Thursday, October 21, 2010

Why Would G-D Test Avraham By Asking Him To Sacrifice His Son Yitzchak (Isaac)?

In this week's Parsha we find the confusing task that G-D gives Avraham, to sacrifice Yitzchak (Isaac). This seems very odd to me for several reasons. However, once I looked up child sacrifice in the Tanach (Bible) there were two other instances that are mentioned. One is that of Jephthah's daughter (Judges 11:30-40) and the other is that of the son of the King of Moab (Kings II 3:27). I think that these two later verses will help us understand the Akeida (binding of Isaac on the alter).

 It seems to me that the King of Moab, in Kings II reveals to us a custom of the nations that surrounded Israel. The verses there (Kings II 3:26-27) state:

כו  וַיַּרְא מֶלֶךְ מוֹאָב, כִּי-חָזַק מִמֶּנּוּ הַמִּלְחָמָה; וַיִּקַּח אוֹתוֹ שְׁבַע-מֵאוֹת אִישׁ שֹׁלֵף חֶרֶב, לְהַבְקִיעַ אֶל-מֶלֶךְ אֱדוֹם--וְלֹא יָכֹלוּ. 
26 And when the king of Moab saw that the battle was too sore for him, he took with him seven hundred men that drew sword, to break through unto the king of Edom; but they could not.  

כז  וַיִּקַּח אֶת-בְּנוֹ הַבְּכוֹר אֲשֶׁר-יִמְלֹךְ תַּחְתָּיו, וַיַּעֲלֵהוּ עֹלָה עַל-הַחֹמָה, וַיְהִי קֶצֶף-גָּדוֹל, עַל-יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַיִּסְעוּ, מֵעָלָיו, וַיָּשֻׁבוּ, לָאָרֶץ.
27 Then he took his eldest son that should have reigned in his stead, and offered him for a burnt-offering upon the wall. And there came great wrath upon Israel; and they departed from him, and returned to their own land.

The idea here is that the Moabite nation thought that the ultimate sacrifice that was a last ditch effort to conjure up the gods favor was to sacrifice your most prized possession, your favorite child. This is why the verse tells us that this was the child who was the heir to the throne. Who is the heir to the throne? The kings favorite child. The one that the king chooses and says, "You will be my heir." So, we learn from this verse in Kings II that, at the very least, the Moabites believed that the ultimate act of faith in the gods was to sacrifice your child, your FAVORITE child. The one who would be your heir. (I don't want to go into the reason why this sacrifice worked in the Moabite kings favor, but it is something to think about.)

However, what happened in Judges (11:30-40) by Jephthah's daughter:

