How Does God Really Feel About Child Sacrifice?
How Does God Really Feel About Child Sacrifice?
In the beginning of Parshat Re’eh, the Torah warns not to follow other gods that "we don’t know." Idolatry is prohibited, so why does it matter whether we "know” these other gods or not? Join Beth Lesch and Ami Silver as they re-examine the text and its parallels to Akeidat Yitzchak (Sacrifice of Isaac) and understand what it means to “know” God, and for God to “know” you.
Watch Rabbi Fohrman's in-depth course for more on the Sacrifice of Isaac.
Ami: And this is Ami Silver, writer at Aleph Beta.
Beth: And just a friendly reminder. If you have not yet subscribed to Parsha Lab, do it now. Remember to rate us five stars. Share us with friends and family. That's my PSA. Now, let's go on to the show. So Ami, today we're taking a look at Parashas Re'eh, in the Book of Deuteronomy and I want to start us in the third verse of the Parashah. Because as I was opening up this Parashah and reviewing it, I got stuck on this third verse and I want to talk it over with you and see what you think.
Ami: Okay. Cool. I'm excited with it.
Beth: So we're looking together at Chapter 11, Verse 28. Ami, can you go ahead and read that verse for us?
Asher Lo-YedatemAmi: Sure. "V'hakelalah, im lo tishme'u el mitzvot Hashem Elokeichem, v'sartem min haderech asher anochi metzaveh etchem hayom lalechet acharei elohim acheirim asher lo yedatem." And the curse will be if you do not listen to the commandments of your God and you stray from the path that I have commanded you on today, to walk after other gods whom or which you did not know.
Beth: Okay. Great. So just for context. What Moses has said so far here is, all right, guys, Sons of Israel, you have a choice. You can do the blessing thing or you can do the curse thing. You'll get the blessing if you follow God's ways, but you'll get a curse if you don't follow God's ways and, if instead, you follow other gods. What's most curious to me about Verse 28 is the last three words; "asher lo yedatem," that you have not known. Ami, if those three words hadn't been there would the verse be missing anything?
Ami: Not really, you know. It seems pretty straightforward. Only worship God, the one God and don't worship these other gods.
Beth: So what does the Torah mean to add by telling us do worship God, don't worship other gods that you haven't known. Why is it important that you haven't know them?
Ami: Well, you know, this is the first time I'm seeing it, but what comes to mind is that it seems to imply that the command to worship our God has something to with some kind of relationship we have with God or maybe our experiences with God, something like that.
Beth: So that was also my first instinct, but as I continued reading the Parashah, I think I came to an even deeper understanding of what this, "asher lo yedatem," that you have not known, might mean. Here's how I came to that understanding. It's because the next chapter of the Parashah, Chapter 12, reminded me very strongly of another earlier account in the Torah. When I read those two accounts together I saw that they illuminated one another in fascinating ways. I walked away with a deeper understanding of this "asher lo yedatem."
Ami: Okay. Awesome. I'm excited to see.
Beth: Great. Now, here's the caveat. I'm not saying what you often hear us saying here at Aleph Beta, that God is the great author of the Torah, intentionally embedded within this text are clues which irrefutably, undeniably link it to another text. I honestly don't know if there is enough evidence here to be persuaded of that. I'm on the fence about it, although I have been accused of being a tough critic before.
So at the end, Ami, you can tell me if you've been persuaded and I'm hoping our listeners will also decide for themselves. But nonetheless, I think that this comparison, which I want us to explore together, I think it raises and it gives us the opportunity to engage with some really fascinating and important questions.
Ami: Okay. It sounds great, Beth
Beth: Okay. So turn your page to Chapter 12. We're going to be focusing, as I said, on Chapter 12 of Deuteronomy, in order to answer this question that was raised at the end of Chapter 11; what does it mean to not worship gods that you don't know? So instead of reading through the entire text of the chapter, because it's 31 verses long, Ami, I want to give you a brief recap of what happens in the chapter, just some bullet points. You tell me, does this sound like Chapter 12 as you know it?
