Elsewhere on this site, I have referred to Va'yikra (Leviticus) as "the book only Tup could love." This remark was popular (and never disputed) at the Egalitarian Minyan of Rogers Park where I attended for many years.

Meet Richard Tupper, Tup. He shares the following dvar (after only minimal cajoling ). He delivered it on Rosh Ha'Shannah (second day) 5770. It is scheduled to appear in the Minyan's second anthology of dvarim. Their first collection, Leaves from the Garden, is available here.

The Akedah: The Real Test
© 2009 Richard Tupper
(reprinted here with permission)

Of all the stories in the Torah, among the most familiar has to be the Binding of Isaac [ the akedah] -- if only because it's read on Rosh HaShanah when everyone comes to shul. Yet, despite the story's familiarity, it yields numerous and often conflicting interpretations. For example, the rock-ribbed conservative Lise Weisberger has championed the rock-ribbed conservative view that, by demonstrating his willingness to sacrifice his son, whom he held most dear, Abraham passed God's test, proving his faithfulness. By way of contrast, I've heard that flaming radical, Bev Fox, of blessed memory, championing exactly the opposite view. I heard Bev proclaim, “Well, he may have passed God's test but he flunked mine!” (I always wondered whether the second “he” in that sentence referred only to ol' Abe. I imagine that someone else is getting an earful about this and several other things right about now [Bev Fox died a bit less than a year before Tup delivered this dvar and I suspect she is the ear-filler referred to here; we can all figure out who the other "he" might be; her dvar is available here and is well worth reading].)

What can account for these diametrically opposed interpretations, other than stubbornness of course? There are some modern biblical scholars who argue that the conflicting interpretations arise because the story in the Torah is a conflation from several sources. For example, these scholars point out that the story begins with God speaking. It then switches to the angel of HaShem, who speaks, not once, but twice. These peculiarities in the story are attributed to different sources. Now I have no problem with Higher Criticism. I've seen several ways in which scholars divide the story into discrete sources but I haven't seen any particular suggestion for this story that I find convincing. Moreover, the Higher Critics themselves would admit that even if this story is composed from different sources, it is now presented as one story [i.e., more thoroughly integrated than the two flood stories, for example]. Thus, I think it worthwhile to consider the meaning of the story as a whole rather than explaining away difficulties by referring to sources.

As others have noticed, the story tells us what the characters say and do but little of what they are thinking. Because the story tells us so little of the thoughts and emotions of the characters, particularly those of Abraham [and, notably, Sarah], we, the audience, cannot resist supplying the characters with thoughts and emotions. When supplying thoughts and emotions to the characters, we often draw on our own or on the context of the story. For example, we imagine Abraham reacting as we would or reacting as the context of the stories would have him. Most likely, we draw on both sources.

But regardless of why this seemingly simple story can yield such contrasting interpretations, I'd like to try to reconcile Bev and Lise's interpretations. I'll say at the outset that I'm not so certain that I can. Still, it seems to me that both their interpretations have one feature in common. Under both their interpretations, the climax of the story occurs very early, namely when God tells Abraham to offer up Isaac and Abraham obediently turns to go. For Bev, Abe has flunked the test; for Lise, he has passed it. I suppose one could argue, and I'm sure some will, that the story's tension lasts until the angel tells Abraham not to kill Isaac because, until that moment, Abraham conceivably could disobey, thereby flunking Lise's test and passing Bev's test. But in either case, I think all would agree that once the angel calls from heaven, the test is over.

Now, as I said, I don't think that I can actually reconcile Bev and Lise's interpretations. But I'd like to offer a third interpretation that I think is consistent with both of theirs.

I submit that the story doesn't end when the angel tells Abraham not to kill Isaac. Rather it is at that moment that the story reaches its peak. Why do I say that? Think about it: why should Abraham believe this angel?

If you look back at the beginning of the story, it is God who addresses Abraham directly and personally tells him to offer up Isaac. Why would God now send an angel rather than again speaking personally to Abraham once Abe is ready to offer up Isaac? Moreover, the story tells us that this angel is an angel of HaShem but how does Abraham know that?1 How does Abraham know that this angel speaks for God? [Tup raises two points here: (1) how does Abraham know that this is an angel (and not a person)? and (2) how does Abraham know that this messenger speaks for God?] Additionally, might it not strike Abraham as somewhat strange that he is now dealing with an intermediary, one who gives him instructions, instructions that are the exact opposite of what God originally told him to do? Furthermore, how can Abraham be certain that this angel is relaying what in fact God wants him to do? There's a well known story in the book of Kings (I Kings 22). 13), repeated in Chronicles (II Chron. 18), of God sending a lying spirit, who through the prophets before the king, deceive King Ahab into going into battle where he is killed.

Suppose for a moment that when the angel tells Abraham to stop, Abraham asks himself whether he should obey this angel. Is obeying this angel obeying God or is obeying the angel disobeying God? Abraham is on the spot. No doubt he wants to obey God but now he can't be sure what God wants of him. Should he disregard the angel and continue sacrificing Isaac or should he obey the angel and stop? Either way, he risks disobeying God.

Now what Abraham does becomes critical. And what does he do? Apparently, he looks around because he spots a ram and offers the ram up as a sacrifice. Is it significant that the animal he spots is a ram? After all, if you remember, when Isaac and Abraham earlier in the story discussed an animal to be sacrificed, both assumed it would be a seh, a lamb or kid, the animal, perhaps not coincidently, brought after a child is born (Lev. 12 [see my comment on Sarah's silence]). But instead of a seh, Abraham finds and offers up a ram. You'll also remember that Abe tells Isaac that God will provide the offering and, so, I think it is fair to conclude that God has provided Abraham with this ram. Why would God provide Abraham with a ram? In Leviticus (5:14 ff.), the ram is most often the animal sacrificed as a reparation offering. [In fact, several years ago, Tup demonstrated that the sacrificial language in the Akedah itself shows that the test of the Akedah is not about proving something to God but is, in reality, about Abraham -- Abraham proving something to himself.] The reparation offering is generally brought for profaning the holy, treating as common something that belongs to God. More particularly, the reparation offering is brought when one thinks he may have profaned the holy but is not sure (Lev. 5:17-19). Thus, the ram fits Abraham's needs perfectly. He did not offer Isaac up as an offering to God but has retained him for himself. Has he sinned? Or did he do the right thing? He can't be sure and so the ram is the perfect sacrificial animal for Abraham.

If Abraham was debating whether to obey the angel and not offer up Isaac, did the appearance of the ram resolve the question? You might say, “Well, Abe did say that God would provide the offering and it sure looks like God provided the ram as an offering.” But remember, both Abraham and Isaac thought the offering would be a seh, not a ram. So, the ram in and of itself was not conclusive evidence of God's will.

Nevertheless, Abraham had to decide. No matter which course he chose, he risked disobeying God. We all know what Abraham's decision was; he chose to offer up the ram rather than his son. When he did that, what happened? The angel appears a second time. The angel repeats a remark that he made earlier, that Abraham “had not withheld his son.” What does this mean? The first time the angel says this I think it means that Abraham was willing not to withhold his son from death [note the subjunctive voice; consonant with Lise's interpretation]. And in the second instance? I think it means that Abraham had not withheld his son from life [note the transition to a simple statement of fact; consonant with Bev's interpretation]. Moreover, unlike the angel's first appearance, the angel only now pronounces Abraham's reward for obedience: Abraham will have a numerous descendants through whom all the world will be blessed.

You might be saying to yourself, “Tupper, you are an idiot! No way is this what the story is about!” I might agree with you – at least with the second sentiment. But one virtue of this interpretation is that it meets both Bev’s and Lise's expectations at the key juncture of each. For Lise, it shows Abraham in a terrible situation yet correctly choosing to obey God. For Bev, it shows Abraham risking disobeying God and choosing to save his son's life [having successfully second guessed the Divine will].

And there is another aspect of the interpretation that I'm proffering that I like. I don't think that I have ever in my life had to face the moral equivalent of God demanding that I kill my child. In fact, it's not that often that I face an obvious choice of obeying God and doing good or disobeying God and doing evil. Only rarely am I confronted by such a clear choice. Far more often, I find myself in the situation that Abraham was in, according to my interpretation: uncertain what is God's will, uncertain what is right and what is wrong. [The great Social Studies educator, S. Samuel Shermis, would point out that the choice between a good and an evil is not a problem for most people. But the choice between two evils or, the most difficult of all, between two goods is the most difficult situation a person can face.]

Like Abraham, we are creatures whom God has endowed with free will but with imperfect knowledge. Try as we might, we can never know for sure what is right, what is true, what is God's will and what is not. And yet, we have no choice but to make choices based upon imperfect knowledge because even not to choose is to choose. [Rabbi Radinsky learned out that an essential premise of Judaism is "I am able to do what is right; my problem is that I do not always know what is 'right'." This is the reason we need to learn Torah, taught Rabbi Engel, so that we may internalize the tools to come to that knowledge.]

To return for a moment to our story, you'll remember that as a reward the angel promises Abraham numerous offspring through whom the world will be blessed. In other words, the angel gave Abraham not a reward but the promise of a reward. Who are we? We are Abraham's progeny. Have we fulfilled the angel's promise? Are we a blessing to the world? The answer to that question depends on the choices we make in this year and years to come. May we, by our choices and with God's help, help fulfill the promise made to Abraham so long ago.


1 This leaves aside the modern question of how does Abraham know that God and HaShem are the same!