The Binding of Isaac, or the Akeda, is a complicated story, one that raises a lot of questions about what it means to be a person of faith, about God’s goodness, and whether Abraham did the right thing. And one thing I have learned about studying some of the most difficult parts of the Torah is that the more difficult the story, the more deeply it asks us to look at ourselves and our own spiritual lives in relation to it. This story is no exception.
To begin to mine this story for its spiritual riches, let’s all get on the same page about what happened at a basic level. God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and Abraham seems to acquiesce. Abraham and Isaac journey together to Mount Moriah, and just as Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac, an angel of God calls out to him to stop what he’s doing, and he sacrifices a nearby ram instead.
Now, you might think that the turning point of the story was the moment that Abraham hears “stop”. But there’s another, more subtle turning point in the story that is worth us paying attention to. After the angel of God tells Abraham to put down the knife, we read the following:
וַיִּשָּׂ֨א אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֶת־עֵינָ֗יו וַיַּרְא֙ וְהִנֵּה־אַ֔יִל אַחַ֕ר נֶאֱחַ֥ז בַּסְּבַ֖ךְ בְּקַרְנָ֑יו וַיֵּ֤לֶךְ אַבְרָהָם֙ וַיִּקַּ֣ח אֶת־הָאַ֔יִל וַיַּעֲלֵ֥הוּ לְעֹלָ֖ה תַּ֥חַת בְּנֽוֹ׃
And Abraham raised his eyes and then saw a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son (22:13)
וַיִּשָּׂ֨א אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֶת־עֵינָ֗יו וַיַּרְא֙, and Abraham raised his eyes and he saw. This phrase should strike us as strange. Why does it say both “raise his eyes”, and “see”, rather than just simply say “Abraham saw”? The Torah is often terse, so when it repeats a word or idea, it is really trying to emphasize it. You could say that repetition is the spiritual equivalent of bolding, underlining, and italicizing a word all at the same time. So what is the Torah trying to reveal to us about Abraham’s experience by focusing on the act of seeing?
Our Rabbinic tradition can help us understand this emphasis on Abraham’s seeing. The phrase וַיִּשָּׂ֨א אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֶת־עֵינָ֗יו וַיַּרְא֙ comes up several times in the Book of Genesis (13:10, 18:2, 22:4, 22:13) and the Rabbis help us understand this phrase in particularly interesting ways when it comes up in Genesis 18:2, when Abraham provides hospitality to three angels of God. Genesis 18 opens with the words “And the Lord appeared to [to Abraham], וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ יְהֹוָ֔ה”, and then in the next verse, three people suddenly appear before him, וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּה֙ שְׁלשָׁ֣ה אֲנָשִׁ֔ים . In trying to figure out exactly what Abraham was seeing at the opening of his tent- God or people- the Rabbis find answers in our phrase, as well as the two other terms for seeing that occur in verses 1 and 2. For example, Rabbeinu Bahya says that the repetition of the words for seeing in these verses tells us that upon first glance, Abraham mistook the three beings for people, but he later came to see that they were angels of God. Haemek Davar and the Malbim both say that this repetition tells us that at first, Avraham saw the three beings as angels of God, but later, could look at them and see God directly. And Rashi says that this repetition means that initially, Abraham simply noticed the three beings, he perceived their presence. But upon looking at them more closely, Abraham began to make what he was seeing meaningful: when he looked at them again, he realized that because they were standing outside his tent and waiting rather than trying to come in, they had no desire to harm him, and that he should go out of his tent and greet them.
In different ways, these Rabbis teach us that there are different levels of seeing. Abraham demonstrates that there is a difference between the physical, sensory experience of seeing, and the deeper, spiritual experience of looking. Whereas seeing might help us get some basic information about our surroundings, looking is a much more meaningful act. Looking is profoundly interpretive, it is about making meaning of what we perceive, it is about crafting a story about what’s happening around us.
