The Binding of Isaac: A New Interpretation
Family Edition

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The Summary

This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks.

Avraham and Sarah, after many years of waiting, finally receive God’s promise of a child. And not just any child, but the one who will help fulfil the promise that their descendants would be as uncountable as stars in the sky. And yet, they continue to wait and a child still does not come. So Sarah suggests that Avraham have a child with her handmaid Hagar, resulting in the birth of Yishmael. God, however, clarifies that Yishmael is not the child He spoke of in His earlier promise. Indeed, despite Sarah’s old age, God soon tells her that her own son, Yitzchak, will be born the following year. This comes to pass, filling Sarah and Avraham with immense joy and gratitude. Finally they have their own child.

It is therefore startlingly when God commands Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchak. Avraham obeys, journeying for three days to Har Moriah, the mountain on which Yitzchak would be sacrificed. Just as Avraham is about to carry out the act, an angel intervenes, sparing Yitzchak and informing Avraham that it is all a test - a test he has passed. The trial is over.

It is the climax of Avraham’s life, the supreme test of faith, and a pivotal moment in Jewish history. Yet, this story raises unsettling questions. Why does God nearly retract His gift, the gift of Yitzchak, from Avraham and Sarah? Why does Avraham, who argues with God about justice in the story of Sodom and Amorah, not protest this seemingly cruel command?

There are many different interpretations of this story; Kierkegaard’s for example, explains that the story highlights Avraham’s unwavering love for God. Rav Soloveitchik suggests, by contrast, that it illustrates how we sometimes must accept defeat, surrendering our deepest loves and desires to the will of God.

However, Rabbi Sacks suggests a different perspective The Torah is strongly against child sacrifice -  a practice associated with pagan rituals. It is described as being abhorrent to God. So why did God ask this of Avraham? And how can Avraham’s willingness to sacrifice Yitzchak be seen as a commendable act?

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To understand this, we must consider overarching themes in the Torah. Firstly, that God owns the land of Israel. This is why He can command the return of property to its original owners in the Jubilee year, as stated in Vayikra 25:2.

Secondly, ever since God liberated the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt, they are His servants, not to be enslaved by others.

Lastly, everything in the universe ultimately belongs to God, which is why we say brachot before we enjoy any part of it. These principles establish God’s legal and moral authority.

In ancient times, children were deemed the property of their parents, leading to practices like child sacrifice. The Torah vehemently opposes this, seeking to establish that children belong to God, not their parents. Parents are mere guardians.

The Akeidah serves as a dramatic assertion of this revolutionary idea. It is a wake-up call to all parents. Indeed, Yitzchak’s miraculous birth already sets him apart, and this story underscores the lesson that children are not property. The story of the first Jewish child establishes a rule that applies to all Jewish children. God creates space between parent and child, because only when that space exists do children have the room to grow up as independent individuals.

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Around the Shabbat Table

  1. What is the difference between being a guardian and being an owner? 
  2. What are some ways a parent can support their child in developing their religious faith, while becoming independent thinkers?
  3. When is your faith in God tested? What helps you stay strong and committed in times like these?
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Parsha in Passing

In Vayera, we see Avraham’s extraordinary kindness, hospitality, and family challenges. First he and Sarah are visited by three angels disguised as men, and they swiftly provide them with food and comfort despite Avraham’s recent brit milah. While entertaining these guests, they receive three crucial messages: the promise of a son named Yitzchak, the news of the impending punishment for Sodom and Amorah, and a blessing for Avraham’s swift recovery.

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Deeply concerned, Avraham boldly negotiates with God in an effort to save the cities, showcasing his strong sense of justice. Despite his efforts, Sodom is destroyed, although Lot and his daughters are led out just in time.

Family life is not all plain sailing this week. We follow Sarah’s decision to expel Hagar and Yishmael from the family, and the ultimate test of faith: the Akeidah.

Avraham follows the instructions to sacrifice his son due to his devotion to God, yet Yitzchak’s life is ultimately spared, demonstrating God’s mercy and the sanctity of human life.

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Parsha People

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Avraham: The father of all, the paradigm of monotheism, and a supreme host.

Sarah: Hostess extraordinaire with a sense of humour. And a young mother in her old age.

Yitzchak: A miracle, the future, a promise, a sacrifice no longer.

Three Angels: The Melachim who appear in disguise, they are visitors with messages of utmost importance.

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Parsha Philosophy

One key theme this week is humility. Think about it this way: Hashem owns the world. He created it all and He therefore - in a sense - owns the people, the animals, and all living things. Hashem can demand anything of Avraham. Anything! And what does He ask of His most committed follower? Child sacrifice. Is God like all other pagan gods, making the same demands of the powerful over the weak?

