Faith: One More Reading of the “Binding of Isaac”
When it comes to this morning’s Torah portion, there are almost countless interpretations. Indeed, it is one of the most studied and commented on sections in the Torah. Yet, even with that being said, there still stands one interpretation that is considered by all rabbis the classic interpretation; the mother of all interpretations of the story of the Binding of Isaac. That interpretation is that this story is a story of faith; Abraham’s absolute faith in God. For Abraham’s faith in God was so great that when God instructed him to take his son up to Mount Moriah and there to offer him up to God as a sacrifice, Abraham did not question. He did not doubt. He did not hesitate. Indeed, the classic commentary points out that the Torah text itself states that after receiving God’s instructions, Abraham got up early the next morning to carry them out, which supposedly shows that Abraham was so eager to fulfill God’s will that he did not want to delay it even a moment.
Obviously, there are certain moral problems with such an interpretation. After all, what kind of God would demand the death of a child? And what kind of parent would not only be willing but actually eager to meet that demand? So as you can imagine, alternative interpretations quickly arose, and multiplied, in their attempts to redeem at least the image of Abraham, if not God, from the implications of this story.
Yet as troubling as we find this Torah text, the classic interpretation of it is right on target. This story is a story about faith and the importance of faith. However, in order to appreciate it more fully we have to recognize and understand that there is a difference between true faith and blind faith. While true faith is about following a path because our knowledge and experience has led us to believe that the path in question will lead us to good and positive ends, blind faith is about a total surrendering of our will and judgement to another and in so doing, being willing to travel any path we are told to travel without any consideration of right or wrong, or of the consequences. It’s about “only following orders.”
While it is easy to interpret Abraham’s actions in this story as a product of blind faith – of his being willing to slaughter his son merely because God told him to do so – it is not necessarily that simple. To be true to the Torah text, and to the special relationship that the Jewish people have had with the Torah text for thousands of years, we have to be willing to explore the possibility that Abraham’s faith was a true faith rather than a blind one; that Abraham was more than just God’s lackey. That he was God’s trusting and trusted partner.
When we look at the Torah, one of the most important indicators that this was not just a matter of blind faith on Abraham’s part is to be found in the personality of Abraham himself. Throughout the book of GENESIS, we see that Abraham was never really a mindless follower. He was a thinker. He was a questioner. He was a challenger. No where is that clearer than in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where he confronts God directly, challenging God’s sense of justice in regards to God’s intention to destroy the two cities. It is not logical to assume that the very same man who went toe-to-toe with God, challenging God by asking, “Shall the Judge of all the earth not act justly?” would then turn around and passively accept God’s decision to brutally take the life of an innocent child. If Abraham challenged God’s intentions for Sodom and Gomorrah, so much the more so would Abraham challenge God’s intentions in this instance if he truly believed that God wanted to see the brutal slaying of an innocent child.
Perhaps Abraham did not challenge God in this instance because his understanding of God’s instructions were different than the typical translations and interpretations that have come down us over the years. Perhaps Abraham did not see this, at least initially, as a call for him to physically sacrifice his son, but rather as something very different.
In reviewing the Hebrew of the text, it struck me that one of its key statements which has always been understood as a call for the physical sacrifice of Isaac, can, in fact, be given a dramatically different translation than the one we are used to. In the Hebrew, God says to Abraham, “Ve’ha’aleiju sham l’olah,” which is typically translated as “offer him up there as a sacrifice.” But perhaps it actually means something else entirely. This difference between the standard translation and a translation I am about to propose, hinges on the understanding of the Hebrew word “oleh”, which has a double meaning. One meaning is that of “going up” both physically and spiritually, as we see in the term “aliyah” which is physically going up to the bimah for the high honor of blessing the reading of the Torah, while the other meaning – the one generally applied to this text – is that of “making a sacrifice to God” such as the “olah”, the burnt offering which was offered at the Temple. However, perhaps it was the first, and not the second meaning that was meant to be attached to these words in this sentence in this Torah account. Perhaps God was not saying that Abraham should “offer Isaac up there, on Mount Moriah, as a sacrifice,” but rather that he should “bring Isaac up there so as to elevate him,” not just physically but spiritually, by including the lad in the ritual of offering up a sacrifice to God. You might even consider this to be like the first Bar Mitzvah, as Isaac would be assuming the role of a Hebrew adult by participating in this sacred ritual, just like our children who come up to the bimah to bless the Torah for the first time in their lives.
If we begin to understand the text in this way, then another part of the story assumes a significantly different meaning. While Abraham and Isaac were walking up the mountain, Isaac asked his father, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” To this, Abraham replied, “God with provide the lamb, my son.” Traditionally, Abraham’s response has been interpreted as meaning that the lamb which God will provide for the sacrifice was none other than his son. But perhaps that interpretation is wrong, and that the simple meaning of the sentence is the true meaning of the sentence; that Isaac should not worry – that he should have faith that God, when needed, will provide the animal for the sacrifice. Indeed, in the end, that is exactly what God did. God provided the ram which they sacrificed together.
