The Akeidah, a method for our daily lives
Please refer to Bereishit (Genesis) Chapter 22:1-19 for the source text
Now, if you find yourself in a position in which your only child is to be the start of an ethno-religious lineage for all eternity then I imagine the literal events of the Akedah might be applicable to you. But, for pretty much all of us, this is very very unlikely to be the case. So, instead, how do we apply the structural model of the Akeidah to our daily lives? The Akeidah is a process, albeit one which is presented in its most extreme form, and one which has a formula to it. To determine the functional application of this formula, a starting point is to identify the three main characters involved and to note the attributes they represent as well as the roles they play. In no particular order: Abraham is the doer, the subject, the one here on earth living life as we know it; he happens to be very spiritually aware (to put it mildly) and has direct insight/communication with G-d. Isaac is the object of ‘sacrifice’: that which is to be “brought up as an offering” (Gen. 22:2) to G-d. And, G-d is, well, G-d; in the interest of keeping theological debates to a minimum here (it is off topic from the point of this essay), let us say, for now, that the notion of G-d refers to an eternal force – biological and/or spiritual – which sustains humankind, has sustained humankind, and will continue to sustain humankind; this force is universal since it is the same for all humans regardless of time and place.
In this formula, Abraham can be regarded as representing ‘us’: me/you. We can put our ‘self’ in the role of Abraham, the doer on earth going about life. In the figurative substitution for Isaac, we can put anything that is to be ‘sacrificed’, that which is to be ‘brought up’ and transformed into a blessing by Hashem (a.k.a. G-d in Jewish parlance). Hashem we keep the same. Abraham offers Isaac out of love and service to G-d, and it is from love and service that Isaac is ‘returned’ to Abraham. This climactic resolution ultimately comes about through Abraham’s willingness to “not withhold” (Gen. 22:12, 22:16). (The phrase “not withhold” has very different implications than its parallel term in contemporary Western culture, ‘to let go’, as in, ‘if you love something than let it go.’ The Akeidah is concerned with a ‘not withholding’ rather than a ‘letting go.’) Isaac is hence consecrated as a blessing – one of genuine love and service – meriting sustenance, prosperity and eternity (Gen. 22:16-18). The events of the Akeidah, as are explicitly stated by the text at the beginning of the story, are a “test” (Gen 22:1). How often do we as individuals feel ‘tested’ by events in our real lives?
This brings us to the paradox which is at the crux of the story: why must Abraham be willing to sacrifice his son out of love for G-d because doesn’t that sound crazy and why would G-d want that? Again, this example of the Akeidah in the Torah is in a most extreme form. Yet in this form we learn that there is a 1:1 relationship between the offering and the blessing which is given as a result – Abraham’s “only son” (Gen 22:2) equates to “seed as [numerous as] the stars of Heaven” (Gen. 22:17). For this lineage to be established in purity it makes sense that the test would have to come with such equally daunting stakes. And what is being tested? Integrity. In ‘our’ case, we probably won’t need to make that literal sacrifice of our only son, but we are continually and regularly tested on the integrity of our love in all that we do in every way. Perhaps this is the reason for this story happening so early in the legacy of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. It is foremost in our way of infusing our active life on earth with the presence of ‘Divinity’ from on High.
If Abraham were to have withheld his son, and not bring him up, then what would have happened? Isaac would not have been imbued with the lineage blessing. Similarly if Abraham’s intentions for bringing up his son had been in vain, i.e. his devotion to Hashem coming from a place of ego or self-interest, then I expect the angel would not have been sent to stop the knife. This is the concept of ‘sacrifice’ – sacrificing one’s ‘attachments’ (the possessive notion implied in “withholding”) in favor of the ‘greater good’ or the ‘bigger picture’ or any underlying qualities of selfless love, compassion, kindness, etc. Similarly, the act of making the sacrifice is not to be for a purpose of ’reward’ or ‘personal gain’ – it is to be of complete selfless devotion. Again, the overall purpose is not of sacrifice but of “bringing up”: to make manifest the qualities of Hashem – love, eternity, grace – as expressed by the subject through that of the object.
A central component in this process is FAITH. With faith, the emphasis is the PROCESS, that of the willingness to “not withhold.” When in moments of our being ‘tested,’ an aspect of the Akeidah teaches us to say: “I don’t know what will come of this, and even right or wrong is not clear to me (e.g. “…on one of the heights that I will show you” [Gen. 22:2] though not the specific location), but I can trust that if I maintain true to positive ideals and the essence of mitzvot (i.e. our intuitive selfless devotion to the qualities of Hashem – a universal life force surpassing time and space), making possessions/feelings/thoughts be of an ‘offering,’ then the path will open up to me, and I will have perspective from there.” For this process to happen successfully, when confronting the unknown, faith is essential. In this way, the Akeidah presents a model which we can apply to the experience of our daily life: subject, object, release. This process is relevant to external matters (understanding circumstances and events) as well as internal matters (resolving emotions and thoughts). It is from the act of making the object an offering through “not withholding” by which the subject and object are transformed and unified in that which is at the core of the “test” – love, a reciprocated blessing.