When learning about Akeidas Yitzchak (the Binding of Isaac), my daughter asked me what I would do if God asked me to sacrifice her like he asked Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchak. How do you respond to such a question?
I’m going to say that, should God command such a thing of you, you not do so. That’s not to say that Avraham was wrong for acting as he did. Quite the opposite – we see that he was right since God praises and rewards him! It’s just that you’re not Avraham. When God spoke to Avraham, it was prophecy. I promise you that I’m not trying to sound glib but if you ever think that God is speaking to you, you’re having a psychotic break. We’ll come to that part soon.
For starters, God wouldn’t ask us to perform human sacrifice. He didn’t even really ask it of Avraham as it was a test! (All He asked Avraham to do was to “bind Isaac as a sacrifice,” which Avraham actually accomplished. There’s a reason this incident is referred to “akeidas Yitzchak,” which means “the binding of Isaac.”) This was a test because, among other reasons, it’s a known fact that God hates human sacrifice in general and child sacrifice in particular. We see this in many places. For example, Molech is singled out from other forms of idolatry as being particularly heinous because it involved child sacrifice, or at very least child endangerment. See also II Kings chapter 3. There, the king of Moav saw that he was being defeated in battle. He tried to break through to attack the king of Edom, but he was unable, so he made the bold move of sacrificing his son. The human sacrifice had the effect of arousing God’s anger, which is generally the opposite intention one has when offering a sacrifice. It’s also unclear whether the Judge Yiftach (Jephthah) actually sacrificed his daughter in Judges chapter 11 or merely sanctified her so that she never married but, either way, he is criticized by the Sages and, despite his military prowess, not remembered fondly because of it. So, when God asked it of Avraham, it was a pretty good test. If He asked it of you, you’d kind of have the precedent of akeidas Yitzchak to know what to expect.
The bigger issue is that Avraham was a prophet. God spoke to him and there was no doubt about the matter. If you think that God is speaking to you – by which I mean directly and audibly – again, I do not mean to be glib, but you should go to the ER and check yourself in because something is seriously wrong.
I know that, despite my insistence that I’m not trying to be funny, some people will think that I’m making light of mental illness. I promise you that I’m not. Imagine a co-worker saying to you over coffee, in all sincerity, that God appeared to them and gave them personal instructions. This represents a serious break from reality even from the perspective of those (like me) who believe in the Bible and the prophets. Let’s explore why that is.
Even in Biblical times, God never just appeared to random people with messages. The gift of prophecy was something that people had to work hard to achieve. There were even schools where one could study for prophecy, without any guarantee that he would ever receive it. So, even in the time of Avraham, Moshe or David, a lay person’s claim to have received a prophecy would have been dubious to say the least. This is all the more so now that prophecy has ceased.
Let’s discuss how, why and when prophecy ceased. First, one must accept that, in Biblical times, there was an incredible drive for idolatry that we cannot understand. It was comparable to the sex drive that we understand all too well. In Talmud Sanhedrin (102b), King Menashe, an infamous idolator, appeared to Rav Ashi in a dream and informed him, “If you had lived in my day, you’d have picked up the hem of your garment to run after idolatry.” With this context in mind, the Talmud in Sanhedrin (64a) describes how the Men of the Great Assembly bargained with Heaven to remove the temptation for idolatry. It didn’t disappear altogether but they got it under a reasonable amount of control. (They also tried to conquer the sexual urge but they quickly discovered that we need that to propagate the species.)
Until this time, there had been two opposing forces: the lure of idolatry and the prophets whom God sent to combat it. With the overpowering temptation to worship idols gone, it was no longer a level playing field, so prophecy had to go, too. (See Seder Olam Rabbah 30 and the commentary of the Gra there.) The last prophets were Chaggai, Zachariah and Malachi, who were members of the Great Assembly. After that, there was no more overt prophecy, though there was (and is) still Divine inspiration. The Talmud in Baba Basra (12b) tells us that the only ones who speak with prophecy nowadays are children and people lacking mental competence (meaning that they occasionally utter truths they logically shouldn’t know). So, as suspect as a lay person claiming to be a prophet would have been in Biblical times, such a claim would be completely untenable now.
So, I say that you should ignore any such commands that you may imagine you receive because (1) God hates human sacrifice. Counter-intuitive orders may have been a good test for Avraham but, like Starfleet Academy’s Kobayashi Maru test in Star Trek, it’s only a test if you don’t know what to expect; (2) Even in Biblical times, rank-and-file people like you and I did not receive random prophecies; and (3) Prophecy is currently gone so that no one is receiving messages directly from God like Avraham did.
This is not to say that God doesn’t speak to us; He absolutely does but it’s not so overt. He speaks to us through the things that happen in our lives. If your car breaks down and your washing machine overflows and your smoke detector battery dies on Shabbos causing it to chirp all night long, there’s a message in there. (I don’t know what that message is; it’s up to you to unravel it.) But there are certain things He does tell us unambiguously: these are in the Torah. They include not offer sacrifices outside the Temple and not to murder. Those are two good reasons to set your daughter’s mind at rest right now. Yes, God could tell prophets to violate Torah law (Elijah sacrificing on Mount Carmel, for example) but we need not concern ourselves with such things because we’re not prophets and, nowadays, neither is anybody else.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent