The Binding of Isaac



“Hazon – Our Universal Vision” is a Torah study program via e-mail which explores the universal vision of the Torah and how we, as the people of the Torah, are to fulfill this vision. As we have discussed in this series, our story represents the human story, and we have begun to discuss how this theme and other related universal themes are expressed in the “Siddur” – the classical prayer book of our people.


In one of the introductory morning prayers, we describe ourselves as, “the offspring of Isaac, Your bound one, who was bound on top of the altar.” (This wording appears in the Sephardic Siddur, and a slight variation of this wording appears in the Ashkenazic Siddur.)  This is a reference to the story of how God tested Abraham by asking him to take his son, Isaac, to Mount Moriah, and to offer him up there as an offering. The sages of Kabbalah have stressed the great importance of the daily recitation of this story, and in response to their writings, this story has been incorporated into the great majority of Siddurim. In this letter, we shall begin to discuss the relationship of this story to the radical role of our people.


Dear Friends,


The story of the binding of Isaac opens with the following words: “And it came to pass after these events that God tested Abraham” (Genesis 22:1). We know from the end of the story that God told Abraham not to sacrifice Isaac; thus, our commentators discuss the obvious question: Why would God give Abraham such a difficult test? A classical commentator, known as the Sforno, explains that this test would help Abraham to develop his inner spiritual potential, and the Sforno writes: “God’s intention was that he (Abraham) should translate his love and reverence of God from the potential to the actual.” In other words, his willingness to offer his beloved son would activate his potential love and reverence of God. The Sforno then adds the following observation:


“In this manner, he would be similar to his Creator, Who is good to this world in actuality, for the purpose of the human being’s existence is to be similar to his Creator, as much as possible.”


The Sforno then refers us to the verse which states that the human being was created in the Divine image (Genesis 1:26). When I read this explanation, it seemed to me that the Sforno is indicating that the actualization of Abraham’s potential to love and revere the Creator would increase his ability to be similar to the benevolent Creator. In order to better understand this explanation, I looked at a commentary on the Sforno’s commentary by Rabbi Yehudah Cooperman, who lives in my Jerusalem neighborhood. He cites quotations from other writings of the Sforno which explain that to be in the Divine image is to have the potential to become similar to the Creator through emulating the Divine loving-kindness and benevolence. (For an example, see the Sforno’s introductory essay, The Intention of the Torah, chapter 2.) Rabbi Cooperman therefore offers the following explanation of how the actualization of Abraham’s love and reverence for the Creator leads him to become similar to the benevolent Creator:


The actualization of Abraham’s potential to cling to the Creator increases his ability to be in the Divine image; thus, Abraham will become more dedicated to doing good to others.  


According to the Sforno, this test of Abraham will help him to become more like the benevolent Creator of all life; however, this commentary raises the following questions:


1. The Creator is the Source of all life; thus, how would a willingness to sacrifice the life of Isaac cause Abraham to be similar to the Life-Giving One?


2. We often refer to the Creator as - Hashem – the Name. This is a respectful way of referring to the most sacred Divine Name which expresses the Divine attribute of compassion. If Hashem is the Compassionate One, then how would a willingness to sacrifice Isaac cause Abraham to be more like Hashem?


3. The Sforno states that Abraham would become similar to his Creator, “Who is good to this world in actuality.” What, however, is the “good” that would come to the world as a result of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his beloved son?


Over twenty years ago, I began to relate this story to my own life, and I gained some insights that would later help me to find answers to the above questions on the Sforno’s commentary. I was born in 1946, and when I was about six years old, my father, of blessed memory, began to train me to become a progressive social activist. My father had been active in American leftist circles, and my training began during the McCarthy period, when people active in such circles were often accused of being “Communist traitors” – an accusation which caused many to lose their jobs; in fact, when my father discussed with me his radical views, he would take me into a storage room with thick walls, so the neighbors in our apartment building would not hear our conversation!


As I reflected on these memories, I realized that my father was preparing me for a life that could be very difficult and perhaps even dangerous. I then thought about all the generations of Jewish parents that raised their children to be good Jews who would remain loyal to the path of the Torah, even during periods of history when such loyalty caused many Jews to be killed by those who felt threatened by their commitment to the Torah. The period of the Chanukah story is a classic example, and there is a Chanukah story of how the tyrant, King Antiochus, arrested Chanah and her seven sons, and ordered the sons to abandon the Covenant of the Torah. The King spoke separately to each son, but each one refused to abandon the Torah. The King then ordered each son to be killed. As the King’s soldiers removed the youngest son to be killed, his mother, pleaded, “Give him to me so that I can kiss him briefly!” She said to him, as if she was speaking to all her sons:


“My children, go and tell your ancestor Abraham, ‘You bound only one son upon an altar, but I bound seven sons upon altars.’ ”


Our tradition refers to the Torah as “a Tree of Life” (Proverbs 3:18). Jewish parents had the strength and the courage to raise their children with life-giving Torah ideals that could actually endanger their lives in a world which was often hostile to these ideals. These parents felt that it was worth the risk, for without these spiritual ideals, life would lose its purpose and meaning. In addition, they were aware that without taking this risk, evil and tyranny would triumph.


From where did Jewish parents get the strength and courage to endanger their own children for the sake of these ideals? Before we can answer this question, we need to be aware that these ideals are rooted in the mandate that Abraham handed down to the future generations of the covenant-nation that would emerge from him. This mandate is mentioned in the following Divine statement concerning Abraham, our father:


“For Abraham is to become a great and mighty nation, and through it, all the nations of the earth will be blessed. For I have known him because he commands his children and his household after him to keep the way of Hashem – to do righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18:18,19).”


The above passage mentions the source of our commitment to the way of Hashem – to do righteousness and justice. What is the source of our courage to risk the lives of our children for the sake of this sacred path? Our sages say that the events in the life of Abraham are a sign for his descendants (Midrash Tamchuma, Lech Lecha 9). Based on this teaching, I thought of the following idea:


Abraham’s willingness to have Isaac become an offering is to serve as a sign for his descendants that they must be willing, if need be, to have their children become an offering, in order that the ideals of the Torah will survive and ultimately triumph in this world.


Abraham’s willingness to offer up Isaac on the altar will therefore lead to increased good in the world; thus, at the end of the story, when Abraham was told that it wasn’t necessary to actually sacrifice Isaac, he received the following Divine promise:


“And all the nations of the earth shall be blessed through your offspring, because you have listened to My Voice.”


The above teachings can increase our appreciation of the Torah’s stories regarding our forefathers and foremothers. As the Sforno teaches:


“The purpose of the narrative section of the Torah, which relates various events and episodes, is to instruct us in the ways of the righteous ones among the ancients – their tests, trials, and actions that found favor in the eyes of God, the Blessed One – in order that the human being should strive to go in their ways.”


Have a Good Chanukah,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen


P.S. An English translation of Sforno’s commentary on the Torah by Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz is published by ArtScroll:

Hazon - Our Universal Vision