The Akedah and Self-Sacrifice

God wants us to give of ourselves.

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Excerpted from On Repentance in the Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, edited by Pinhas Peli. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. Copyright 1996 by Jason Aronson Inc.

The Torah forbade all human sacrifice. The example it uses to describe the abomination of idol‑worship is "for even their sons and their daughters they consume with fire on behalf of their gods" (Deuteronomy 12:31). Yet, although the Torah forbade human offerings, it did not invalidate the idea behind it that man should sacrifice his own self–"that it is proper that [man] spill his blood and burn his flesh" (cf. Nahmanides, Leviticus 1:9)–rather than just bring a bull or two pigeons or turtle-doves. God does not seek offerings from man, he seeks man himself.

This is the foundation of sacrificial practice and it is on this idea that the story of the binding of Isaac is based. On unconditional self‑sacrifice, of body and of soul the Jewish faith is founded. Judaism does not reject the idea behind human sacrifice.

If man is the property of the Holy One, blessed be He, when he hears the voice of God calling to him, "Take now thy son, thine only son … and offer him … for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of," he has no other choice than did Abraham: "And Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his ass … and went unto the place of which God had told him." The Torah renounced human sacrifice, and even forbade it–out of the quality of mercy. "Had it not been for the mercy of the Creator who took [other] consideration from us" (cf. Nahmanides, Ibid.), strict justice and absolute truth would have dictated "When any man of you bring an offering" and  stopped there: "of you"–literally so! It was mercy which came and added: "ye shall bring your offering of the cattle, even of the herd or of the flock."

Others have already pointed out the fact that the name of God that appears throughout the story of the binding of Isaac, is "Elohim": "God (Elohim) did prove Abraham … God (Elohim) will provide Himself the lamb for a burnt ­offering, my son. . ." etc. Only after the angel stays Abraham’s hand and calls out to him, "lay not thy hand upon the lad," does the Ineffable Name of God appear for the first time: "And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven . . ."

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Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was one of the most important Orthodox thinkers of the 20th century. He delivered an annual lecture on repentance that was a highly anticipated event for Modern Orthodox Jews in America.

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