Beth: So here's what I think we hear about in Chapter 12. These themes are going to seem a little bit disconnected. We hear that we should serve God, but only in the place that God chooses. That God's Name should be on that place. That we should serve Him by offering sacrifices. That it's okay to eat animals like a ram, an ayil – the text specifically talks about an ayil or a deer, a tzvi. We hear about spilling blood as part of the laws of kosher slaughter. At the end we hear about not doing the kind of abominable things that the nations do in serving their gods, like sacrificing children. Then, finally, there's a refrain which is brought three times in this chapter, to do what is yashar, what is good and straight in God's eyes. Ami, does that accord with Chapter 12 as you know it?
Ami: It seems like a pretty good summary, yeah.
Beth: Okay. All right. So here we go. I'm going to read that list one more time and as I read it, ask yourself what comes to mind? What other account from the Torah are you reminded of? Okay?
Ami: Okay. Let's go.
Beth: Serve God, but only in the one place that God chooses. God's Name should be on that place. Serve him by offering sacrifices, olos. It's okay to eat animals like a ram or a deer. The spilling of blood. Sacrificing children and doing what's right in God's eyes. Ami, does anything come to mind for you?
What Is the Binding of Isaac Really About?Beth: That's exactly what I was thinking. This for me is all about the Binding of Isaac. Serving God; was the Binding of Isaac about serving God?
Ami: It sure was. God asked Abraham to go do this. A pretty wild thing for him.
Beth: Right. The place that God chooses, what's that all about? Where do we see that in the Binding of Isaac?
Ami: Well, God, basically, said to Abraham go to this mountain that I'm going to show you – one specific place. At the end of the account of the Binding of Isaac, that mountain gets a very significant name and some kind of foreshadowing of what it's going to be in the future as well.
Beth: Actually, the connection goes even deeper than that. Because in Parashas Re'eh God says I want you to serve me in only one place. What's that one place?
Ami: The Beit Hamikdash, the Temple. According to our tradition, Mount Moriah, where the Binding of Isaac took place, is actually the Makom Hamikdash. It is the place where all future sacrifices are going to take place when the Temple is built.
Beth: Exactly. It's not just according to our tradition, it's the meaning in the Tanach, the term Mount Moriah comes up in two places. It comes up at the beginning of the Torah, in Genesis and it comes up at the very end of the Torah, in Chronicles, in Divrei Hayamim. The Torah tells us that King Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem at Mount Moriah. Those are the two times that we hear about it. So exactly. But the Binding of Isaac is about Abraham serving God in the one place that God will choose and there is a first time that God chose that place. It was when He chose it for Abraham to sacrifice his son.
Now, Re'eh also talks about God's Name being put on that place. Ami, there is a time in the Binding of Isaac when God's Name is put on that place and here's the time. Come with me to look at the Binding of Isaac. What do you see in Verse 14 that reminds you of God's name being put on that one place?
Ami: "Vayikra Avraham et shem hamakom ha'hu Hashem yireh," and Abraham called the name of that place, God will see, "Hashem yireh," God will view, God will see.
Beth: Exactly. So literally the Name of God, Hashem, is being put on the place, just as in Deuteronomy, God says I'm going to put My name on that one place.
Ami: Right. Abraham actually names the mountain after God.
Beth: Exactly. Let's move on to the next item on our bullet list. Obviously, in the Binding of Isaac, God is served through sacrifice and not just any sacrifice, but a certain kind of sacrifice. What kind of sacrifice is featured in the Binding of Isaac?
Ami: So God tells Abraham, "V'ha'alei'hu l'olah," make Isaac a burnt offering, something that's going to be totally consumed and elevated.
Beth: A burnt offering is the prime example of an offering which is brought in Parashat Re'eh, through which we should serve God. So we've got serving God in a place that God chooses, His Name should be there, we should serve Him through burnt offerings, through sacrifices.
What about a ram or a deer? Do we here anything about a ram or a deer in the story of the Binding of Isaac?
Ami: Okay. So we certainly hear about one very significant ram. Just as Abraham's about to sacrifice Isaac the angel comes and says don't touch your son. Abraham lifts his eyes up and sees that there is a ram stuck over there in the bushes and that's the animal that he sacrifices in place of Isaac.
Beth: So in Parashas Re'eh the Torah tells us twice, actually, it's okay to eat certain animals and the two examples that are specifically called out are that of a ram and a deer. Sure enough, back in the Binding of Isaac it was the ram that saved the day.
What about the next item on our bullet list? Was there anything that smacked of spilling blood in the story of the Binding of Isaac?