And this is precisely what Abraham experienced right after the angel of God told him to not sacrifice Isaac. He raised his eyes to see, but he had to look to be able to see the ram. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson says that the ram that Abraham sacrificed had probably been there the whole time, but he couldn’t see it because he was trapped inside his psyche and had abandoned hope that his son could be saved (Passing Life’s Tests, 29). Raising his eyes simply was not enough: he had to look more deeply within his surroundings to notice the ram.
The Mussar tradition, which is a Jewish spiritual practice dedicated to the cultivation of positive character traits, also has us think about different levels of seeing in spiritual terms. In the Mussar classic Duties of the Heart, we are instructed to contemplate God’s wisdom and one-ness by contemplating the universe at ever-deepening levels. We begin with contemplating each individual element of which the Universe is composed. Then we contemplate how these individual elements come together to create the whole. And then we contemplate the whole, now understanding that each of the elements of the Universe come together in an orderly and useful way according to a larger Divine wisdom. The author of this text, Bahya Ibn Paquda, compares this to a house: each part ultimately comes together to create an impressive, unified whole, showing the talent and wisdom of the one who built it. Ibn Paquda is saying that if we are to truly understand the universe, we can’t simply look at each part. We have to look at the deeper reality contained within the culmination of these parts if we are to truly understand the spiritual reality we live in. We may just see flowers or trees or rivers, but we need to look harder so we can see the unity and wisdom underlying our whole world.
Pushing ourselves to see a reality beyond what’s immediately discernible is both not obviously valuable and extremely difficult, which is precisely why our tradition asks us to do it. For me, this is particularly difficult in this political moment. Each morning I read the news and the story it tells is of things going from bad to worse. Our world descending deeper and deeper into climate change. Immigrants and asylum-seekers receiving worse and worse treatment, being seen with less and less compassion for the plight from which they flee. The legitimacy of Democratic institutions like the press, a crucial mechanism for transparency and accountability, eroding. And the list goes on. This narrative makes it is so easy for me to see the inevitable collapse of democracy, of reaching a point where the values of human dignity, compassion, and fairness are so undermined that they make absolutely no claims on us and those who run this country. This worst case scenario is very easy for me to see.
Yet as we have seen, our tradition asks us to look at reality much more deeply than this. It asks us to look beyond our first perceptions, and to look for a fundamentally more multi-dimensional story about our reality than our fears and the news cycle would have us tell. And it does this precisely so that we do not see destruction and suffering as the only possible future. In the Talmud, in Pesachim 116a, parents are instructed to tell their children about the Exodus story, and to tell the story about being a progression from degradation to liberation and freedom. In another part of the Talmud, in Berakhot 31a, the early Prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel are lauded for having ended all of their exhortations of the Israelites with words of praise and consolation. There is a legend that when someone would tell Rebbe Nachman, one of the greatest Chassidic masters, a sad or distressing story, he would re-tell it to them as a more hopeful story, full of possibilities. Our tradition is asking us to sit with our stories of suffering and transgression, but not to let that be the end of the story. It asks us to tell the story of destruction and despair, but to lift up the possibility of redemption and salvation nonetheless.
This is the way the writer and social commentator Rebecca Solnit talks about what it means for us to have hope in our times: “Hope does not mean denying [the hard realities] around us. It means facing them and addressing them by remembering what else the twenty-first century has brought, including the movements, heros, and shifts in consciousness that address these things now…[Hope] is an account of complexities, and uncertainties, with openings” (pg xii).
The key to holding our experiences of suffering with a sense of possibility involves both a deeper looking at the present, and complex recollection of the past. Solnit explains this way of looking at the present by comparing it to how mushrooms grow. After a rain, mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth seemingly suddenly. Yet, we know that many sprout from a vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown. This natural dynamic is like the long-term organizing and movement building happening right now, as well as the intellectual and cultural work of writers, scholars, scientists and activists that are starting to give rise to a better future. This includes the vast sanctuary network which provides support for undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers and resists our worst immigration policies, and which is poised to use this deep cooperative network of solidarity for bigger things as our times may call for. This also includes the #MeToo movement, which relentlessly exposes instance after instance of sexual assault, demanding that we have a national conversation about sexism. And this also includes the incredible work of the scientific community, which has been at the forefront of tackling climate change, doing everything from developing renewable energy technology to working hard on climate change adaptation.
