Did Abraham Fail his Final Test? By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

Over Rosh Hashanah I thought a lot about the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, since the story is so central to Rosh Hashanah. The most important questions that are asked about  the Akedah are what gave Abraham the right to offer his child without asking Sara,  since Isaac is her child also? As the Talmud tells us there are 3 partners in everyone’s creation –  a father, a mother and God.

Second,  why did Abraham not speak up to protect the innocent as he did in the case of Sodom, where God made clear that he expects it of Avrohom as He says, “Avrohom is the one who will teach justice and mercy to his children”.

And third,  what are we to do with the depiction of God at the Akedah that so contrasts with the God of the Torah who does not want us to hurt the innocent but protect them?  Why is Abraham praised for his willingness to obey God instead of protecting the innocent and weak?   Wouldn’t that be a better way of showing one’s love and fear of God?

Many classic answers are given but none that do not generate many more questions.   For instance, some sages claim Abraham somehow knew both promises would come to be, that Isaac would be his seed and that he would also have to offer him up.  Or in another version,  that God did not tell Abraham to kill his child,  only to bring him up as an offering, but of course in either case, it is no test.  Or,  that God’s word trumps all, but then we are left with the questions we asked above and indeed we know (from the story of  Sodom earlier in the parsha) that Abraham is not someone who believes that God can
not be questioned.

Every 5 or 10 years it is reported in the news papers that someone sacrifices their child because of a command from God.  Usually we chalk these up to insanity, but every few years one runs across such a story in which the father indeed is not crazy and never was, yet kills the child at  what he believes is God’s command.   For Jews, after the giving of the torah, halacha trumps God’s command, so an observant Jew would not be permitted to sacrifice their child or commit any other sin even if they were sure it was the command of God. However, it does beg the question of Abraham who knew from the story of Cain and Abel that killing was forbidden.

In addition as some of the anthropological writers ask, what does it mean to live in a world in which a large portion of the world’s inhabitants, Christians and Muslims, both see a story of sacrificing one’s child for God as foundational?

I concluded that none of the apologetic paths were satisfactory and that the real test was for Abraham to confront God as he did at  Sodom, thus teaching his children “righteousness and justice”  and ultimately to say “no” to God.  Perhaps, on some level in the narrative of the Akedah,  Abraham failed the test.   I would suggest this is why God never speaks to Abraham after commanding him to take Isaac as a burnt offering.  In the end of the story an emissary angel speaks to Abraham  – but where is God?  Why  doesn’t God  just speak directly to Abraham?

Indeed midrash after midrash depicts just such a counter narrative, Abraham crying, the angles crying and arguing with God and ultimately,  Sara’s cries when she hears of the Akedah that according to the midrash are the source of the shofar’s sound.

Perhaps if we begin to see the Akedah as a test in which the right answer is to protect an innocent child rather than sacrifice him in obedience to God, our world might be a bit different, perhaps for the better.

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12 Responses to Did Abraham Fail his Final Test? By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

  1. Skeptic says:

    Are there any traditional sources to suggest that Avraham failed the test (as opposed to midrashim which indicate that he found the test emotionally difficult and painful)?

  2. Hyim Shafner says:

    Not that I have come across. From a traditional point of view this is a chidush, a new idea. Though one is not permitted to make new laws in the Torah, there is much leeway when it comes to understanding narrative parts of the Torah, I think Rabbi Nachman of Breslov made this distinction also.

    There is part of me that suspects Avrohom both succeeded and failed, that the story may be read both ways, and how we see the story may be different for different times in history.

    • Barry Gelman says:

      Hyim,

      Rabbi Hartman suggests that we should refocus our attention of Avraham’s arguing with God on behalf of Sodom as the model of what Avraham and by extension what Judaism stands for, instead of the Akeidah.

      He does not argue that Avraham failed, but simply that it was not his greatest moment.

      • Anonymous says:

        The comparison between Sodom and the Akedah is faulty. In the case of Sodom, God simply told Avraham of God’s intentions and Avraham prayed for the people of Sodom. In the case of the Akedah, God gave Avraham a direct commandment.

  3. Chaim says:

    My father believes that the test was in realizing that it was a test –that Avraham passed by having the emunah to raise the knife without hesitation, confident in his knowledge that God would never allow him to bring it down.

