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Va-yera 5779: Child Sacrifice

The Binding of Isaac

Va-yera 5779: Child Sacrifice

Oct 24, 2018
This week’s Torah reading, Va-yera, contains the Torah readings for Rosh Hashannah, including the famous story of the binding of Isaac. The story has generated an enormous amount of commentary and discussion. The story raises core questions of what the purpose of this “test” was, and how it can be that a moral God would command someone to murder his own child.

Following a certain strain of commentary on the story, I understand it as teaching that God does not desire the sacrifice of children. In Abraham’s day, child sacrifice was considered a high form of worship, showing one’s religious devotion by giving up what one holds most dear. But a true God who desires life would want no such thing.

The problem, though, in Abraham’s day and perhaps also in ours, is that such a religion free of child sacrifice would seem lesser in other people’s eyes. Those who noticed that Abraham did not sacrifice his son might have thought that he was less devoted to his religion than they were to theirs. So the purpose of the story is to demonstrate to others Abraham’s equal dedication, his willingness to sacrifice a child if that were what God wanted.

Equally, though, the story comes to show how Abraham worships a God who detests child sacrifice. Ours is a God who does not require that we sacrifice our children in the service of God or, by extension, of any other ideology.

While we may not literally bring our children to a mountaintop, we nonetheless live in a world that at times calls upon us to sacrifice our children’s well-being in the service of some idea. Whether that is the relentless pursuit of material wealth, society’s idea of what “success” means, or a rigid notion of gender, we can find ourselves putting some idea ahead of what is clearly in our children’s best interest.

The story of the Binding of Isaac emphatically teaches us that this is not what God wants, that we must never sacrifice our children on the altar of our ideology. May the Divine voice never need to stop us before it is too late.