(Sh’ma) — There was a time when I could not read the story of the binding of Isaac without wishing for a different ending — that Abraham would stand up to God, refusing to harm his son. Some of my rabbinic colleagues redefine the story, ignoring God’s words, “because you did this thing and did not hold back your precious son from me, I will bless you.” They claim that Abraham failed God’s test because he mounted his son on the slaughtering block.
Past generations were unabashedly proud of this story; it was the pinnacle of Abraham’s life. When the ancient rabbis played with the ending, their inclinations were opposite to those of my rabbinical colleagues. One midrash imagines Abraham actually slaughtering Isaac and an angel bringing him back to life. In the traditional view, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac earned their descendants a special claim on God’s affections.
Let’s be humble for a moment. Let’s not assume that our ancestors loved their children less than we do, loved violence more than we do or were more prone to fanaticism. Instead, let’s assume that our ancestors knew something we have forgotten concerning how to read sacred text.
Many of us today read the Bible in much the same way we read history. We criticize Abraham the way we might criticize Winston Churchill. We analyze the implications of Abraham’s actions outside the story line or ask what someone else would have done in Abraham’s place. We’re asking the wrong questions.
Ironically, our sages — who believed that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob existed in the flesh — understood that their stories were not to be read as history. They understood the patriarchs as larger than life, archetypal symbols. No one ever was nor ever will be like Abraham. But every one of us carries something of Abraham within ourselves.
Abraham represents a soul that accepts death. That acceptance is elusive in our world of penicillin, seat belts and smoke detectors (may their effectiveness only increase!). Most of us have come to believe that every child born has the right to a long life, and we demand that right from God. And many of us are stunned when death appears. Abraham was never surprised by death. He understood that life is but a passing shadow, death its inevitable end.
Abraham is also ready to make sacrifices. Many people are generous but, for better or worse, true sacrifice is rare. Most of us donate to charity, but few of us give enough so that we feel pinched. If we give of our time, usually we do so when it is most convenient, not necessarily when it is most needed. Abraham believed so deeply in God, he was ready to give up the one thing he loved most in this world.
Finally, and above all, Abraham is ready to obey God. A crucial premise of the story is that Abraham knew whom he was obeying. Today, nobody is privileged to receive personal instruction from the Almighty. Instead we face a hard, ongoing process to find the ways of righteousness. But in those moments when we see the right thing to do, we have a choice: to indulge in endless analysis, self-doubt or cynicism, or to hush and obey.
Abraham represents each of these traits in their rawest form, offering an intensity that we should not imitate. Normal people who live in utter obedience of God or another cause, willing to sacrifice everything for that belief with no fear of death, are not what we usually call righteous. They are dangerous fanatics.
Yet when the sages read the story of the binding of Isaac, they recognized Abraham’s attributes within themselves and saw them as a source of strength. They knew that every person could work toward acceptance of death. We can open ourselves to making true sacrifices for our ideals. And if we engage in self-reflection in order to recognize the voice of righteousness, then we can resolve to obey that voice at those moments when we know we’ve heard it.
By channeling our Abrahamic attributes, we might live our lives to the fullest and direct our actions with confidence toward godliness.
Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon, who holds a doctorate in biochemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles. She is founder of Minyan Shevach in Palo Alto, Calif. She spent the past year learning and teaching at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. REPRINTED with permission from Sh’ma (shma.com), September 2011.