Of course not. At a dramatic moment in the story, God demonstrates the exact opposite: He calls on Avraham to stop. To celebrate life and show mercy.

This abrupt pivot is meant to shake us out of our complacency. God is indeed the Owner of all. And it is also God who tasks us with the lifelong mission to preserve and celebrate life. Parents cannot offer their children to the gods, Rabbi Sacks explains, because they don’t own their children. The story of Akeidat Yitzchak reminds us that God is in charge of all life. And with that ownership, He commands us to be moral exemplars for our nation and the nations around us too.

During dark days, many of us feel helpless and even in doubt. Yet, God is always there, and He continues to task us with being the beacons of light in the world. To question immoral practices, to stand up for what is right, and to raise children with a moral compass guided by the Torah - showing compassion and humanity to others, and service to God.

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Parsha Playoff

Let’s play “Fantasy Feasts”. First, someone is chosen as announcer. One at a time, each of the other players whisper the name of their secret guest (celebrity, real-life person, historical figure, fictional character etc.) to the announcer.

The announcer must then remember and announce all guests. “Tonight for dinner we have...” After all guests have been introduced, the ‘hosts’ take turns guessing who each person invited to the dinner party. For instance, a player might try, “Sarah, did you invite Albert Einstein?” If the guess is correct, the person whose guest was revealed is ‘out’ and the correct guesser can guess again. The game continues until all the hosts have been correctly matched to their guests.

Pro tip: this game is best with 5-7 people. For a larger group, look up the game ‘Empire’. (This version needs to be prepared ahead of Shabbat).

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Parsha Practical

In line with Rabbi Sacks’ profound interpretation of the Akeidah, it’s important to remember that while we can’t always know the reason behind a good or bad event in our lives, we can have faith in God that He is the ultimate provider and protector of our world. Additionally, as modelled by Avraham, one of the ways that we ourselves can gain a sense of control and feel strengthened during challenging times is through active participation in the community around us. Avraham showed hospitality for his guests and compassion for Lot despite unprecedentedly tough times in his family life. Amidst his pain, extended himself to others. And he is our role-model.

Practically, how can we follow his lead? Notice others. Consider taking on a volunteer opportunity. Whether it’s finding ways to raise funds to send to Israel, or looking inwards to your local community and spending some time at a soup kitchen, use your strengths and find an opportunity to spread kindness in the world.

Sometimes, a simple act of reaching out can make a significant difference. By checking in on a relative, friend, or neighbour, especially those who might be elderly or feeling alone, we are extending our support and ensuring that no one in our community is isolated or forgotten.

This small gesture reflects Avraham’s compassion and attentiveness to those around him, helping to strengthen the bonds within our community.

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Parsha Parable

The Gentleman at JFK

In Vayera, Avraham showed compassion to Lot despite their differences, and Avraham and Sarah invited three strangers into their homes - despite Avraham feeling unwell, and their own sorrow over not having their own family to host. We still have so much to learn about the quiet kindnesses we can demonstrate every day in the name of Judaism and God, but the more we practise, the more we can flex this muscle.

One recent story epitomises the kindness of one person to his people. Less than one week into the ongoing war in Israel - Operation Iron Swords - hundreds of thousands of reserve soldiers were called up to defend their country. Included in that number? Thousands of people who were abroad, and needed to suddenly make the trek back to Israel. However, flying to Israel, especially from somewhere far away like the United States, is not without costs. Tickets, on average, can hit the thousand-dollar range. And this is where one stranger’s kindness and presence of mind stands out.

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We do not know his name. He intentionally remained anonymous. What we do know is that a Charedi man brought his credit card to the ticket counter at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport and, quietly, without fanfare, paid for the flights of 250 reservists flying back to Israel.

250 tickets is a staggering amount of money. Hundreds of thousands of dollars, at least! But he insisted on supporting his people in their fight for their homeland. Chessed, showing kindness to others, is one of our most powerful weapons.

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Parsha Puzzle

Question: Noach’s son Shem had a son called Arpachshad (Look him up in Bereishit chapter 11). What did Yitzchak and Arpachshad have in common?

Answer: Yitzchak and Arpachshad were both born to 100-year-old fathers. Shem was 100 when Arpachshad was born (see Bereishit 11:10). Avraham was 100 when Yitzchak was born (Bereishit 21:5).

This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1,500 Torah riddles, available on Amazon.

Covenant & Conversation Family Edition

Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.

With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.

“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks

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