Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple
Rabbi Dr. Raymond AppleCourtesy

The "Akedah" – the Binding of Isaac – is a 15-verse self-contained story with three main characters, God, Abraham, and Isaac.

The narrative is called the Binding of Isaac but it is prefaced by God applying a test *not to Isaac but to Abraham*. In some way Isaac has a bearing on the story but we are not certain why.

The traditional view is that the story is a test of Abraham’s faith, which somehow involves Isaac but we don’t know how.

Sigmund Freud suggests that it is not the patriarch’s faith in general which is on the agenda. Instead, says Freud, it is a test of Abraham’s attitude to his son. Does the father love his son – or hate him?

If we say Abraham deep down hates Isaac and is glad to see him killed, we can tentatively explain that their relationship is a sort of Oedipus complex.

If on the other hand we say that the father loves his son, the explanation could be that God wants to test how far Abraham is prepared to go for the sake of Isaac.

Some scholars think the point of the story is that Isaac has to die in order for Abraham to prove his love, and there are Midrashim that speak about Isaac’s death.

Jewish commentators, however, disagree and say that Isaac does not die and does not have to. Abraham can prove himself by the way he loves his son.



OFFSPRING

Like all Jewish parents, Abraham and Sarah wanted offspring.

It doesn’t always happen that a couple have children. In that case their immortality is cultural rather than biological.

Cultural continuity comes whether you have children or not, provided you work out your ideas and ideals and dedicate yourself to them. This self-dedication is generally the keynote of the eulogies that are given when you die.

You never find a sentence like "He had … number of cars, … houses, … dollars in the bank". A eulogy speaks of what kind of person you were.

If you had material possessions the eulogy asks whether you made your money ethically and how you used it for the benefit of the community.


WELCOMING THE STRANGER

A characteristic of the Patriarch Abraham was "hachnasat or’chim", hospitality to wayfarers. The rabbis say that observing this ethical commandment is so highly prized that even God is impressed (Talmud Shabbat 127a).

The Torah tells us that Abraham sat at the entrance of his tent to welcome wayfarers. When the Torah says "the entrance", our tradition says that there were actually four entrances so that anyone who came by could find a way in without having to walk round and round until he found the door.

And not even this was all that was organised for visitors’ convenience. Abraham did not sit passively at the entrance of his tent to await his visitors but he took the initiative. Seeing travellers in the distance he got up and ran to meet them.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple, AO RFD is Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem, where he publishes OzTorah, a weekly email list and website with Torah insights from an Australian perspective..