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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

Parshat Toldot – The Akedah – A Radical Reinterpretation

Posted by rabbiart on November 20, 2014

Our Parshah opens with this verse.   וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק, בֶּן-אַבְרָהָם:  אַבְרָהָם, הוֹלִיד אֶת-יִצְחָק  or in the English (Robert Alter translation). “And this is the lineage of Isaac the son of Abraham, Abraham begot Isaac”. See Breshit 22:19

There are only two places in the Tanach where the word “Abraham” occurs in succession.  The other instance is at the end of the Akedah, in the moment when Abraham has lifted the knife to slay his only son – not counting Ishmael, that is.

In every case where HaShem (or HaShem’s designated representative) calls upon Abraham to respond, he responds promptly with Hineni.  Literally translated the word means “here I am”, but it should be understood as “I am ready”.  In only one instance does Abraham not respond when he hears his name being called; when he knows that the act he must now perform is to slaughter Isaac upon the temporary altar he has just built.

Why is Abraham’s name called out twice in this moment?   Is it as simple as ‘so the angel called his name twice, what’s the big deal with that?’.  This interpretation is not possible, because we are taught that every letter, much moreso every word, in the Torah is deliberately and consciously placed, and therefore laden with meaning. So we must look for clues in this verse and in our verse from the Akedah – Breshit 22:11.

Reading the trope signs, in our Akedah verse, the second mention of “Abraham” appears on the etnachta which signals the mid-point of the verse.  Almost always, the etnachta is preceded by a mercha or a tipcha or some combination of the two.  In our verse, the first “Abraham” is cantillated not with either of those signs, but with a munach. Furthermore, in printed versions of the Tikun which Torah readers use to prepare their readings, a vertical bar is printed between the first and second “Abraham”s.  In other words, not the normal or expected Torah trope. Something is being indicated. There is some kind of break between the first and second “Abraham”.

The tradition tells us that Abraham was confronted with ten tests, all of which he passed.  The call to sacrifice his son is unquestionably the biggest and most difficult of all these tests.  And according to the plain meaning (pshat) of the text, Abraham passed the test because HaShem’s messenger angel proclaims (Alter’s translation again) “Do not reach out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him, for now I know that you fear God, and you have not held back your son, your only one, from Me.”

Any parent, hopefully any person, is horrified at the idea that Abraham would have been willing to kill his long-awaited, hoped for, prayed for son. And to go home to tell Isaac’s mother what he had done?  He would have been in the husband dog-house for the rest of his life.

I prefer a different interpretation, and if we have to “go to the midrash”, to justify it, then that’s what we have to do. I prefer to believe that – in colloquial terms – the sacrifice of Isaac was “never gonna happen”.  I prefer to believe that Abraham believed it was “never gonna happen”.  In every moment of the three days journey, Abraham must have been believing in, and looking for, a way out.  When the moment comes and his name is called, Abraham does not respond with Hineni! A second call-out is required. Only then does Abraham answer. And he hears that no sacrifice-your-child is required.

In our parshah, Abraham’s name again occurs twice in succession. In this case, the first “Abraham” is at the mid-point of the verse, cantillated with an etnachta. The second ‘Abraham’ is over a tipcha, because the meaning requires that the usual order of mercha, tipcha be reversed.

Our verse emphasizes the relationship of father and son.  Isaac is the son of Abraham, Abraham is the father (begot) Isaac.  This second repetition – Abraham, Abraham – is only possible because of the first. When chanting, or listening to the chanting of this verse, we hear a clear pause between the first and second “Abraham”. This is a critical clue.  It tells us that there was most definitely a pause between “Abraham” and “Abraham” at the ultimate moment of the Akedah.

Abraham kill his son?!?!

Never gonna happen.


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