ל  וַיִּדַּר יִפְתָּח נֶדֶר לַיהוָה, וַיֹּאמַר:  אִם-נָתוֹן תִּתֵּן אֶת-בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן, בְּיָדִי. 30 And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said: 'If Thou wilt indeed deliver the children of Ammon into my hand,
לא  וְהָיָה הַיּוֹצֵא, אֲשֶׁר יֵצֵא מִדַּלְתֵי בֵיתִי לִקְרָאתִי, בְּשׁוּבִי בְשָׁלוֹם, מִבְּנֵי עַמּוֹן--וְהָיָה, לַיהוָה, וְהַעֲלִיתִיהוּ, עֹלָה.  {פ} 31 then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, it shall be the LORD'S, and I will offer it up for a burnt-offering.' {P}
לב  וַיַּעֲבֹר יִפְתָּח אֶל-בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן, לְהִלָּחֶם בָּם; וַיִּתְּנֵם יְהוָה, בְּיָדוֹ. 32 So Jephthah passed over unto the children of Ammon to fight against them; and the LORD delivered them into his hand.
לג  וַיַּכֵּם מֵעֲרוֹעֵר וְעַד-בֹּאֲךָ מִנִּית עֶשְׂרִים עִיר, וְעַד אָבֵל כְּרָמִים, מַכָּה, גְּדוֹלָה מְאֹד; וַיִּכָּנְעוּ בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן, מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.  {פ} 33 And he smote them from Aroer until thou come to Minnith, even twenty cities, and unto Abel-cheramim, with a very great slaughter. So the children of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel. {P}
לד  וַיָּבֹא יִפְתָּח הַמִּצְפָּה, אֶל-בֵּיתוֹ, וְהִנֵּה בִתּוֹ יֹצֵאת לִקְרָאתוֹ, בְּתֻפִּים וּבִמְחֹלוֹת:  וְרַק הִיא יְחִידָה, אֵין-לוֹ מִמֶּנּוּ בֵּן אוֹ-בַת. 34 And Jephthah came to Mizpah unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances; and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter.
לה  וַיְהִי כִרְאוֹתוֹ אוֹתָהּ וַיִּקְרַע אֶת-בְּגָדָיו, וַיֹּאמֶר אֲהָהּ בִּתִּי הַכְרֵעַ הִכְרַעְתִּנִי, וְאַתְּ, הָיִית בְּעֹכְרָי; וְאָנֹכִי, פָּצִיתִי פִי אֶל-יְהוָה, וְלֹא אוּכַל, לָשׁוּב. 35 And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said: 'Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low, and thou art become my troubler; for I have opened my mouth unto the LORD, and I cannot go back.'
לו  וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אָבִי פָּצִיתָה אֶת-פִּיךָ אֶל-יְהוָה--עֲשֵׂה לִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר יָצָא מִפִּיךָ:  אַחֲרֵי אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְךָ יְהוָה נְקָמוֹת, מֵאֹיְבֶיךָ--מִבְּנֵי עַמּוֹן. 36 And she said unto him: 'My father, thou hast opened thy mouth unto the LORD; do unto me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth; forasmuch as the LORD hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies, even of the children of Ammon.'
לז  וַתֹּאמֶר, אֶל-אָבִיהָ, יֵעָשֶׂה לִּי, הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה:  הַרְפֵּה מִמֶּנִּי שְׁנַיִם חֳדָשִׁים, וְאֵלְכָה וְיָרַדְתִּי עַל-הֶהָרִים, וְאֶבְכֶּה עַל-בְּתוּלַי, אָנֹכִי ורעיתי (וְרֵעוֹתָי). 37 And she said unto her father: 'Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may depart and go down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my companions.'
לח  וַיֹּאמֶר לֵכִי, וַיִּשְׁלַח אוֹתָהּ שְׁנֵי חֳדָשִׁים; וַתֵּלֶךְ הִיא וְרֵעוֹתֶיהָ, וַתֵּבְךְּ עַל-בְּתוּלֶיהָ עַל-הֶהָרִים. 38 And he said: 'Go.' And he sent her away for two months; and she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains.
לט  וַיְהִי מִקֵּץ שְׁנַיִם חֳדָשִׁים, וַתָּשָׁב אֶל-אָבִיהָ, וַיַּעַשׂ לָהּ, אֶת-נִדְרוֹ אֲשֶׁר נָדָר; וְהִיא לֹא-יָדְעָה אִישׁ, וַתְּהִי-חֹק בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל. 39 And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed; and she had not known man. And it was a custom in Israel,
מ  מִיָּמִים יָמִימָה, תֵּלַכְנָה בְּנוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְתַנּוֹת, לְבַת-יִפְתָּח הַגִּלְעָדִי--אַרְבַּעַת יָמִים, בַּשָּׁנָה.  {פ} 40 that the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year. {P}

Other than some oddities in this story, we see that Jephthah is greatly distressed over having to sacrifice his daughter. He does not want to, but he had made a vow that, he felt, he could not undo. This was not intentional, he did NOT WANT to sacrifice his daughter. Leaving alone the idea that Chazal (the Rabbis) tell us that he was punished for sacrificing his daughter, we can see even in the Tanach itself that the Jewish people did NOT sacrifice children. It was something that Jephthah was distressed about, as he clearly states in verse 35.

With this in mind I can now offer an explanation as to what was going on with this whole sacrificing your son business. First, as we saw above, the pagans believed that the ultimate show of faith to the gods that would conjure their favor was the sacrificing of the child that was the person's heir to the gods. So too, it is possible that, in the time of Avraham (Abraham), the pagan cultures that surrounded him believed the same thing. People would only do this if they wanted to show their ultimate faith to their gods. However, it was probably a rare occurrence because people would want their heir's to outlive them, hence why it is called an heir. This is also why the Moabite King did not sacrifice his heir until he exhausted all other options. He only sacrificed his son once he realized he was doomed without some type of divine intervention.

