There was a time when I could not read the story of the binding of Isaac without wishing for a different ending — that Abraham would stand up to God, refusing to harm his son. Some of my rabbinic colleagues redefine the story, ignoring God's words, "because you did this thing and did not hold back your precious son from me, I will bless you." They claim that Abraham failed God's test because he mounted his son on the slaughtering block.
Past generations were proud of this story, which is read on Rosh Hashanah. It was the pinnacle of Abraham's life. When the ancient rabbis played with the ending, their inclinations were opposite to my rabbinical colleagues. One midrash imagines Abraham slaughtering Isaac and an angel bringing him back to life. In the traditional view, Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac earned their descendants a special claim on God's affections.
Let's be humble. Let's not assume that our ancestors loved their children less than we do or were more prone to fanaticism. Instead, let's assume that they knew something we have forgotten concerning how to read sacred text.
Many today read the Bible in the same way we read history. We criticize Abraham the way we might criticize Winston Churchill. We analyze the implications of Abraham's actions outside the story line or ask what someone else would have done in Abraham's place. We're asking the wrong questions.
Ironically, our sages understood that their stories were not to be read as history. They understood the patriarchs as larger than life, archetypal symbols. No one ever was — nor ever will be — like Abraham. But every one of us carries something of Abraham within ourselves.
Abraham represents a soul that accepts death. That acceptance is elusive in our world of penicillin and smoke detectors. Most of us have come to believe that every child born has the right to a long life, and we demand that right from God. And many of us are stunned when death appears. Abraham was never surprised by death. He understood that life is but a passing shadow, death its inevitable end.
Abraham is also ready to make sacrifices. Many people are generous but true sacrifice is rare. Most of us donate to charity, but few give enough that we feel pinched. If we give of our time, usually we do so when it's most convenient, not when it's most needed. Abraham believed so deeply in God, he was ready to give up the one thing he loved most in this world.
Finally, Abraham is ready to obey God. A crucial point of the story is that Abraham knew whom he was obeying. Today, nobody is privileged to receive personal instruction from the Almighty. Instead we face a hard, ongoing process to find the ways of righteousness. But in those moments when we see the right thing to do, we have a choice: to indulge in endless analysis, or to hush and obey.
Abraham represents each of these traits in their rawest form, offering an intensity that we should not imitate. Normal people who live in utter obedience of God or another cause, willing to sacrifice everything for that belief with no fear of death, are not what we usually call righteous. They are dangerous fanatics.
Yet when the sages read this story, they recognized Abraham's attributes within themselves as a source of strength. They knew that every person could work toward acceptance of death. We can open ourselves to making true sacrifices for our ideals. And if we engage in self-reflection in order to recognize the voice of righteousness, then we can resolve to obey that voice at those moments when we know we've heard it. By channeling our Abrahamic attributes, we might live to the fullest and direct our actions with confidence toward godliness.
Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon holds a doctorate in biochemistry from MIT and is now a rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles. Her piece appeared in Sh'ma (shma.com) this month.