Ami: Well, there's certainly the potential of spilling the blood of Isaac and, I guess, the ultimate consequence of spilling the blood of the ram in place of Isaac. I don't see the actual word blood used anywhere in the Binding of Isaac, but is that kind of the direction you were going in?
Beth: That's what I was thinking. I mean, what haunts us, as we read the entire account of the Binding of Isaac, is will blood be spilled and if so who's blood? So we certainly hear about blood spilling on the ground.
So we've got serving God in the place that God chooses, God's Name is on that place, serve Him with sacrifices. We've got the ram, we've got the spilling of blood. Child sacrifice. Do we have any talk of child sacrifice in the Binding of Isaac?
Ami: I mean, isn't that what the whole story is, basically, hovering around?
Beth: That's what the whole story is all about.
Ami: Then, eventually, bring the ram as an, "Olah tachat b'no," a burnt offering in place of your son.
Beth: Exactly. That's what the whole story is about. Finally, this refrain that I mentioned from Parashat Re'eh about do what is right in God's Eyes. Now, we don't have that language exactly, we don't have that language explicitly in the Binding of Isaac. But do we have this theme of doing what's right in God's Eyes? Would you say that that characterizes the Binding of Isaac?
Ami: Well, we have this response from God or God's angel, which is, "Ya'an asher asita et hadavar hazeh," you've done this thing that God asked of you and then later, "Eikev asher shamata b'koli," God says Abraham, you listened to My voice, you obeyed My command. So yes, it seems like part of the text of the Binding of Isaac, here, is how far is Abraham going to go in doing what God asks of him.
Beth: Right. Also, what is the space between what's right in our eyes and what's right in God's Eyes? Parashat Re'eh says don't do what's right in your eyes, do what's right in God's Eyes. That's what the Binding of Isaac is all about. God comes down to Abraham, says do this horrendous thing to your son. It would strike any loving parent as being completely abominable. It's not right in Abraham's eyes and yet, somehow, he says but it's right somehow in God's Eyes and therefore, I'm going to do it. I'm going to do what's right in God's Eyes.
Ami: So, Beth, this is really fascinating. As we're looking at these two texts together, I've got one more common theme to throw you away.
Beth: Awesome. Tell me, what have you got?
Ami: So over in Parashat Re'eh, look at Verse 21. "Ki yirchak mimcha hamakom asher yivchar Hashem Elokecha la'asum shemo sham." What's going to happen when you come to the Land of Israel, and the place that God has chosen is going to be distant from you? So now, let's go back to the Binding of Isaac, Verse 4. "Ba'yom hashlishi vayisa Avraham et einav vayar et hamakom mei'rachok," Abraham lifts up his eyes and sees the place from a distance.
Beth: That's a really great connection, yeah. Thank you for finding that one. I love that. All right. So we've got all these connections. It really seems that when you open up Parashat Re'eh, at first read there's a bunch of disconnected laws and at a closer read, each one of these laws, every single one, seems somehow to be encapsulated in the story of the Binding of Isaac. With one, kind of, sort of, glaring exception.
Here's is what I mean by exception. If you look at that verse at the end of Parashat Re'eh, that talks about child sacrifice. What does the verse say about child sacrifice? Is it something that we should do or is it something that we shouldn't do?
What Does The Bible Say About Child Sacrifice?Ami: It is called a, "to'avat Hashem asher sanei," an abominable act that God absolutely hates.
Beth: Exactly. I can't imagine stronger language to describe how God feels towards this thing. God absolutely hates the idea of people sacrificing their children to their gods. It's an abomination. Yet, back at the beginning of the Torah, God seemingly asked Abraham to do this very thing, this thing that He hates, to sacrifice his child to His God. So how do we reconcile these two things?
Ami: Well, Beth, it seems to me like on one level that question, kind of, touches on really having to understand and unpack the Binding of Isaac much more deeply. I mean, why would God have asked this of Abraham in the first place?
Beth: So that's exactly what I want to do with you, Ami. Because the Binding of Isaac has always been a haunting, painful story for me and each year, when it comes around in the cycle of Torah readings, I get another opportunity to grapple with it and I'm never quite satisfied with the answers that I come up with.
I think that's part of the point of this story. I think it's always meant to elude our grasp a little bit, but nonetheless, this year, seeing it through the lens of Parashat Re'eh, I came to some clarity of insight. I'm hoping we can go through it together.
