Questioning Abraham, God, and Ourselves

How shall we think about Akedat Yitzchak — the “Binding of Isaac” — the story of Abraham’s readiness to offer his son Isaac as a burnt offering to God (Genesis 22:1-19)?

How can the story enhance our self-examination this Rosh Hashanah?

The story does not make sense. God has fulfilled a promise; Abraham has satisfied a lifelong yearning. Abraham is now a father. Yet God asks Abraham to harm the child, and Abraham prepares to comply.

As a teaching story, it’s designed to twist our hearts. To push us into self-reflection as we cry out with questions, moving from the story’s characters to ourselves. Who is God? Who is Abraham? Who are we?

Who is God? What sort of spiritual forces move us? When do we feel we hear God’s voice? When we are loved? When we yearn for peace? When we feel guided by ethical principles? When a powerful, creative, boundary-breaking impulse overwhelms us? What sort of divine guidance do we hope for?

Who is Abraham? Who are our spiritual role models? Do we place some people on pedestals, expecting perfection? Do we imagine individuals so resilient that nothing can wound their souls? Do we have compassion for people whose resilience cracks? Do we understand that the most scarred among us might be the greatest channels of spiritual healing?

Who are we? How do we evaluate ourselves? Do we trust that our hearts and minds are prepared for life’s challenges? Or do we wonder: what would we do if we were really tested? If so, do we run towards or away from those tests?

Life is filled with tests – tests of values, mission, and character. In real life, absolute values cannot be lived absolutely. Sometimes we orient our whole lives along a path, and the road suddenly closes. When that happens, what qualities of thought and feeling will guide us? What kind of inner posture do we desire? How shall we develop it?

How shall we live on this first day of the New Year and beyond?


  1. Sitting at my mother’s bedside, listening to the beeps and bumps of machines and her soft breath, I question, am I Abraham or Issac?
    Thank you for this reflection and expansive teaching.

  2. I was looking through the machzor, and found a passage reading (roughly): “Just as Abraham ignored his attribute of mercy, and followed his attribute of justice, we ask You to ignore your attribute of justice, and follow Your attribute of mercy . . . “. Say what ?????

    I figure Abraham scored about a D — minimum passing grade — on his test. To get a grade higher than that, he would have _at least_ argued with God, as he did over Sodom. For an A, he might have needed to say:

    . . . “Sorry, God — my son is more important to me than You are.”

    But Abraham and his God were products of their times.

    What sort of divine guidance do we hope for?

    Not the kind that says:

    . . . "Kill your son for Me."

    . Charles

    1. Charles, thanks so much for this comment. I think the sense of the Hebrew is probably “because” rather than “just as.” I also think the story is so undeniably mythical in its sparseness, it’s not really about a historical Abraham or a historical God — and at the same time, I love your comment about God the character representing a sensibility that’s hard for many of us to access today. I wouldn’t want guidance from a God who, with one hand gives me something and with the other asks me to sacrifice it. Interestingly, some midrashim say that Abraham, once his deepest yearnings are fulfilled, wonders himself whether he would really have risked everything for a spiritual mission. And God – the voice inside him, because remember this is portrayed as a time before organized Judaism, so that’s all Abraham has to go on — says, “try it!”

  3. >>>
    And God – the voice inside him, because remember this is portrayed as a time before organized Judaism, so that’s all Abraham has to go on — says, “try it!”

    Which brings up an interesting point:

    . . . The yetzer tov and yetzer hara both have voices.

    Sometimes it's hard to know which one is speaking. Sometimes, years after hearing one, it's _still_ hard to know.

    I find comfort in knowing the rabbis were disturbed by the story. It's people who _aren't_ disturbed, who frighten me.

    . Charles

    PS — I don't see that "Because . . . " makes any more sense than "Just as . . . ". Unless willingness to sacrifice Isaac was Abraham's sin, and it's up to God to do tshuvah for it, by forgiving us. [I must be singing too much Christian music!]

    1. According to some midrashic commentators, that’s exactly why it’s called a trial. God says, “try living out your thoughts in real experience.”

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