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 . . ."

Up until then, the quality of strict justice had prevailed, according to which Abraham had no "right" to his son Isaac or to derive pleasure from his offspring. His son did not "belong" to him, and on this there was no dispute or room for discussion or evasion. "And God (Elohim) said unto him": The quality of strict-justice called out to him. This was an order which had to be fulfilled without any reservations, Abraham heard the command--and he followed and obeyed it.

In a world of strict justice, the only acceptable way is for man to sacrifice himself. When man sins, it is as if he summons the quality of strict justice to judge him. By sinning, he loses his most elementary right, the right to his own self. "For in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." Sin--means death. The quality of strict justice is never willing to concede. "If Thou exactest strict judgment--who can stand before Thee?"

When man brings a sacrifice after having sinned, he must imagine that it is he himself who is being offered upon the altar. When the blood of the animal is sprinkled, he must imagine that it is his own blood that is being sprinkled--that his own hot blood which in its passion drew him to sin, is being sprinkled upon the altar of his sin; that the fats which are consumed upon the altar are not the animal's, but his own fats, which congealed in his heart and gave him over into the hands of sin. Only by virtue of God's august mercy is man redeemed from having to sacrifice himself, for it is God who arranged for a ram to take the place of Isaac. It is for this reason that it is always (with two exceptions) the Ineffable Name of God that appears in the context of sacrifices--for the quality of divine mercy is revealed in the sacrificial rites.

When an Israelite brings a sacrifice to attain acquittal for having sinned, what is it that actually achieves the acquittal? Is it through a sin-offering worth two shekalim? Certainly not! Acquittal comes only with confession and acknowledgment of sin, which means: self-nullification and negation, absolute submission and subservience, utter sacrifice of the self and his whole being and all that he owns--as if he has laid himself upon the altar.

"I have come back in repentance before Thee and this is my acquittal." Repentance itself-- that is the acquittal, the expiation. Repentance takes the place of the sacrifice of myself which I had a duty to offer upon the altar. It stands in my place and it is as if I myself were stretched out upon the altar. "And [Abraham] offered [the ram] for a burnt‑offering in the place of his son." In the prayers for the Day of Atonement we petition God to remember "the ashes of Isaac"--not the ashes of the ram, for in essence it was not the ram that was sacrificed, but Isaac himself.

This, then, is the nature of the verbal confession that accompanies the bringing of a sin‑offering. The confession itself is the spiritual sacrifice which man offers. "And this is my acquittal" confession has brought about an annihilation of my whole being, just as the sacrificial animal is utterly consumed by the flames upon the altar.

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Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

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.