During my year of Rabbinic studies in Jerusalem, I learned the following story found in the Zohar, chief book of Jewish mysticism:
On the second day of creation G‑d made the expanse and it separated between the water that was below the expanse and the water that was above the expanse. The lower waters understood that the expanse will separate them from God from now on. They started to cry and said, “We too want to stand before the King!”. God was able to persuade them to calm down with a promise that they will not be completely cut off from Divine presence. The lower waters, who became salty from tears, were promised that when the Temple would be built, sea salt would be used to prepare the sacrificed. In this way a part of them was given a chance to experience God's nearness.
There is another, more violent version of this story. This time, the waters did not go down without a fight. Angered, they sabotaged God's plan for creation by flooding emerging swathes of land. God soon understood that land life will not develop if the power of waters is left unchecked. To remedy this, God pushed the waters below the expanse underground. In order to make sure that they never got out, God put a mount with a stone on it at the gate to this watery underworld. From that moment on, this mount protected the universe from flooding. God removed the stone that served as a cork only once since then, enabling the flood in Noah’s day. Then, the lower waters and upper waters met again, unleashing the world’s destruction. To end the flood, God plugged the entrance to the underworld again. Once the flood subsided, Noah offered his thanksgiving sacrifice on the mount, on the very stone that stemmed the flow of lower waters.
Our tradition identifies the location of these events as the Temple Mount; it maintains that the stone was located below the Holy of Holies. Rabbis believed that the Temple Mount was previously known as Mount Moriah; in turn, the stone in the Holy of Holies was thought to have served as the foundation of Abraham’s altar.
According to this rabbinic tradition, the Akeidah, the topic of our Torah reading today, is set at a place that is key to the survival of the universe. The location of the binding of Isaac on Mount Moriah is essential to the story.
If the place wasn’t so Abraham would not have traveled three days to get there, he would have climbed any tall mountain he could find. Mount Moriah was chosen because it represents the maintenance of the cosmic order. It is against this background that we need to read the story of the binding of Isaac.
There is a long standing theory that the binding of Isaac is a polemic against human sacrifice. In this line of thinking, the fact that Isaac was bound but not sacrificed proved that human sacrifice was not desired by God. Mount Moriah, the place that reassured mankind that God did not desire the world’s destruction, became also a reminder that God didn't want to see human demise. The universe and its custodians, humans, serve God by living, not dying.
Nevertheless, we are left to wonder: could this lesson have been communicated without causing Isaak, Abraham, Sarah and us, future readers, so much distress?
To many classical interpreters and modern believers, Abraham’s willingness to suffer an unspeakable loss is a sign of his true devotion to God. However, there were rabbinic authorities that fundamentally disagreed with this statement.
One of them was Rabbi Acha, who lived in the Land of Israel in the fourth century CE. Rabbi Acha believed that Abraham misunderstood God’s intentions. God wanted to check whether Abraham has trust in their covenant which promised him descendants through Isaac. God said: (kah et bincha, itzchak, take your son, Isaac vehaalehu leola). Due to the ambiguity of Hebrew, the second half of this sentence can be understood in two ways, either as ‘offer him as a burnt sacrifice or make him go up to the burnt sacrifice. Abraham chose to interpret it as the former. Here is what Rabbi Acha has to say about this interpretation:
This may be compared to a king who told his friend to place his son on his table. The friend returned with his own child and with a knife in hand. The king exclaimed, "Did I ask you to bring him up to eat? I said to bring him up, because he is loved."
If we accept Rabbi Acha’s explanation, then Abraham has failed not one but two tests that God presented him with. First of them tested Abraham’s confidence in God’s trustworthiness. More importantly, however, the second test checked if Abraham believed in Divine kindness, if he saw God as a loving friend. By raising a knife to kill Izaac, Abraham showed faith in a God who was a melekh - a fear-inducing ruler rather than an av - a caring father.
