10/21/2013 02:34 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

In the Nick of Time: Brinkmanship and the Binding of Isaac

Moments away from the unthinkable, all appears lost. A painful sacrifice inevitable. Then, just in the nick of time a reprieve. A voice from the heavens. And just like that Abraham is told that he will not have to go through with the slaying of his son Isaac whom he has bound on an altar.  
Yes, quite a week for brinkmanship -- in the mindset of our country in the midst of a looming crisis and in the story of the Binding of Isaac, read in synagogues this week and imprinted into the consciousness of many people of many different faiths for eternity.   

From the point of view of protagonists and antagonists the headlines of today and the verses of the Bible have little in common.  The story of Abraham and Isaac referred to as the Akeda is one in which an inscruatable G*d without pretense or explanation calls on his faithful servant to offer up his beloved son,  and, just as inscrutably, his servant proceeds to do just that.   Usually this story is highlighted as an example of Abraham's unwavering faith or as an illustration of how profound are G*d's mysteries.

However, given this week's backdrop, I find myself thinking differently about the Akeda as an excercise in ultimate brinkmanship.  However instead of using refusal and protest Abraham instead wields the instrument of his own willingness to go through with the Divine command.  Perhaps he has learned a lesson from his futile attempts to stop G*d from destroying Sodom and Gomorrah where he woke up after a late night of seemingly successful negotiations to find the cities had been turned to smoking ruins.  Whatever, the reason, however, Abraham is steadfast in his refusal to refuse.     

What does this accomplish?  Abraham does not let G*d off the hook. Does not cover for G*d's monstrous request by resisting.  And as a result it is G*d who must send the angel to halt the act and make the Binding of Isaac an everlasting lesson as to G*d's ultimate unwillingness to demand such a sacrifice.

And yet the last second reprieve from the brink is not without its consequences.  Isaac is never the same and he never appears with his father again until he buries him.  Likewise, Sarah, left out of the proceedings dies immediately afterward.  And throughout Jewish history we are constantly reminded of how G*d brought his most faithful servant to this precipice, especially when recalling the many children and adults who indeed did not escape being slain as a result of being descendants of Abraham.

There is a strange turn of phrase when the angel comes to stop Abraham. The angel says do nothing to the boy, as if Abraham would be inclined to give him a little cut anyway.  In fact the commentaries playing of fof a similarity in the Hebrew words for"nothing"and "blemish" imagine Abraha begging to be allowed to do just that. "Just let me give him a little cut. Just a nick.  Something to make him invalid to be imperfect and thus invalid as an offering so   he will never again be summoned to the altar to be sacrificed.  

This is the darkest resonance of the Akeda: not as a story of Divine will and human willingness, but as a description of how close the brink really is. It may be up to us not to unnecessarily add the danger of bringing ourself to the edge of the cliff, but there is no way to escape living on that edge anyway.

And yet, at the heart of this high stakes clash is an even more powerful and profound lesson: whatever G*d seems to demand, the overarching value that compels us, our ultimate calling is to protect human life, to guard the innocent, to be present for the other.  Even on the lonely mountain, on the very brink of the unthinkable.