So it's like this. The first thing I think which is clear by juxtaposing these two texts is that Parashat Re'eh tells us what God really thought of the Binding of Isaac. If anyone were to have come along and said God is the kind of God who likes child sacrifice and whatever God says goes. God is allowed to decide what's good and what's bad, because God is all powerful and He may even have intended for Abraham to go along with it and that would have been okay because He's God.
So no, God is telling us, He's teaching us, in this verse in Re'eh, I'm not that kind of God. I'm a God who hates child sacrifice. I think it's an abomination. I never intended for Abraham to go along with it, that would have been hateful.
So then, as you say, the question that we have to ask is, well, if God hates it, if God never intended for him to go along with it, why did God ask him to do it? The text of the Binding of Isaac itself tells us that God was testing Abraham. But what was the test?
Ami: That's a great question, Beth. What is the test of the Binding of Isaac? That is a burning question that really seems to be one of the unresolved questions of the Torah. Like you said, it's a mystery every year. It's actually cool, because this is also picking up on some of the themes that Daniel and I saw in Parashat Eikev, last week. Like, we think that the Binding of Isaac happened one time, but here we see in Deuteronomy, it sort of, is like popping its head through and it's like what is it trying to tell us here? Is that test somehow something we still need to reckon with?
Beth: Exactly. And I'm hoping we'll be able to address that, at least a little bit, by the end of this discussion. Now, a little bit of road mapping here, for those who are listening. We started out here with a question. The question is what does it mean that we shouldn't follow gods that we don't know? I said to Ami, I think that if you would read this entire chapter alongside the story of the Binding of Isaac, you'll have an answer. So that's our goalpost, that's where we're heading towards. Okay. Are you still with me, Ami?
Ami: I'm still with you and, Beth, I kind of just want to throw in one more piece here which is that the very parashah of Re'eh starts out, "Re'eh anochi notein lifneichem hayom brachah u'kelalah." It's talking about God giving us blessing and curse. Someway that takes me right back to the beginning of God's relationship with Abraham. I'm going to bless you, in Lech Lecha. Those who bless you will be blessed, those who curse you will be cursed. All of this blessing and curse language is also really evocative of the Abraham story.
Beth: Exactly. I think that's right. The blessing language and also the language of seeing. The beginning of Parashat Re'eh is re'eh, see. We see this language of seeing all over the Binding of Isaac. So I posed the question to you, what was the test of the Binding of Isaac?
I want to test out a theory with you. It seems obvious that on some level the test was will Abraham follow God or won't he? Because when the angel appears to him, the angel says good, you followed God. My question to you is why should Abraham have followed God?
The Paradox of Child Sacrifice in the Bible: Good or Bad?Ami: That is the million‑dollar question, why should Abraham be doing, what's called later, an abominable act? I think any parent, any just human being would feel that this is the last thing in the world that somebody should be doing.
Beth: You know what? Let me pose the question in a little bit more of a pointed way. I want you to assume that Abraham did the right thing, as the text seems to imply and as our tradition, certainly, seems to say. Abraham did the right thing in bringing his son up as a sacrifice to God. What would be a good reason for following God when God commands you to do such a thing? Are there certain things that you would have to know about God to make it understandable and justifiable for you to follow Him?
Ami: I suppose that from a religious or spiritual perspective it could be something like, well, everything truly belongs to God, even the child that I myself created and brought into this world. There's some kind of recognition. A burnt offering is something that's totally given to God. So perhaps, just taking it out of the realm of human sensibility and violence and all those things, it's sort of a real test of can that most precious child, who belongs to you, who you're closest to, can you also devote that child to God and recognize that he belongs to God?
Beth: Now, I want to play devil's advocate a little bit. This is not what I believe, but imagine that the God that Abraham encountered was, as you're saying, an All‑Powerful God, a God who had given Isaac life, had given Isaac to Abraham, but not a moral god. Imagine that God gave life to Isaac and then, to play with Abraham, to torture him, said ha‑ha, Abraham, I gave you this amazing miracle and now I'm going to take him back. You've got to give him back to me because, in a sense, I created him, he's Mine. So do you think that Abraham should give his son up to a god like that?
Ami: Well, I guess, if God's main modus operandi is being the god of power, so yeah, you would have to submit to that ultimate power. You wouldn't really have a choice there, right?
