The Hebrew akeda (lit., binding, or binding for sacrificial offering) in the title of this work for solo piano commonly refers in Judaic contexts to the incident in the Book of Genesis known as akedat yitzḥak (the binding of Isaac), concerning the test of Abraham’s faith through God’s command to bind his son Isaac for sacrifice. This biblical account of Abraham and Isaac at Mount Moriah (Gen. 22:1–19) is one of the chief cornerstones of Judaic theology as well as a principal foundation of Jewish national birth.
Abraham apparently but incorrectly assumes that an actual sacrifice is implied by the directive to “offer him [Isaac] there.” Even so, the mere suggestion of desired human sacrifice from a Divine authority—which embodies the essence of truth and righteousness—must be understood within its historical context, as must Abraham’s blind acceptance of even the possibility that God would ever sanction, much less desire, such an act. The hideous practice of child sacrifice was prevalent among neighboring peoples and primitive religions throughout much of that part of the ancient world. Among some tribes, sacrifice of the firstborn was considered especially meritorious and pleasing to their gods. Child sacrifice is mentioned specifically in the Torah (“for even their sons and daughters do they burn in fire to their heathen gods,” Deut. 12:31); and heathen enthusiasm for the practice is cited in other biblical passages (e.g., Micah 6:7 and II Kings 3:27). This Divine command to Abraham, therefore, might not have seemed to him inconsistent with the normative behavior of the age.
Abraham is instructed to take Isaac to Mount Moriah and to offer him there in sacrifice (lit., to lift him up, i.e., on an alter of sacrifice):
And it happened . . . that God tested Abraham. And He said to him . . . ”Take, pray, your son, your only one [with Sarah], whom you love, Isaac, and go forth to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering . . .”
Abraham—who is considered the founder of Western monotheism (his father, Teraḥ, had been an idol worshipper in the pre-monotheistic mold)—neither remonstrates nor hesitates, but proceeds immediately to comply. Without revealing to Isaac the real purpose of their journey, he cuts wood for the burnt offering and takes his son to a designated mount in Moriah (Jewish tradition identifies the locale as the later site of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem; II Chronicles 3:1). He builds an altar there, restrains Isaac by binding him, and lays him upon that altar. Isaac does not resist, even when he realizes what is happening. At the last moment, just as Abraham takes the slaughtering knife in his hand and positions himself to complete what he believes to be God’s instruction, God intervenes to prevent it. Through his messenger (angel) comes the following admonition “from the heavens”:
Abraham, Abraham . . . Do not reach out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him, for now I know that you fear God and you have not held back your son, your only one, from Me.
Abraham notices a ram caught by its horns in a nearby thicket, and he offers it instead as an appropriate sacrifice.
Assured beyond doubt of Abraham’s faith and loyalty through this supreme test, God fixes and reconfirms—in the form of a promise—the proposal that He had set forth earlier (Gen. 17) regarding the perpetual covenant with the patriarch and his descendants:
And the Lord’s messenger called out to Abraham once again from the heavens and said, “By My own Self I swear, declares the Lord, that because you have done this thing and have not held back your son, your only one, I will greatly bless you and will greatly multiply your seed, as the stars in the heavens and as the sand on the shore of the sea. . . . And all the nations of the earth will be blessed through your seed because you have listened to My voice.” (Gen. 22:15–18).
The akedat yitzḥak, which is referenced numerous times throughout the Hebrew liturgy, is thus considered one of the central narratives of Judaism—for two reasons. It confirms Abraham’s unswerving belief in God’s singular authority and His supreme righteousness—even if Divine motives are not comprehensible to man or open to human understanding—and it thereby confirms Abraham’s worthiness to be the founder of the people that will establish monotheism for the world. The akedat yitzḥak is cited in rabbinic literature and commentary as the tenth and greatest of the trials Abraham faced to earn this merit. (By extension, the story is also said to illustrate Isaac’s faith and devotion as the second patriarch.) At the same time, through God’s staying of Abraham’s hand, the entire incident teaches and underscores for all time the Judaic abhorrence and unequivocal prohibition of human sacrifice under any circumstances, a significant departure from surrounding norms. Indeed, the innovation lay in God’s intervention to prevent it.
Numerous Christian as well as Jewish commentators and theologians have observed that this story represents a major step forward in the history of human progress. Not only does it contain an implicit proclamation that the prohibition against human sacrifice should apply to all mankind, it also clarifies that God requires only man’s spiritual surrender to His will.Throughout the centuries, interpretations and explications of the akedat yitzḥak, including those in the Talmud and the Midrash, have stressed that the Divine directive was confined to “preparing Isaac for sacrifice.” Hence the word by which the incident is known—binding—rather than any reference to sacrifice or death. Rav Saadia Gaon (882–942), one of the greatest rabbinic scholars and authors, and leader of Babylonian Jewry in the Geonic period, explained that God’s intervention does not constitute His abrogation of His own earlier instruction, since no intention of actual sacrifice was ever part of it. And Rav Saadia further amplified on the intervention to give it the meaning “Enough! More than this I did not desire of you.” (Emunot v’De’ot, 3:9)
Ben Amots’s Akeda is based musically on one of many traditionally intoned renditions of the Hebrew prayer text el maleh raḥamim, the principal liturgical commemoration of the departed. The piece is written in a free single movement, improvisatory in form. References to an eastern European style of rendition of the memorial prayer operate together as a “pulling thread” throughout, in the composer’s words. He views the various and differing musical gestures surrounding that thread as “midrashic commentaries.” Overall, he considers the piece to be simulating the “journey” of a prayer, from an abyss upward to the maximum spiritual height, as the music cruises from the lowest range of the piano all the way to its top octaves.
The version of el maleh raḥamim on which Ben-Amots based this piece is the one typically sung in Israel for the annual yom hasho’a (Holocaust) commemoration.
Performers: Susan Grace, PianoAdditional Credits:
Publisher: The Composer's Own Press
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