Commentary on Parashat Vayera, Genesis 18:1 - 22:24
Scholars have long had many questions about the moral ambiguities in the central story of Parashat Vayera: the Binding of Isaac, known in Hebrew as the Akedah.
How could God have commanded Abraham to kill his son? Doesn’t such a seemingly cruel and grotesque command defy everything we believe the Torah to stand for? And how could Abraham be prepared to do it? Is it possible that God expected Abraham to refuse, and when he didn’t he failed God’s test?
Much ink has been spilled attempting to answer these complex theological questions, and it is difficult to arrive at a singular answer. But there is another story in the Torah that can help us shed some light on this difficult passage.
The story appears in the Book of Numbers, immediately after the story of the scouts, the group dispatched to investigate the land of Israel and who induce a mass panic when they return to relay their findings. God becomes incensed by their reaction and decrees that the entire generation must die in the wilderness — only their children will enter the land of Israel. This news further devastates the Israelites and thrusts them into a state of mourning.
In an expression of denial, a group of Israelites rises up the following morning and marches toward the top of the mountain, determined to get to the land of Israel. Moses rebukes them and warns that if they continue they will be destroyed by enemy nations because God will not be there to protect them. This group, which comes to be known as the maapilim, ignores Moses. They continue their march and are decimated by Amalekites and Canaanites.
While this story does not have an obvious connection to the Akedah, there are a number of subtle similarities in the language the Torah uses in both cases.
The maapilim are first introduced in this verse from Numbers 14:40:
וַיַּשְׁכִּ֣מוּ בַבֹּ֔קֶר וַיַּֽעֲל֥וּ אֶל־רֹאשׁ־הָהָ֖ר לֵאמֹ֑ר הִנֶּ֗נּוּ וְעָלִ֛ינוּ אֶל־הַמָּק֛וֹם אֲשֶׁר־אָמַ֥ר ה’ כִּ֥י חָטָֽאנוּ׃
They arose early the next morning and set out toward the crest of the hill country, saying, “We are prepared to go up to the place that the LORD has spoken of, for we were wrong.”
After God instructs Abraham to take Isaac to offer as a sacrifice on a mountain, he too arises early the next morning to fulfill God’s commandment. The word the Torah uses to describe Abraham’s arising (va-yashkem) is the same as the one describing the maapilim getting up in the morning (va-yashkeemu). Similarly, the words used to describe the maapilim’s march to the top of the mountain (va-yahaloo), “and they went up”; v’aleeno, “we will rise”) share a root with God’s instruction to bring Isaac to the mountain and offer him up (v’ha’aleihu) as a sacrifice (olah). And the maapilim declare their intention to proceed with the name word (hineinu, “here we are”) as Abraham uses to respond to God’s call (hineni, “here I am”).
These linguistic similarities between these two stories are striking, but there is one key difference; In the story of the Akedah, all three of these parallels are either part of God’s commandment or Abraham’s reaction to it. In the story of the maapilim, all three reflect the initiative of the rebels. They arise in the morning, they go up the mountain, and they offer their presence to God — all of their own volition. None of what they do is commanded by God, and indeed, Moses condemns them for it.
This difference is key to understanding the Akedah. Whether or not we believe that Abraham was correct in heeding God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, and whether or not we believe that God actually wanted him to do so, the story of the maapilim clarifies that Abraham’s actions were only laudable because he was following God’s command. The maapilim are so desperate to appeal to God that they defy Moses’ warning and march toward enemy territory, where they are swiftly struck down. By allowing their enemies to destroy them, God is sending us a clear message that the Akedah is a unique set of circumstances that should never be replicated. It is the exception, not the rule. The God of the Torah does not desire human sacrifice and will not be appeased by it.
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About the Author: Ruth Friedman serves as Maharat at Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue in Washington, DC. She is a member of the inaugural class of Yeshivat Maharat, which is the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and Jewish law authorities. She is a member of the Washington Boards of Rabbis and sits on the executive committee of the board of the International Rabbinic Fellowship.