Beth: Exactly. I mean, we might even say, that in such a situation, the moral thing to do would be for Abraham to resist. I mean, he'd be resisting, sort of, futilely because he'd know, that at the end of the day, this all‑powerful, but not all‑good god was just going to be able to destroy him and his son with a snap of a finger. But, nonetheless, you wouldn't willingly submit to that god and offer up your son. You'd say no, I love my son and I'm going to stand him and hug him until the end of days and willful god, you can come and get me if you want. I think that that's the kind of response that we would have celebrated.
For Abraham to follow God, for it to be justifiable for Abraham to have followed God, God needed to prove Himself, He needed to have proven Himself to Abraham to be both powerful and also moral. If God is both powerful and also moral, then He is worthy of worship and then He is worthy of being listened to. That's my theory. Does that sound right to you?
Ami: I guess there's another word, apart from moral, that I would add there, which is loving. Is God loving? Does God use His power in a way that's beneficial to the world, to humankind, in this case, specifically to Abraham? Or is God, kind of, just running the show and ruling with an iron fist?
Beth: Got it. Okay. So this is semantics. I think you and I are talking about the same thing and what I'm calling good, you're calling loving. Loving is more of a relationship word, good is more of a philosophical word, but we're talking about someone who does the right thing. An entity that has compassion and an entity that aims to bestow good upon the world.
It sounds like we're in agreement. If God comes to you and you know that God is both powerful and also good and also loving, then it actually makes sense for you to submit to that God and offer your son up as a burnt offering.
Ami: Sure. If that is something that I know.
Beth: Okay. Now, the question is, did Abraham know that? Has God yet had a chance, before the story of the Binding of Isaac, to prove His power and His goodness and His love to Abraham?
Ami: So it's an interesting question, because on the one hand, God has made a lot of promises to Abraham. Promises about the future, about all these descendants, about land. It seems like the only thing God has really made good on is giving Abraham and Sarah this child, Isaac, who is the very child that God is now threatening to take away.
Beth: Now, based only on the fact that God has given Abraham a child, Isaac, does Abraham have any reason to conclude that God is both powerful and loving?
Ami: I'm really not sure and I wonder if maybe that's what the test was testing in a more subtle way. Can Abraham trust in the goodness of God? Abraham knows God's power; can he also trust in God's goodness here?
Beth: I want to push you a little bit on this and I want us to put ourselves in Abraham's shoes here. You're Abraham. You are 100 years old, your wife is 90 years old and since you were young newlyweds, decades ago, you've been infertile and you've been yearning for a child. One of your brothers passed away and since that time you've been caring, as surrogate parents, for his son, for your nephew, Lot. But really, in addition to that, all you want is a child of your own.
Biologically, you're well past the point where that's feasible. But nonetheless, one day, this God that you have brokered a relationship with, this God Who appears to you, that very God sends messengers to let you know that a miracle is going to happen and the one thing that you want more than anything, the one thing that no man can make happen, is going to happen to you. It's not just a promise, but that promise is realized. What are you going to conclude about the Power Who promised it to you and the Power Who realized it for you?
Ami: Well, Beth, I suppose that this miraculous birth, this gift of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah, I suppose that would show Abraham that God truly cares about him. That God is going to make good on all those promises and way beyond any of his expectations, God's going to come through for him.
Beth: I think so. I think that that's right. Now, Ami, let me push you a little bit further. As you said, what does Abraham know? God has made a lot of promise to him and the promises make it sound like God is powerful and good, potentially, but few of them have been realized. But there is this one thing that Abraham has seen in his life and that's that God has brought him a child. Is there anything else that Abraham has seen that would prove that God is both powerful and good?
Ami: Well, Beth, the other thing that comes to mind is, you know, you mentioned about Abraham's surrogate son, about Lot. There is this very, sort of, violent and haunting story of the destruction of Sodom where Abraham is pleading for God to save the city and not destroy it, to spare everyone there. Well, on the one hand, his prayer isn't answered the way that he asks for. His own kin, Lot, is actually saved from that destruction. So maybe that's another place where God shows his loyalty towards Abraham.
Beth: I think it really might be. In particular, I want to go with you to a particular verse from the story of Sodom, which I never quite understood and I think now I have a new insight into it. Okay? The story of Sodom is in Genesis 18. So God is thinking about destroying Sodom. He's seen enough evil in Sodom that He thinks that Sodom is worthy of destruction. But then, before acting, what does God do?
