Akeidat Yitzchak is commonly categorized as the epitome of the Jewish faith. As the story famously goes, Avraham was told to sacrifice his son, even though paganism clearly goes against monotheistic logic. The confusion strengthens as this was Avraham’s own son, which not only goes against his moral values, but also his personal emotions. By the end of the story, Yitzchak is clearly saved, and we learn that God’s intention was to test Avraham’s faith. The lesson extrapolated from this for generations to come is that in order to serve God, we need to put aside our own values and feelings. As Rav Soloveitchik explains in his article,“Catharsis”, we must retreat from what we know in order to take a leap into the absurd. Halacha requires us to be submissive and go against our own nature in order to reach self-actualization, and to be closer to God. This kind of sacrifice leads to ultimate good.
Who made the biggest sacrifice?
That’s all very nice, but there is a significant piece of the Akeida which is often disregarded. The classic question of the story is “Whose test was this? Avraham’s or Yitzchak’s? Who sacrificed the most?” Now there are multiple proofs and opinions on both sides, but I have a different take on the question altogether. With all due respect, I believe that neither Avraham nor Yitzchak sacrificed the most. There’s a missing character here who hides a deeper message behind the akeida as a whole. This is what brings us to the darker side of the akeida:
The grief of a mother on the loss of her child is unbearable. What if Sarah was the one who had to go up and bring Yitzchak to the Akeida? Would she go through with it? Would she have died of heartbreak at the scene? We don’t need to ask the what ifs, because Sarah was the one who truly sacrificed her son.
Think about it. Sarah, with no warning whatsoever, is told that her son has been killed, according to Rashi and the Midrash. She didn’t have time to stop it from happening. She didn’t get to see his survival. In Sarah’s reality, Yitzchak was dead. She waited for decades to have a child, cherished him, and fought for the inheritance which he deserved. But all of that was taken away from her, and she left this world without the ability to say goodbye. Without Avraham apologizing for not warning her. Without seeing her son survive the edge of death, when all he could’ve wanted was a hug from his mom. That’s not the happy ending we all imagined.
Your actions affect those around you
But the message behind Sarah’s grief teaches us something so much deeper about the Akeida, sacrifice, and Judaism as a whole. When someone sacrifices himself, it doesn’t just affect the individual; it affects that person’s family and everyone around them. The effect of the Akeida on Avraham was a lesson in emunah, as we mentioned earlier. But the effect on Sarah wasn’t just a lesson. It wasn’t even a test; it was real life. Reality hit her harder than that knife would’ve hit Yitzchak. In the most raw, pure way, Sarah was essentially the one who sacrificed her son.
We don’t always have the option to choose
The only way to understand the full truth is to first understand that positivity and cynicism are NOT mutually exclusive. You need both in order to achieve intellectual and emotional honesty. That’s what we see in the Akeida. We see Avraham’s positive outcome, where he was able to truly put God first, and not have to sacrifice his son. But we can’t stop the story there. We need to understand the tragic aspect of Sarah’s outcome. We learn from her death that sometimes, life is unfair. There’s no way for us to know God’s intentions. As much as we try to make up excuses and reasons for why bad things happen to good people and vice versa, we ultimately must accept that we cannot understand. Through Sarah, we see the other sense of submission before God: acceptance. She didn’t fight, scream, or kick in defiance of her son’s death. She painfully accepted it in agony. It’s not that she “couldn’t handle it”. Rather, she understood the importance of internal acceptance, similar to וידום אהרון.
When it comes to sacrificing our subjective morality for the sake of God, we don’t always get to see the fruit of that labor. In order to move forward with our modern-day Akeidot, whether we’re sending our kids to war or venturing on the road not taken, we must keep this in mind. Embrace both aspects of strength and grief, of hope and despair, of Avraham and Sarah. Don’t lie to yourself.