So, why is this connected to Avraham? I think it is appropriate to bring up the Rambam's opinion on regular sacrifices here. The Rambam, in the Sefer Moreh Nevuchim (3:46) says, 

"Scripture tells us, according to the Version of Onkelos, that the Egyptians worshipped Aries, and therefore abstained from killing sheep, and held shepherds in contempt. Comp. "Behold we shall sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians," etc. (Exod. viii. 26); "For every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians" (Gen. xlvi. 34). Some sects among the Sabeans worshipped demons, and imagined that these assumed the form of goats, and called them therefore "goats" [se‘irim]. This worship was widespread. Comp. "And they shall no more offer their sacrifices unto demons, after whom they have gone a whoring" (Lev. xvii. 7). For this reason those sects abstained from eating goats' flesh. Most idolaters objected to killing cattle, holding this species of animals in great estimation. Therefore the people of Hodu [Indians] up to this day do not slaughter cattle even in those countries where other animals are slaughtered. In order to eradicate these false principles, the Law commands us to offer sacrifices only of these three kinds: "Ye shall bring your offering of the cattle [viz.], of the herd and of the flock" (Lev. i. 2). Thus the very act which is considered by the heathen as the greatest crime, is the means of approaching God, and obtaining His pardon for our sins. In this manner, evil principles, the diseases of the human soul, are cured by other principles which are diametrically opposite."
The whole reason for sacrifices in the first place is to completely separate us from the false principles of idolatry. With this, I think it is quite obvious what the purpose of the Akeida was. Avraham was told by G-D to take his son Yitzchak to be sacrificed. However, the Torah tells us that G-D said "Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Yitzchak." Why does G-D give such a vivid description of Yitzchak? The reason is, as pointed out above, the ultimate sacrifice that would conjure up the favor of the gods is the sacrifice of the heir, the most loved child. G-D needed to purge Avraham of this insane ritualistic act of faith. However, the only way to do that was to confront it head on. G-D needed Avraham to experience the whole situation in order for him to realize just how crazy and absolutely moronic this act of sacrificing one's heir is. Once Avraham got to the point just before killing Yitzchak, he is stopped, G-D has an angel call out to Avraham, "Avraham! Avraham! Do not stretch out your hand against the lad!" G-D was telling Avraham that this is not the proper way to worship G-D. G-D needed Avraham to overcome the idea that was engraved in Avraham's mind, that you must be willing to do the unthinkable in order to properly worship your gods. That is utterly false, G-D would never ask you to do something so ridiculous.

However, there were two lessons learned on that day. The first was that Avraham realized that he was willing to do anything for G-D and the second was that idol worship and G-D worship are completely different. Idol worship is full of false ideas and wicked practices, I mean, who the heck would kill their child? This is the main reason G-D tested Avraham in this manner, it was to purge these false beliefs from his psyche and to teach us a valuable lesson, we do not serve G-D like the rest of the world serves their gods.

This lesson was most appropriate in the times of the crusades and the Jihaads of the Middle-Ages. The other monotheistic religions were constantly killing people in the name of G-D. This is not what Judaism is about, we do not kill in the name of G-D. We kill only for self defense purposes and not because some guy who claims to know the will of G-D says so. However, I think this lesson is applicable now more than ever because we have the State of Israel. It may be true that there are Islamic Terror Organizations like Hamas and Hizbollah that are trying to kill Jews all the time. They do it in the name of their religion and god. We can NEVER sink to this level. Any Jew that kills in the name of G-D is a fool, plain and simple. They are not following G-D's commands, nor are they acting in the Jewish people's best interest. However, killing in self defense is acceptable and should be done, everyone has a right to defend themselves from harm. 

This, I think, is one of the lessons to be learned from the Akeida. Jews need to be able to recognize unacceptable society norms. In this situation it was that sacrificing children is the ultimate show of faith. Nowadays, it is many other things that I don't want to go into right now, but I will let you think about what those other things are.  


Anonymous said...

FWIW, that's always been my pshat, too.

I haven't read Alan Dershowitz's _Genesis of Justice, but have seen an insight quoted in the name of his then ten-year-old daughter, Ella, that the malach was none other than Avraham's yetzer ha-tov. (Not sure exactly how that shtims with the malach calling "min shamayim.")

But yes, the malach called to forbid just as HaShem later called (Vayikta 1:1) to enjoin: a wrong way and a right.

Avraham is often contrasted with Noach, but maybe better with Adam Rishon. Might the Akeida recapitulate the original nisayon in Gan Eden per the Rambam, of choosing emet over sheker? Avraham chose emet. Seeing Hashem on the mount (v 14), he discerned Hashem could not be served with the sheker that His favor could be "conjured up" with the sacrifice of the heir, as if He were ch"v Molech.

E-Man said...

So you are trying to say that Avraham came to this conclusion on his own and no by the word of G-D?

Anonymous said...

"On his own" would be an overstatement and couldn't shtim with the malach calling "min shamayim."

But if I assign you reading, lecture to you, take your questions, and then give you a one-question exam (in this case T-F or multiple choice, but not essay) on the material I have been trying to teach you, do you come up with your answer "on your own"? You do in the sense that you don't crib the answer from someone or something else, but not in the sense that you didn't learn the correct answer from me.