What happened next? God reiterated the promise of numerous offspring, and assured Abraham that through his offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed. Tellingly, perhaps, in contrast to the initial Divine pledge to Abraham, this time God did not refer to Abraham himself as a blessing. Subsequently, Abraham returned to Beer Sheva. Importantly, Isaac did not travel with him. Some unspecified time later, Sarah died.
How long was the period between the binding of Isaac and Sarah’s death? What happened then? Torah is silent about it, all we can do to speculate to fill this gap. American-Israeli poet T. Carmi does just that in his poem The Actions of the Fathers. Carmi writes:
And after the Akedah? Then the most difficult test began.
Abraham took his son to the camel races Hiked with him from the Euphrates to the Nile, Swam by his side, watching him like a hawk In the waters of Eilat. And when they returned home, He slaughtered flocks and herds aplenty, All tender and good, Sweet scent of songs and of muscle and meat And guests in good graces come in from afar. Isaac ate and ate, ate – And was silent.
Abraham bought his wife a fur coat And golden jewelry He installed emergency lighting in their tent He brought her boots in style from a shop on the Nile Hashish from Tarshish, Cinnamon from Lebanon. Sarah, who grew old overnight, Never took off her mourning clothes.
Abraham prayed to his God morning and evening, He hung tzedakah boxes on all the tamarisk trees, Studied his Torah night and day, Fasted, And gave room and board to angels for almost no fee. The voice from on high disappeared.
And the voice within him (The only one left) Said: Yes, you went From your land, from your homeland, the land of your father, And now, in the end, from yourself.
We are not Abraham. He was certain that the voice that told him lech lecha - go for yourself, was the voice of God. We will never be hundred percent sure if the inner voice that tells us ‘go for it, that what you need’ is divinely inspired. Still, there are moments in our life when we yearn for something with burning passion and absolute clarity. And so we go for it, with unwavering resolve. Each of us has our own heart’s desire, what we wish for ourselves changes over time.
Abraham’s big dream was to find God and leave a legacy. On Mount Moriah, his wish was granted. Yet the price he got to pay was his family harmony and happiness.
The story of Abraham teaches us that when we chase our big dreams, we may find ourselves on the top of our personal mount Moriah. We may reach the peak of success only to realise that the sacrifices we made to get there turned this achievement into a mixed blessing at best and a Pyrrhic victory, a defeat in disguise, at worst. Our Isaacs - the aspects of life we sacrifice - vary: our family life, friendships, health, mental health, money. Only you know what you have already sacrificed and keep sacrificing on the altar of your dreams.
Sometimes our commitment to a goal is so strong that we don’t know anymore how much we sacrificed or that we sacrificed anything at all. Remember the despondent lower waters? The rebellious ones who are kept in check by the altar where Isaac was bound, the foundation of the future Jerusalem Temple, represent the parts of ourselves we repressed. The challenge is that keeping them repressed requires us to expend energy. It demands further sacrifices: of Isaac, of countless animals, of people and ideas who trigger the memory of parts of us we pushed out.
You might recall that there was a second type of despondent lower waters, the seawaters. They found consolation in the fact that their salt was offered in the Temple. One could call their approach mature and realistic. After all, don’t we make some compromises as we age? That’s true but we need to be careful not to suppress our essential needs. If we keep doing it, realism gives way to resignation. Then we throw a baby with a salty bathwater and find ourselves still missing something.
During every Jewish prayer, we look towards Jerusalem, towards the Temple Mount. We look towards the place where Isaac was bound, where animals were sacrificed. We send our prayers as a replacement for these sacrifices. As we pray, we ask God for dew or rain, dependent on the season. Our beliefs evolved, unlike our ancestors we are no longer afraid that upper waters mixing with lower waters would spell the end of humanity.
Perhaps it is time to revisit our other beliefs? Perhaps it is time to choose mountains that don’t require us to sacrifice Isaaks, be it in the world around us or in ourselves. Perhaps this High Holiday season is time to offer a loving God our undivided, vulnerable self? If we try, we might end up walk down from our Mount Moriah in the rain of blessings, hand in hand with God and with Isaac, finally unbound and unafraid. Shana Tova!