Ami: God has this little soliloquy.
Beth: Exactly. We get an insight into God's thinking. He says, "Hamechaseh Ani mei'Avraham asher ani oseh," should I hide from Abraham that which I'm going to do? Abraham is going to become a great nation. "Ki yadativ," I have known him. He's going to do all of these things and I have to teach him My ways.
I never quite understood that verse and now I think I see it in a new light. I think what's going on here is this. God is saying, look, Abraham and I are getting to know one another. I'm trying to figure out if he's a good guy, if he's committed to me and he's trying to figure out if I'm a good guy, if I'm committed to goodness, if I'm powerful and loving.
If his surrogate son, who wandered off to Sodom, all of a sudden, he reads in the Near East News, on the front page, that the entire city of Sodom has been destroyed in a mushroom cloud, shat is Abraham going to conclude about this God that he's been courting? He's going to say this is an all‑powerful God, Who sometimes seems to be loving, but then turns around and destroys at whim. On the one hand, He gave me a biological son, but on the other hand He just destroyed everything that belongs to my surrogate son. So I don't know about this God. I know about his power, but I don't about his love.
I think that's why it's imperative that God lets Abraham in on the plan. God needs to explain to Abraham and use it as a teaching moment. Look, Abraham, sometimes a good God needs to create, as I created Isaac, but sometimes a good God needs to destroy. Sodom is evil and is worthy of destruction and I'm going to explain to you why I'm doing it. I'm even going to have this conversation with you to let you know that I'm thinking about every person in Sodom, to make sure that no innocents are being destroyed. Because I need you to understand that when I act in the world I am both powerful and good. That's my theory. I think that that's what's going on here.
If that's right, then what it means is that by the time we get to the Binding of Isaac, Abraham does have reason to think that God is both good and loving. He's had a chance to get to know him.
Knowing and Not KnowingAmi: This is really fascinating, Beth, especially the connection between God using this language of, "ki yadativ," I know Abraham in this way and then, a fast forward here in Deuteronomy, gods whom you do not know. Somehow there was some kind of knowing of one another that Abraham and God formulated in their relationship, that maybe, kind of, set into motion the rest of this legacy.
Beth: That's exactly right, Ami. So, Ami, I want you to hold on to that and we're going to come back to it for good at the end. So that's my theory, that in this whole Abraham story, the whole beginning of the development of the relationship between God and Abraham, they were trying to get to know each other and trying to prove to one another, yes, we are both committed to good, we're both on the same page here. So by the time you get to the Binding of Isaac, God is posing the following question to Abraham.
Abraham, now that you know that I'm powerful and you know that I'm good, will you stand by me? Will you have trust? It's like, if you were married to someone, Ami, for 20 years and for every year that you were married to them you always knew them to be a morally, sensitive person, someone who would pursue of good. Then one day your spouse calls you up and says, honey, I want you to bind our son as an offering and meet me at the top of this mountain. What would you think?
Ami: I would think, honey, have you lost your mind?
Beth: Okay. Good, Ami. Your moral instincts are in working order. Let me give you a more practical example. Let's say your spouse comes to you and says, honey, I need you to wire $20,000 to this particular address and I can't tell you why, but just trust me. What would you think?
Ami: My basic assumption is that she'd have very good reason to be asking that of me. If she's asking me to really trust her, then yes, she has my trust.
Beth: I think that's right. I think that if you've been married to someone for that long and they have a track record and they've proven themselves to have a certain character, then trust means expecting that in the 21st year they're going to continue to act the same way. Actually, in Abraham's case, it was even an easier test than that. Because with Abraham's case the partner in his relationship was God. God is all‑powerful.
So if your partner asks you something crazy, you might be inclined to trust them, but you also might be inclined to say, hey, maybe there's a misunderstanding here. Maybe they mean to do good, but they've made some kind of mistake. But you can't say that in God's case. In God's case you have to come down to, well, God has proven Himself to be powerful so maybe there is something He is asking me to do that He sees is good but I just don't understand it. Right? It's all about this question; I know God, I know Him, so will I hold fast to the knowledge that He is not just powerful but good? That was the test of the Binding of Isaac.
