The Muslim celebration of Eid al Adha raises difficult questions for the sympathetic Jewish observer (That would be ME!) On the one hand, Eid celebrates and commemorates what Jews and Muslims agree is one of the most powerful moments in the spiritual history of mankind. The willingness of our forefather Abraham to sacrifice his son, the willingness of his son to be sacrificed and the merciful response of the One True God to replace that sacrifice serves for both Jews and Muslims as the model of Divine service and message of hope for all mankind for all time. It is an act that has powerful reverberations that ripple through history. On the other hand, the dispute over the identity of Abraham’s son, Jews claiming him to be Isaac (Yitzchak) and Muslims claiming him to be Ishmael (Ismail) stands at the center of our deepest differences. This is where both Muslims and Jews stake their claim to a unique spiritual inheritance as the premier servants of the One True God.
It would be nice if there were truly some ambiguity here. While it is true that some few early Muslim sources do identify the son as Isaac, the vast majority of Muslim scholars disagree, citing this as rabbinic influence. In my opinion, Ibn Kathir’s analysis of the relevant verses in the Qur’an leaves little room for doubt. The Muslim tradition solidly holds that the rightful inheritor of Abraham is Ismail, making Ismail’s descendants the spiritual inheritors of Ibrahim. Certainly on the Jewish side, though sources note that Ismail is present and supportive of the event, all sources agree unequivocally that it is Yitzchak who is the sacrifice, making his descendants Bnai Yisrael the spiritual inheritors of Avraham Avinu, Abraham, our father.
Do I stand with my Muslim friends in acknowledging our common appreciation of the ideas and values that underlie this remarkable event or do I stand against them in defense of my heritage, by staking my claim our unique inheritance? Should my Muslim friends recognize our veneration of the self-same values they espouse or see us as some kind of usurpers? I believe the answer ultimately depends on how you understand who Abraham was and the nature of his mission.
The Torah (Breishit / Genesis 12:2-5) records the following promise made by God to Abraham (still called “Avram”) as God commands him to leave his home in Iraq for Canaan.
And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you.”…
And Abram went, as the Lord had spoken to him, and Lot went with him, and Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.
And Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had acquired, and the souls they had acquired in Haran, and they went to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan.
The noted medieval commentator Rashi glosses “the souls they had acquired in Haran”
as “whom he had brought under the protection of the Shechinah (presence of God). Abraham would convert the men, and Sarah would convert the women, and Scripture ascribes to them [a merit] as if they had made them.”
Rashi is telling us that long before Abraham’s family had grown, he has a spiritual family consisting of those who converted to his way by embracing the path of ethical living and uncompromising monotheism. Abraham’s influence on people is so great that it is as if they have been re-created. His message gives them a new life. Amazingly, this spiritual family of the believers precedes the existence of his physical descendants. It is the physical descendants that are grafted onto the believers not the other way around. The Torah declares him a blessing to all nations. In other words, Abraham’s ultimate mission is not restricted to one people but it ultimately universal.
There may be echoes of Abraham’s uniquely universal quality in the Qur’an (16:120-122) as well.
Verily, Ibrahim was (himself) an Ummah, obedient to Allah, a monotheist and not one of the idolaters. (He was) thankful for His favors. He (Allah) chose him and guided him to a straight path. And We gave him good in this world, and in the Hereafter he shall be of the righteous
The characterization of Abraham as an ummah, as an “entire people” in potential or as a unique but somehow universal exemplar reinforces the message of the Torah. It reminds us once again that his message and mission is not narrow and restricted to one tribe, to one family, or to one people.
Was it Ismail? Was it Yitzchak? We disagree. Our differences stand and sometimes those differences are very important. There is also a time to set aside differences. Jewish tradition tells us that when Abraham died, his two sons joined in awe of their heroic father to bury him. This reminds us that there are times to set aside our differences and focus on our common heritage.
I believe that the descendants of Ismail and the descendants of Yitzchak can stand together once again in awe of the tremendous test of our common father and of his son. We stand amazed that Abraham, the embodiment of kindness, could overcome his own nature in submission to God. We are mutely silent at the young man’s willingness, even eagerness, to give up his life in his prime. Above all, we stand in gratitude before the One God who replaced the sacrifice of the son with the sacrifice of a ram. We are blessed to serve a God who accepts our meager sacrifice of the will and gives us second chance after second chance.
A medieval Jewish hymn recited by Sephardic Jews during the month of Elul concludes with this beautiful remembrance of the binding on the altar.
Those who call to You, who come to bow in prayer
in the time of our distress
just as they hasten to recall the binding on the altar
so may You recall Your sheep in mercy;
The sheep who look to that binding.
Awaken Your might
to rouse those immersed in slumber
and redeem them for Your sake.
For those who are stunned and terrified,
may they draw upon Your mercies and kindness
from the heavens on high.
Oh God, King Who sits on the Throne of Mercy.
To this I add a prayer of my own.
Ribbono shel Olam / Rab al Alameen! / Master of the Worlds!
Help us to be like our father Abraham..
devoted to kindness and hospitality
an influence on others to do only good
obedient even when it is so very difficult
and able to stand up to the many tests that face us.
Let us see a time when the spirit of Abraham’s message and meaning
unites and repairs a once fractured and broken world.