The Akeda And Tears Of Empathy


‘Take your son, your only son, the one whom you love, Isaac, and dedicate him there for an olah [a burnt offering or, literally, a lifting up] on one of the mountains that I will tell you” [Genesis 22:2].

Whenever Parshat Vayera is read, in particular the verses connected to Akedat Yitzhak (the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac), it always conjures up something that Alfred Hitchcock once said about the reaction of audiences to his films: terror is seeing how something is about to unfold and not being able to do anything about it.

We all know how the biblical story ends. Yet, there is a part of me that always wants to cry out to Abraham as the laining (the Torah reading) unfolds: “Abraham, what are you doing? Nooo!”

Abraham is asked to do the absolutely unthinkable. And yet Abraham does not seek to get out of the responsibility that God has given him.  He says “Hineni” (here I am). He has the faith that God knows what is good.

Abraham walks together with Isaac by his side for three days to reach Har (Mount) Moriah. And yet, when we look at the biblical text, we don’t see any indication of his wavering from this journey. We don’t encounter Abraham objecting in any way to God’s command. Abraham’s silence here is contrasted with his pleading with God not to destroy Sodom and its evil inhabitants. Some commentators see Abraham’s silence within the context of the times, when it was considered the norm to sacrifice one’s child to the pagan gods.

Others approach it differently. As Rashi explains, God didn’t ask Abraham to literally slaughter his son. Rather He asked him to offer him up.

The Akedat Yitzchak story may be a test of Abraham’s complete faith in God but, building on Rashi’s approach, the Sefat Emet says that Abraham misunderstood God’s true intention. God never wanted the sacrificial act to occur. Rather, God’s command was testing Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, rather than demanding that he actually do it. We see this approach reflected in the Midrash, the rabbinic teaching in Bereishit Rabba that describes God’s utter shock at Abraham’s actions: “When I told you: ‘Take your son,’ I did not tell you to slaughter him! Rather, I said, ‘Offer him. Take him up to the mountain. ‘You’ve taken him up. Now take him down!’” [Bereishit Rabba 56:8].

When we see the Akedah story through this prism, it reminds us of the importance of carefully listening to what is actually asked of us as Jews. The question is not what we are willing to sacrifice, but what we are willing to elevate, what we are willing to embrace and live for. In our own lives, when faced with challenges, do we choose life and imbue it with purpose? Are we responsive to the trials around us and to the challenges of not only living a full Jewish life, but also being present for others?

Two additional Midrashim provide moving insight on the binding of Isaac, which help us understand the events with greater clarity. In one, we are taught that as Isaac was being bound, the angels on high were crying. The Kadosh Baruch Hu (God) asked, “Why are you crying? You know that Isaac is not going to be sacrificed. Why shed tears?” The angels answered, “We are crying because we feel the pain of Isaac.”

These are tears of empathy for what he is going through. The tests we all go through each day require us not only to be concerned about ourselves but for those around us.

This model of empathy is found not only in the emotions of the angels but with Isaac, as well. We learn from another rabbinic teaching that after Isaac and Rebecca were married, they experienced 20 childless years. Isaac decided to take Rebecca to Mount Moriah, to the place of the Akedah, and where the Beit HaMikdash (the Temple) would eventually be built. Isaac prayed for Rebecca that she become pregnant, and God answered with the gift of children [Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer].

If the Akedah story began with Abraham and Isaac walking together towards Mount Moriah, it only truly ended with Isaac walking together with Rebecca as he, the one offered up, imbibed the message of the Akedah: living a life filled with purpose and meaning, faith in God, and never forgetting to care and have empathy for others.

Rabbanit Dr. Adena Berkowitz is the spiritual leader and scholar-in-residence at Kol HaNeshamah and co-author (with Rivka Haut) of “Shaarei Simcha” (Gates of Joy), the first liturgical work written by Orthodox women in the modern era.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 5:41 p.m.

Torah: Gen. 18:1-22:24

Haftarah: II Kings 4:1-37

Havdalah: 6:41 p.m.