The Akeidah, a method for our daily lives
Please refer to Bereishit (Genesis) Chapter 22:1-19 for the main text of the Akeidah
Now, if you find yourself in a position in which your only child is to be the start of a 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 model of the Akeidah to our daily lives? The Akeidah is a process, albeit one which is presented in its most extreme form, and has a formula to it. We can identify the roles of the three main players involved and determine what is the method of this formula. 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 and has direct insight/communication with G-d. Isaac is the object of sacrifice: that which is to be brought up as an offering to G-d. And, G-d is, well, G-d. In the interest of keeping theological debates of ‘G-d’ 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 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 place of Abraham, the doer on earth going about life. in the place of 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. What then is the object of sacrifice? Anything. Whatever we do, think, or feel – any experience of life for that matter – is designed to be made an offering. What is very important, as is demonstrated in the story, is that Hashem really had no intention of having Isaac killed. Hashem initiated the process and also stopped it. This implies that Isaac was meant to be kept alive the whole time. The only difference now is that in his being returned to us after our willingness to let go. Abraham offers Isaac out of love and service to G-d, and it is from love and service that Isaac is ‘returned’ to Abraham. Isaac is hence consecrated as a blessing, that of genuine love and service meriting the blessings of sustenance, prosperity and eternity. Surrender to a higher power, of sorts, or something like that…
If Abraham were to withhold his son, and not bring him up, then what would he get? He would get mortality. And, as we unfortunately know, mortality is finite. It is birth, existence, and death. In fear of giving up his son, there would be no blessing of eternity. 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, that I expect the angel would not be sent to stop the knife. Yet in life is also the possibility of eternity. Life itself is a blessing and it takes the willingness to give up our attachments to the ephemeral for the sake of the qualities which are of the eternal – namely: love, kindness, compassion, justice, forgiveness, etc. These ‘qualities of the eternal’ provide eternal sustenance. Love, and the experience of love, expressed in this way goes beyond time and finite existence. It can be experienced on many levels. The subject, by means of the object, merges into unity with life as a blessing through this process of transformation.
And 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? Well, we are told at the beginning of the story that this is a test. And what is being tested? Integrity. From this story we learn that if we really love something then we are to love it genuinely and with honesty. What is really being sacrificed in many ways is our vanities – our ego and our attachments to pleasure/aversion to pain. Too often we love out of the wrong reasons, or it is mixed. In order to establish our love in purity we are to make it an offering – to present it to G-d with the purest of hearts out of the purest love, in order that we be established in the ways of Hashem. The sacrifice is our vanity, the offering is our love, ‘Isaac.’
For example, let us use the context of a loving long term relationship to demonstrate the process here. How do we make our relationship as an offering? First, we can establish what qualities G-d would want from us in our relationship: truth, honesty, working through difficulty with patience and compassion, kindness, love, warmth of heart, connecting to the bigger picture, etc… These are the qualities that make our relationships an expression of G-d, and which make them sustainable and beautiful. But, as we know, relationships can get complicated and a lot of negative stuff can get in the way: dishonesty, bad communication, settling for a comfort that blinds truth, loving for the wrong reasons such as money etc. If these negative aspects begin to grow then it will be increasingly difficult for the relationship to succeed. The relationship can be ‘put on the altar’ so to speak in order to cleanse it, to purify it. Anything detrimental is to be sacrificed, anything of sustenance is to be made an offering. G-d is at the center of it all, and when we connect to that sense of offering-as-devotion then it simultaneously brings the love to the surface and destroys the obstacles. The active manifestation of putting the relationship on the altar can take a few forms but they involve doing the honest work: speaking openly from the heart (and not getting upset), taking the time to connect to that loving place, etc.
Another example is of a musician playing music. A musician can make the offering of the music. What does G-d want from playing music? It would be to communicate the message of the music and express it to people: joy, love, bliss, sadness, conceptual ideas, etc… For the music to be conveyed in purity it must be done with integrity. The musician is to sacrifice his/her own ego attachments – how do I look? Who am I impressing with my skill? What will this do for my career? – in order for the message and meaning of the music to be conveyed sincerely and with love. As we know, there is a lot of vain music out there! Discerning music listeners want to make the connection with the music – there is to be heart, there is to be soul, and there is to be artistic concept. By the musician making the music itself an offering it then has the capability to reach the Highest of heights.
An important thing to remember again is that the example of the Akeidah in the Torah is in its most extreme form. Yet in this form we learn that there is a 1:1 relationship between the task at hand and the blessing which is given as a result. Abraham was told that he was to be the father of a great lineage for the rest of eternity. For this lineage to be established in purity then it makes sense that the test would have to come with those daunting stakes. 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.
An essential component in this process is faith. The whole point is that we don’t know the outcome, whether our ‘object of sacrifice’ will live on or not, that is, live on as an offering or instead be a sacrifice. The idea is the PROCESS, that of the willingness to “not withhold;” it is the willingness to bring the object up as an offering to that which is of the ideals representing sustenance, eternity, and prosperity. When in moments of 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, but I can trust that if I maintain true to ideals of what is of love, 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 required and is what will lead through to the other side. In this way, the Akeidah presents a model which we can apply to the experience of our daily life: subject, object, release. It 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 in “not withholding” by which the subject and object are transformed and unified in that which is of the expression of offering – love, a blessing.