On Sacrifice: Choice Or Consequence?


This week’s Torah portion from the Book of Genesis is Parashah Va-Yera in which we hear of the prophesied birth of Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah. We are also introduced to the tales of Sodom & Gomorrah’s destruction and to the Akedah or Sacrifice of Isaac. Foremost among the dramatic chapters in the development of monotheism, these Biblical events illuminate the tests of faith given to Abraham, Sarah, their nephew Lot and Lot’s wife by a God whose presence was a terrifying mystery in contrast to those familiar deities of their native pagan culture.

As the story opens on the heels of last week’s Parasha Lekh Lekha, Sarah, long past her childbearing years, has already given her husband Abraham her handmaiden Hagar with whom to bear a son in her place. When Sarah is told by angels that she herself would give birth to a son she refuses to be awed and laughs with the cynicism of age and dashed hopes for children. After Isaac’s birth, the events that follow her earlier show of arrogance still provide much material for scholars and novelists to scrutinize.


On this note, the story setting moves to the nearby cities of Sodom & Gomorrah, widely known for their immoral, if not perverted cultural practices. Here, through the angelic warnings to Lot and his family, Parashah Va-Yera illustrates how individual choices affect the outcome of events for the larger populace of that era. The words of the parashah are frightening enough, yet the images they evoke have burnt themselves into our collective memories for all time.

Some years later, Abraham is called upon to sacrifice Isaac, his ‘only’ (acknowledged) son as a demonstration of his belief in God. The pain of a father’s inner conflict, (compounded with his complicit dismissal of Hagar and his firstborn son Ishmael at Sarah’s behest) in the face of such a terrible choice must have been unbearable. Yet, how much more so for the brotherless Isaac whose presence out of trust in his father did not include true informed consent? To be fair, Abraham may not have fully grasped the consequences of his choices either. Nevertheless, the overwhelming body of interpretations of the Akedah posit many justifications for the details and implications of this core theme of Judaism. Among them, the age of Isaac at that time remains unclear. Was he a young boy on the threshold of manhood or was he a young man in his prime of life? Portraying Isaac as a child would certainly have aroused universal sympathy for this seemingly unjust event, but I chose to show him as a young man bound by the emotional and spiritual ties that acknowledge both his filial loyalties and the consequences of his role for future generations of his people. Either way, these cautionary tales and Isaac’s legacy speak for all of us when we make choices that affect the the present and may color the shape of our future.

These images are further detailed in the AfterImages section of my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) which can be purchased directly from the publisher: http://www.pomegranate.com/a166.html or from Amazon,  amzn.to/gZSp5j where you will find several reviews.

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