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D'var Torah: Rosh Hashanah II

Our parashah includes the story of the binding of Isaac (Bereishit 22) and that’s what I will comment on. Many have wrestled with it and now here I am.

I’ve often wondered what kind of request is it from G-d to ask for Abraham’s child? What kind of G-d would ask that? What kind of morality is behind this?

To explore the question, suspend the idea of a single G-d as a supreme being. That is, to understand the story I am suggesting we must undo what the story has done. This not only derives from my own ideas of G-d roughly as the truth within us that unites us, but suspending monotheism leads to some provocative interpretations of biblical stories.

If G-d isn’t a single entity, then what is G-d? Interestingly, there are multiple answers in the multiple names of G-d. And I interpret the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:1–19) as a contest between two conceptions, and names, for G-d: YHVH—that which cannot be named, and Elohim, the name for G-ds, angels, spirits, idols (Etz Hayim, p. 1017: first commandment).

The two terms essentially emerge at different points in the Torah and have different literary uses, and potentially distinguish between different authors of the Torah. First, YHVH symbolically is first spoken to Moses as part of the indication that Moses knows the real name of G-d like no other (although YHVH is used earlier in a few sporadic points—Etz Hayim, p. 1501; e.g., Genesis 4:26). From a literary perspective, YHVH is associated with the oldest source of stories in the Torah, especially stories in the kingdom of Judah. In contrast, Elohim is associated with stories about the northern tribes, of which Ephraim was the most important (Etz Hayim, p. 1501).

In some sense YHVH is the more intimate G-d and Elohim the more public, or common G-d—YHVH cannot be pronounced directly, and so must be understood internally, while Elohim has a plural ending. More broadly, I take YHVH as the G-d of internal conscience (the truth within us), while Elohim is the G-d of community, nation building (that which unites us).

By suspending monotheism and a supreme being perhaps you could accuse me of sacrificing the essence of the story. But I believe my interpretation is true to Abraham’s historical context. The people of the time needed proof of G-d’s existence because they didn’t believe in a supreme being, and, if Abraham is credited with the concept of monotheism, then he must have lived in a time when this was not the norm. Furthermore, if there was polytheism, then even if people of the day believed that G-d could be a supreme being then this would have been only one conceptualization of G-d, making reasonable the opening premise to consider multiple conceptualizations of G-d other than as a supreme being.

I have not conducted an exhaustive search and interpretation of every use of YHVH and Elohim in the Torah, but the buildup to, and the story of, the Binding of Isaac offers important examples of my interpretations, I think. In particular, it is to YHVH, the internal G-d, that Abraham and Sarah pray for a child (Genesis 16), while it is with Elohim that the covenant is made (Genesis 17).

While the distinction between conceptualizations is fairly abstract, they are clearly manifest in the voices Abraham hears. At the beginning of the story, which G-d asks for Abraham to sacrifice his child? It is Elohim. It is Elohim who tells him where to go to conduct the sacrifice. It is Elohim that represents the nation he must build. It is Elohim, us, his descendants, who ask that he dedicate his offspring so that we may have the Jewish nation, culture, and religion that we have today. So now we have one answer to our question—what kind of G-d asks for the sacrifice of a child? It is the G-d of the community and nation that must be built, it is what we ask of our ancestors and each other. And Abraham, is quickly willing to oblige—“here am I,” he says, and then is methodical in fulfilling the request (in three days he makes lots of preparations).

And what is the name for G-d when Isaac is spared? It is YHVH, the intimate, personal G-d. The final voice to which Abraham responds, “Here am I.” The G-d of self. And what does this voice say? “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear G-d.”

But which conceptualization of G-d does YHVH recognize that Abraham fears? Elohim. YHVH recognizes the importance of respecting Elohim. This fusion occurs through a neutral angel who calls Abraham not once, but twice. [Chanted:] “Avraham, Avraham.” Why twice? Is Abraham hard of hearing or slow to respond? No. I would say because it is both voices calling at once.

Thus this story can be read as an attempt to resolve the fundamental tensions between two conceptions, voices, and names of G-d. YHVH, the internal voice, the conscience, ultimately must win out (the mountain top is named after YHVH, not Elohim), but only because YHVH, recognizes the need to heed the plural voice of the community. How much must Abraham, and we, be willing to sacrifice for the community? Everything, right down to our children, until it conflicts with our internal voice for G-d, our conscience.

Before going on to practical importance, I want to make three more comments on the resolution of the two voices or names of G-d. First, both are fundamentally important for fulfillment of the covenant to build a nation. For how can one have a nation if members of that nation do not respect one another, and are not willing to sacrifice for one another? But, on the other hand, how can one have a nation if the members of that nation do not succeed as individuals and are guided by conscience?

Second, the resolution of the voices is part of the fundamental value of the story in particular, and Torah, in general. That is, we should engage interpretation of the different voices instead of treating them like some historically cobbled together deception that has been uncovered by contemporary scholars. For if the voices should really be considered distinct, who wrote this story? Thus the story is resilient, and perhaps stronger, as a result of our willingness to strike at what we believe is its very essence.

Third, in an aspect of Judaism that I savor, the tension between the two voices is resolved in the morality of the here and now; there is a third voice that Abraham responds to with henane, “here am I,” and it is Isaac’s question about where is the animal for sacrifice. Thus whatever concepts of G-d Abraham holds, whatever voices he hears or has heard, whatever promises have been made, there is his child’s voice, yanking him into the present of the here and now. “Father, here am I, your child, in the flesh, walking with you, for whom you have prayed. Can you do this to me, father?”

Now turn this interpretation to our understanding of moral behavior. First, the story adds considerable depth to our understanding of sin. Abraham, answering quickly and directly to the highest of voices, was about to commit the greatest sin one can imagine! (Imagine sitting next to Abraham on Kol Nidre if he had gone through with it). His is not the simple sin of wickedness or temporary transgression. His would have been a sin born of ambiguous, irreconcilable demands. Thus if Abraham can sin out of the greatest of motivations, then so can we in our daily lives as we try to reconcile the demands of self and community. We cannot help but sin, not because misguided Adam ate an apple, but because with knowledge we see there are no clear resolutions. We have sinned before, and we will sin again as we encounter the same fundamental tensions of self and community. And so we must atone, make amends, so that we may move on.

Second, when we atone on Yom Kippur, we are guided by G-d as internal conscience, by YHVH. But recall that YHVH demands respect for Elohim. We must consider how our actions have affected others and direct our confession to those others. Interestingly, the Kol Nidre confession is in the form of us, as Elohim.

Third, perhaps the fundamental sin was Elohim’s request. Who is this G-d, of the community, representing us, the nation to be built, to ask for the sacrifice of a child? And who are we to ask so much of our neighbors, community members, synagogue members? But maybe, as Elohim, we have a right to ask. It is how nations get built. But we must recognize that individuals have a right to refuse when it comes to the preservation of their legacy. And so we come to moral guidelines for nation and community building. And that, to me, is divine.

Fourth, perhaps the most relevant for me at the moment, is this: Concerns about the source and spiritual guidance of G-d are penultimate. In the story, what ultimately reconciles the voices is attendance to the child. How do you build a nation and adhere to your own conscience? Raise a child, a good child. Nicole and I are doing our best.

—Ken Frank
Tishrei 5766 (2005)

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