abraham cannot execute. Assume that Rabbi Dessler fully hit the mark and Abraham perceives the necessity of performing this act with absolute intellectual clarity. But Abraham was human just as we are. When it comes to doing, not only do we humans have to think and feel that what we are about to do is the right thing; we have to harness the energy to act as well.
How many of us have experienced the feeling of wanting to study for an important test? In our minds we were sure it was what we wanted to do, in our hearts we felt that it was the right thing to do and yet we somehow ended up on the beach. We were simply unable to come up with the positive energy to carry out our resolution.
The intense rage that fuels every act of murder was simply not in Abraham’s character. The ability to come up with the energy to actually perform the sacrifice came from his fear of God. To actually kill his beloved son, Abraham had to harness the negative energy of rage that was not part of his essential character. His ability to approach it with enthusiasm represents a level of emotional discipline that boggles the imagination. In terms of purpose, the Binding is no doubt an act of attaching to God as Rabbi Dessler explained, and attachment is an expression of love. But executing the deed demanded the ability to harness the opposite emotion. We attach ourselves to the people we love and distance ourselves from those we fear or hate. Murder is detachment at its most extreme and can only be energized by the most intense rage.
Abraham’s ability to carry out the sacrifice with the enthusiasm appropriate to an act of love transformed the emotion of fear/rage into love. The negative became positive; the physical was subsumed by the spiritual. Death had become transformed into life, "for now I know you are a God fearing man, since you have not withheld your son, your only one, from Me."
In Hebrew, the word 'to fear' and the word 'to see' share a common root, yirah. Abraham’s fear of God transformed God’s spiritual presence; the invisible became visible; it gave mankind its first glimpse of the Temple and of the resurrection that it represents. The generations of Jews who followed the example of the Binding of Isaac and kept Judaism alive through the dark ages of Exile by faithfully raising and educating their children to a way of life that subjected them to anti-Semitism, persecution and martyrdom brought us a great deal closer. We must be near the climax of the transformation process; resurrection is right around the corner.
- Midrash Rabba (Genesis 56:8)
- Midrash Rabba (Genesis 55:7)
- Midrash Rabba (Genesis 56:1)
- Midrash Rabba (Genesis 56:4)
- Midrash Rabba (Genesis 56:8)
- Midrash Rabba (Genesis 55:4); Rashi (Genesis 25:20)
- Psikta D’rav Kahane 2:5; see Kings 2:3
- Michtav M’Eliyahu (vol 2, pgs. 194-199)
- see Ohr HaChaim (Exodus 20:20)
- Based on Midrash (Pirkei D'Rebbe Eliezer 30)
- Addenda 252b
- see Bamidbar 32:34; Talmud – Shabbat 33a
- Isaiah 2:3
- Genesis 28:19; Talmud – Pesachim 88a
- Talmud – Ta’anit 5b
- Kol Eliyahu (Genesis 22:1