So now, having been through that whole rollercoaster, let's come back to this, "asher lo yedatem." You foreshadowed exactly where my mind went with this. God tells us at the beginning of Parashat Re'eh, I want you to follow Me, I don't want you to follow other gods, gods that you haven't know. Ami, what do we make of all of this? What's the sin in following gods that we don't know?
Ami: I suppose the biggest thing that comes to mind in this context is it's, kind of, abandoning the whole track record, the whole frame of reference of a relationship that's been developed and proven itself to be righteous, to be good.
Beth: Exactly. I think part of what we're meant to learn is, there might be other powers in the world, but I don't want you to serve them just because they're powerful. You should only be serving a God, the only reason that any kind of entity deserves your worship is because that entity is not just powerful but also good. The only way that you can come to know that is through courtship. Is by having some kind of track record, wherein that entity, that being, proves to you and demonstrates for you not just power, but love. To go ahead and to follow some kind of power that you don't know, that hasn't showed you that it's good. What an immoral thing to do.
We're meant to pursue justice and rightness in this world and that rightness is supposed to overlap with the power that we serve. We serve God because He's both powerful and just. Ami, for me this comes down to what you picked up in the story of Sodom that God says, "ki yadativ," because I have known Abraham. I have come to know that he's a just person.
Let me ask you one more question. This language of, "ki yadativ," this language of knowing one another, do we see that at all in the Binding of Isaac?
Ami: "Atah yadati," right? Isn't that what God's angel says? Right now, I know. I know that you've proven your fear of Heaven.
Beth: Exactly. I think that that's what these parshiyot are all about. I think that's why we need to serves gods that we know and I think that – not to oversimplify what's meant to be a haunting story – but that's how I'm seeing the Binding of Isaac now. God never intended for Abraham to sacrifice his son. You want to know it, not just that, Ami. The question that I think that we always ask at Shabbos tables, when it's time for Parashat Va'yeira and we're studying the Binding of Isaac is, okay, Abraham did this thing, so where does that leave us? Are we supposed to follow his lesson? Is that the pious thing to do? Should we all go and sacrifice our children? So what's the answer? What answer does Parashat Re'eh give us?
The Hidden Meaning Behind the Binding of IsaacAmi: It seems to me that Re'eh is contextualizing the Binding of Isaac and, basically, raising the question; are you ready to remain devoted to that relationship with God that you know in your bones, that you know from your past, that you've developed over time?
Beth: Exactly. Abraham got to know God, God got to know Abraham. We learned in that encounter that God is both good and powerful. That's the tradition of worship that we inherited from Abraham. So we don't need to go through that test again. We don't need to go through that test of trust. We get to serve a God, asher yadanu, that we know to be good and powerful.
Ami: You know, but this is a really amazing parallel that you've brought up here. Part of what it leaves me with is the feeling of a relationship with God that's actually empowering for us. Because God's not just out to dominate us. This whole element of knowing means that we are also participants in this relationship and that we get to employ our own morality, our own sense of loyalty, our own sense of faith. It's something that God is welcoming and inviting and not just forcing upon us.
Beth: I love that point, Ami. I think you're absolutely right, because what does it mean for us to know a God? In order for us to discern, to determine whether our God is good or not, we have to use our own moral instincts about what's good and bad. Yes, they're going to be times when our instincts about what's right are going to diverse from God's, but fundamentally, 99 times out of 100, those are meant to be working functioning instincts. They're necessary at the beginning of the relationship with God and they're necessary throughout the relationship.
Ami: And in some way, abandoning the God who you know is abandoning part of yourself too. It seems to me that in Re'eh God is urging us to legitimize our past experiences. To accept them as truths that we can trust and rely upon, even as we move forward into the future.
Beth: Fascinating. Right, Ami, thank you for bantering this back and forth with me. Also, listeners, we'd love to hear from you. You know, what do you think of these parallels? Do you find them to be undeniably, irrefutably persuasive? Or at the very least, what did they provoke in you? Do you think we've nailed the test of the Binding of Isaac or have we oversimplified it and it's something else altogether? Send us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You know what, Ami? Actually, I'm reminded that Rabbi Fohrman has a very thorough, very fascinating exploration of the Binding of Isaac and I think our listeners will enjoy checking it out. So we'll put a link in the description of this podcast to that series, so everyone can go on to alephbeta.org and check it out. If you haven't yet, now is the time, subscribe to this podcast, rate us five stars, share it with your family and friends and tune in next week for more parashah exploration and insights.