    I found slichot very difficult this year, as many of the piyutim that reference the Akeda left a bad taste in my mouth…

  4. Yaakov Chaitovsky says:

    For many years I was unable to speak about the Akeda on Rosh Hashana for many of the issues you raised. I gravitate towards the idea that Avraham was calling God’s bluff, that he was banking on God fulfilling His word even though he had no real way of knowing whether that would happen. If that would not happen, then Abraham would have to turn elsewhere because “then he would know” (paraphrasing the Torah) that God was NOT one to whom he could be loyal.

    Not perfect but…

    YKC

  5. Sarah says:

    How do you explain verses 16-18 according to this reading? Why would Avraham receive a blessing for failing a test?

    Also, we see that Noach is censured for failing to pray for his generation, and the flood is referred to as “Mei Noach” because he failed to do this. Why don’t we see something similar for Avraham, if he made the same mistake?

    • Shlomo says:

      Exactly. If God rewards you then you have passed the test. And that was the case with the Akedah. This is not just a question of parshanut. I think it is also linked to the basic question of whether revelation and religion are necessary at all, or whether it would be better to not recognize a higher authority and for each person to just follow their conscience. We believe that in some cases, a person does not not instinctively know and do what is most moral, that they have to be told, and that they have listen. The Akedah is the prototypical case of having to listen even when you don’t understand.

      It’s no accident that the command was given to Avraham. Avraham is known for his acts of kindness more than anyone else in the Torah. He followed the command because his willingness to obey was stronger, not because his sense of empathy was weaker – a point that could be made if anyone else had received the command.

      BTW, the Akedah story doesn’t give us a license to be cruel today. One of our commands today is to be kind whenever possible (“Ma hu rachum af at rachum”, etc.). And another command is of course not to kill (except capital punishment for specific crimes with specific procedures). So Avraham’s reasoning in following the command is one of the reasons we DON’T do anything similar today.

      Sincerely,
      A former congregant of yours (R’ Shafner)

  6. Hyim Shafner says:

    That is a great question. it really brings up the bigger question that in the chumash and the way we have accepted the story in our tradition Avrohom passes the test.

    i have a thought that both are true. That on the level of being an oved hashem he succeeds. Part of our avodah is to do mitzvot even though we do not understand them. Part of our avodah is to sometimes sacrifice ourselves for certain principals. But on ht other hand we are bound by Torah, by rules, by ethics, by doing what is good and right. so perhaps on the avodah side, the yirey elokim side he succeeds, (as the chasidic rebbe’s put it that yirah is avrohom’s greatest test because he is all ahavah). But perhaps on another level he fails, on the level of ahavah, on the level of love and self sacrifice to help other people, like his son. On the level of tzedaka v’chesed. I guess its a bit paradoxical though.

  7. [...] side – Shabbat Parshat Vayera being this weekend – wants to tie this in to the Akeida.  Hyim Shafner writes on Morethodoxy: I concluded that none of the apologetic paths were satisfactory and that the real test was for [...]

  8. itchiemayer says:

    I must disagree with you regarding Avrahom. The Torah and/or the classic Mepharshim already point out the flaws and mistakes of the great Torah personalities in the Tanach. There is no need to invent new ones. Surely Avrahom Avinu deserves to be judged to the side of merit, no?

  9. Levi says:

    I’m glad that more people have also questioned this. I believe both sides have made very clear points, though any way it’s stated, how can someone be obeying God’s command and failing it at the same time? Perhaps it is not good to consider “what if” scenarios, but if Abraham had stood his ground and negotiated with God on the issue of sacrificing his own son, could we really have condemned him?

    Either Abraham followed God’s commands with blind faith and without hesitation (which is contradictory to Abraham’s past history with God) or he “called God’s bluff.” Blind faith is admirable, but how can it be justified when the command calls for committing an already established sin? Calling God’s bluff is just as controversial, as Abraham would have known God would not follow through with His command (and who can know the mind of God?) If Abraham knew that this test was a bluff, then was it really a test at all?

    There must have been more to this story than the words that we read. In my opinion, God wanted to give us an illustration of upmost devotion/obedience. Much good has come from this illustration/example, and I look forward to asking God about this event someday.

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