The story of the Binding of Isaac, known in Hebrew as the Akeidah, is rife with religious-ethical issues that dominate the discussion of it. While these issues are important in their own right, the study of the biblical narrative itself has lost out as a result. This is especially unfortunate for two reasons. First, the Akeidah is no less rich in its narrative complexity than any other Torah story, and probably more so. Second, a full, proper understanding of the text itself is probably necessary to grasp and comprehend the religious and philosophical message the Torah is teaching us through the story. In this short article we will focus on one aspect of the narrative generally ignored, which may have implications for the wider religious issues embedded in the story.
Our sages disagree as to the age of Isaac at the time of the binding. The Ibn Ezra is of the opinion that Isaac was a mere child. His approach is widely taken for granted. The Midrash, however, assumes Isaac was 37 years old. Rashi sides with the Midrash on this matter.
The primary difference between these two approaches is whether Isaac was a willing participant as an adult, or just a child blindly following his father, or perhaps even forced against his will. This difference is of great importance. But there is another important matter on which there is no real difference as to whether Isaac was seven or 37. The bulk of his life was before him. He had not yet married or had children, and his personal development as an independent being had not yet taken place. All this is true regardless of whether Isaac was 37 or a child.
The Torah tells us that as Abraham and Isaac walked together to the mountaintop, Isaac asks, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the young sheep for the sacrifice?” Abraham elusively responds that God will see to it that we have a young sheep. Even after Abraham has been commanded not to sacrifice or even blemish Isaac, the young sheep does not appear. It is a ram, the male adult version of a sheep, whose horns have become entwined in a thicket, and cannot free itself, that is taken by Abraham to be sacrificed.
The ram is sacrificed in place of Isaac, and throughout the Midrash is seen to represent Isaac himself. God wants our dedication, and even our ultimate devotion, but only through living a full and fulfilling life. It is only when one’s “horns” have been completely neutralized, effectively representing inability to continue as a functioning being, that God receives our actual lives as an offering. As long as we continue to live, God demands that we live a life dedicated to Him rather than sacrificing our life to Him. God does not want us to sacrifice ourselves as sheep. God wants us to mature and become rams, and to use our “horns “and the whole of our essence to live full lives dedicated to His ways.
Just as the sheep-ram discrepancy must be studied and honed for meaning, so should every other detail of the Akeidah text. It is only by doing so that we will eventually get a better understanding of this biblical episode.
Originally posted on Ha’Am, UCLA’s Jewish Newsmagazine