It we take this approach, we discover an Abraham who is not driven by blind obedience but rather who possesses a true faith in God; trusting in God and in so trusting, confident that in the end, all things will work out for the good.
It is only when the altar is build, and the wood for the fire is all arranged, and Abraham is ready to make the sacrifice, but there is no lamb or ram to offer up, that Abraham even considers the possibility that Isaac is the intended sacrifice. Yet still trusting in God, Abraham continues to believe that things will work out, even as he is binding up his son and placing him on the altar. Indeed there is a midrash which states that while Abraham was doing this, he was crying. His tears dropped into Isaac’s eyes and were the cause of Isaac’s blindness, as described in the story of Jacob and Esau.
Indeed, even though Abraham momentarily had doubts about God’s good will, his faith was well placed, for God stopped the sacrifice. God was distressed by the very thought that Abraham would consider doing such a horrible thing to his son. “Do not raise your hand against the boy or do any harm to him!” God’s angel tells Abraham. Perhaps Abraham’s actual attempt to sacrifice Isaac was a misunderstanding. Perhaps it was Abraham’s slipping for a moment from true faith to blind faith; a move which deeply disturbed God rather than gratified him.
Understood in this way, Abraham’s faith was, for the most part, a true faith. Abraham had faith in God. Why? Because so many of Abraham’s experiences with God were such that God earned Abraham’s faith. Abraham trusted in God because even though life was not always easy for Abraham, and along the way there were many challenges to be met, still in the long run, God’s promise was kept and things worked out for the better. God’s desires were known to Abraham, and in those desires, Abraham saw only good things, positive things, not only for himself and his family, but for all humanity. Abraham saw God as good, and therefore as worthy of his faith. His true faith.
Blind faith is easy. Just do what you are told. You don’t need to think about it. Your life is totally in the hands of another. Good and bad. Right and wrong. They do not matter. Obedience is the only thing that matters.
True faith, on the other hand, is not so easy. It means that we need to constantly look at the bigger picture. We have to constantly consider the past in measuring the future. Good and bad, right and wrong do matter, when it comes to our judgement as to whether or not our faith is well placed. It means trusting that things are not always what they appear to be at the moment; that sometimes in order to arrive at good times, you have to endure bad times.
This is what Abraham saw in God. This is why Abraham trusted in God. This is why Abraham sought to obey God.
Who should know this type of faith better than we, the Jewish people? Our long history is a patchwork quilt of keeping faith in bad times as well as good times, and ironically sometimes finding it harder to keep faith in good times as well as bad times. Today, we American Jews live in marvelous times. We have good lives in a country which welcomes us and considers us equals; citizens and not strangers. God has blessed our lives with an abundance perhaps unequaled in Jewish history. Yet for some, finding a true faith in God is still elusive.
One cannot help but wonder why so many Jews have been able to keep their faith in God across the millennia? Because their faith and our faith has been a true one. We have maintained our faith in God because when we consider what God wants from us, and wants from the world, we see that these are all good things. God wants the best for us and for all humanity. God wants peace. God wants healing. God wants prosperity. God wants love. God wants justice and fair treatment for all. God wants to be our parent and for us to be a family. Our God has always been a God worthy of believing in; worthy of our trust and faith; our true faith.
Having such faith in God can help us to live our lives as better human being. For our faith in God can serve as a model for our faith in others. When we apply the same principles that govern a healthy faith in God to our relationships with other people, then we can start down the road toward building healthy relationships, not only with God but with worthy people as well.
As a true faith requires us to ask of our relationship with God – Where is this taking us? Is it leading us down the path to being better people and leading a better life? – so we should be asking those very same questions when it comes to our relationships with other human beings. Will these relationships contribute to making us better people and, as better people, leading us to a better life?
As true faith calls upon us to invest a great degree of trust in God because God has proven worthy of our trust, so should we be willing to invest a great degree of trust in others who, by their past actions have proven worthy of our trust.
This, for some reason, seems to be very hard for some people to accomplish. There seems to be a part of the human psyche that wants us to think the worst of others, and of God, even if they have done much in the past which should have proven their trustworthiness to us. We seem to revel in looking at the dark side; in gobbling up the rumors as is they were established facts; in readily embracing the worst scenarios rather than the best possibilities. But just as a true faith in God – Abraham’s faith in God – calls upon us to invest our trust in God, not just because God is God but also because God has earned that trust through intentions and past actions, so should the spirit of true faith call upon is to invest our trust in so many of those people in our lives, not just because they are in our lives, but because they have earned our trust through both intentions and past actions. They have earn that place in our lives in which we should always first assume the best of them rather than the worst; in which we should always first grant them the benefit of the doubt rather than instantly doubting their credibility, their intentions, and their good will.
In this way, if we can find it in our hearts to take on the mantle of true faith, both in God and in those individuals who populate the landscape of our lives, then we will discover that with true faith in our hearts, blessings will surely follow in our lives. For we will more readily discover joy instead of sorrow; contentment instead of dissatisfaction; confidence instead of doubt; pleasure instead of pain; love instead of anger.