These are our present strengths, the networks growing beneath us and surfacing after the hard rain. They are part of the hopeful, insistent story we can tell about ourselves. And a nuanced recollection of the past adds to this sense of possibility. It would be possible to tell a story of the past that was nothing but defeats and injustices, but instead we can tell a story that includes the worst and the best, the grief and suffering but also the liberation and jubilation and the possibility of change. The past 50 years was a time when being queer was illegal and gay bars were raided, when rivers across the country would catch fire because corporate pollution was unregulated, when nonconsensual sex in a marriage wasn’t considered rape. But it was also a time when people organized to end apartheid, passed the Civil Rights Act, established Medicare and Medicaid, got healthcare and medicine for those suffering from AIDS, established environmental regulation on industry, and so much more. A hopeful story includes all of this.
And the more we tell of a past that was different from the present, the more we can understand that the future does not have to be like the present. Before the economic policies of the Reagan Administration, homelessness was barely a problem in the United States. Before 1986, people did not face mandatory minimum sentences for possession of a certain amount of drugs, which is one of the factors that has led to the mass incarceration of people of color in this country. We have to understand that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, did not exist 15 years ago. ICE was born from the political response to 9/11, when Congress voted to establish the Department of Homeland Security. Whereas anything to do with immigration before this was under the jurisdiction of the Justice Department and the Treasury Department, now all immigration matters, including ICE, came under the jurisdiction of this new national security agency, sending the message that immigration of any kind, with or without documents, was a national threat. And with the creation of ICE came a new, aggressive policy of removal of undocumented immigrants, not only of those who have committed crimes but the removal of parents, sick kids, domestic violence victims, and younger immigrants with temporary protection through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. Things did not have to go this way, and therefore they do not have to stay this way in the future.
The more we cultivate the capacity to see this multidimensional reality, one of problems and suffering but with openings and possibility, the more we can cultivate hope and the capacity to keep working for the kind of world we want to live in. And the less we are either entirely pessimistic or even entirely optimistic, believing that things are doomed or things are bound to be fine, the more we can understand that our efforts to achieve a better future really matter, even if we aren’t exactly sure how the future will turn out. It is this uncertainty that can allow us to be hopeful, that can give us the motivation to keep taking action, for as long as it takes. In Solnit’s words again: “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes- you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others…[Hope] is the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone” (pg xiv).
We read a Talmudic story in Makkot 24b about four sages, Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva who were travelling together to Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. They came to Jerusalem, and beheld its desolation. Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria, and Rabbi Yehoshua tore their clothes and wept, but Rabbi Akiva laughed. “Why are you laughing?”, the sages asked Rabbi Akiva, “How could you laugh at such destruction?”. Rabbi Akiva said: “I am laughing because just I saw before my eyes the fulfillment of the terrible words of the prophet Uriah, ‘Zion is plowed over like a desolate field’, so too will I see the fulfillment of the comforting words of the prophet Zechariah, ‘Once again the aged will rest in the broad avenues of Jerusalem.’ If our worst fears can come true, so too can our greatest hopes.”
When Abraham raised his eyes, he didn’t happen to see the ram in the bushes to replace his son as a sacrifice, he was looking for it. And as he looked at the ram, he came to understand a deeper truth about reality than he had ever perceived: that we live in a world that is violent and destructive, but with the possibility of redemption, if we look for it. That in life we are constantly on the brink of destruction and salvation at the same time, and in that uncertainty, we can live a life dedicated to moving us closer and closer to salvation. And, that when we learn to truly look, a whole new well of hope and opportunity opens up to us.
This episode comes to a close with Abraham naming the mountain where he sacrificed the ram “Adonai Yireh”, “God will see”, because on this mountain, the verse says, there will be a vision of the Divine. May we be blessed with the wisdom and vision of Abraham to look deeply within our complex and uncertain reality, enabling us to dedicate our lives to the future we want to see.
This piece of #TorahForTheResistance is written by Mimi Micner. She is a fifth year Rabbinical Student at Hebrew College, as well as an activist, organizer, and teacher of Torah.