Rembrandt and the Akedah: Torah Introduction - Rosh Hashanah Day II 5778
Oct 1st 2017

On the wall of my home is a copy of a drawing by Rembrandt, depicting the scene of the binding of Isaac (Akedat Yitzḥak). The original hangs in the National Gallery in Washington. Rembrandt, who loved to illustrate Biblical characters, had earlier painted a portrayal of the subject which is on exhibit in the Hermitage.

In the oil painting, Avraham is about to slaughter his son. Yitzhak is turned away.  Avraham is covering Isaac’s face, as if he doesn’t want to see his son’s eyes. God’s angel appears, relieving him of his task, and Abraham appears astonished, dropping the knife.

The one on my wall is only six inches square. It was done after Rembrandt had suffered many tragic family losses. In this one, Avraham’s face does not suggest relief. He is in agony, but the son appears to be at peace, calm, trusting and unbound.

Who is the hero of the Biblical narrative? Is Avraham the knight of faith or Yitzhak the one who accepts? Rabbinic tradition (and Soren Kierkegaard) directed attention to the faith of Avraham. But in medieval Europe—after Crusades and Inquisition, Yitzhak became venerated for his faith, his courage and his devotion.

Rabbi Norman Lamm drew attention to the teaching of Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, that once we set our minds on a task, once we have directed our attention and made the commitment, it is very hard to desist. The Kotzker suggests that taking Yitzhak off the altar was Avraham’s real trial. Athah yadatee. Now I know. Being informed that the divine demand was only a test, not really desired, “meant invalidating all that he had done, his anguish and his fear, his commitment and his pain and especially his renunciation of his love for his child.” He concludes that binding Yitzhak on the altar was the personal sacrifice of Yitzḥak, while taking him off was the sacrifice of Abraham.

Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik notes that Rabbi Lamm mades no mention of Rembrandt, but his application of the Kotzker’s insight to the akedah story matches the two portrayals by Rembrandt. The oil painting is known as the Sacrifice of Isaac, for his courage and trust. The etching is called the Sacrifice of Abraham, portraying his anguished commitment.

In the Jewish religious imagination, Avraham and Yitzhak have been understood as paradigm of different types of faith. The Torah tells us that father and son leave Mount Moriah’s altar “together.” But I believe that they are forever changed. I prefer the Israeli poets and artists who echo the Torah in saying that parents should not have to sacrifice their children on the altar of religious or national ideals.