Transmitting The Ultimate Commitment


Isaac is the first Jewish activist, the first Jew willing to lay his body on the line for his beliefs.

If we believe that Isaac was not a passive participant but a willing volunteer and collaborator with Abraham in the Akeida, why then is the Akeida considered a test of Abraham [Genesis 22:1] and not a test of Isaac?

Isaac is the one who stretches out his neck to ensure a clean cut; in fact, according to Radak (writing on Gen. 22:9), Isaac bound himself “so he should not involuntarily kick when the knife would strike him. This was in spite of the fact that Isaac was perfectly willing to be the offering. He was afraid that at the last moment he would rebel. This was why he asked his father to tie him securely” [Bereshit Rabbah 56:8].

What is this a test of, then?

It is really a test not of Abraham himself, but rather of his educational system, of how well he transmitted his values and commitments. Is his son willing to give up his life to sanctify God?

I’ve always been troubled by those who interpret Genesis 22 as a story of blind obedience. I much prefer the interpretation that Abraham, as a mortal, weaker than God, was only able to resist God’s command with the tools of the weak that political scientist Ron Krebs posits in my anthology [Reading Genesis: Beginnings]. Right now, though, I see the pivotal part of the story as the role of Isaac, and whether he understands what he is being asked to do or whether he is a passive victim with no say over his fate.

This story, the binding of Isaac, is the foundational text of Jewish belief, read every year on the second day of Rosh HaShanah as we ritually coronate God as our sovereign and blow a shofar in remembrance of the ram whose fate might have been Isaac’s. It is a message that stretches across generations, the first Jewish child, willing to give up his life, with a commitment to do whatever God asks of the Jewish people.

The willingness of Abraham’s child to be an active participant in his own martyrdom, if necessary, seems to be an intrinsic part of Jewish life. It is both a “positive” mitzvah, according to Maimonides, who explains that “to sanctify His name” means the obligation “that we surrender our souls for the observance of the commandments,” and it is also a “negative” mitzvah, “don’t profane the name of the Lord.”

The binding nature of the Covenant, the fact that the word “a-ka-d” (“to bind,” as in the Akeida) is a hapax legomenon, a word that is used only once in the entire Hebrew Bible, is central to what is being asked of Isaac. Only once can a Jew pledge to die for something she or he believes in, to posit a God and a value system containing a morality beyond what is found in this world. To aspire to “fear the Lord” [Gen. 22:12], to show a belief in what is right and just, is not just for Abraham. In fact, the only way for him to prove his commitment is to demonstrate that his son Isaac is not only willing but actively engaged in enacting his fidelity to God.

In fact, Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer (Chapter 31) states that Isaac did actually die at the hands of his father, but was revived and brought back to life, saying the blessing “who revives the dead.”

The test is in the realm of the theoretical: the hand of Abraham is stopped by an angel before harm is done, with a ram made visible, in order to be offered [Gen. 22:11-13].

In our reality, to die in order to sanctify God, and not to profane His name, is demanded of Jews more often than we would like: the eleven Pittsburgh Jews killed on Oct. 27, 2018 in my own synagogue, in my own Squirrel Hill community, bear witness to this awful truth.

The story of Abraham and Isaac teaches us that the willingness to become a martyr, the active choice of anyone participating in any kind of Jewish life or making the declaration “I am a Jew,” as did journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, as did Lori Gilbert Kaye in Poway, Calif., as did eleven Jews in Pittsburgh, is a central demand of our religion, difficult and troubling though it may be.

Though most of us will not be called on in our lifetimes to partake in the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem on that level, it is that willingness that makes us Jews. The belief that there are things worth dying for enables us to live meaningfully. We are taught “and you should live by them” [Leviticus 18:5]. Isaac’s example, that living by them means also being committed to dying for them (if necessary), can serve as guide, though we hope there will be no more Jews who will be asked to submit their lives for the sanctification of God’s name.

Beth Kissileff is the author of the novel “Questioning Return” and editor of the anthology “Reading Genesis: Beginnings.”

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 4:19 p.m.

Torah: Gen. 18:1-22:24

Haftarah: II Kings 41-37

Havdalah: 5:19 p.m.