November 2nd-3rd, 2001
17 Cheshvan, 5762
The incident of the Binding of Yitzhak (Isaac), known as the Akeidah in Hebrew, takes place at the end of this week’s Torah portion. Most everybody knows the
story, whether from Sunday school or from Rosh Hashanah services (it is the centerpiece of the Torah reading of the second day). There may even be some of you out there who know about the Akeidah by way of a college class in philosophy. For the 19th-century Danish philosopher, and (some would say) precursor of Existentialism, Soren
Kierkegaard, based one of his most famous works (Fear and Trembling) on the Torah’s account of the
Akeidah. (Can I see hands on that?)
In any case, the basic story goes like this. Avraham and Sarah miraculously conceived a son, Yitzhak, in their old age, after years of heartfelt prayer and longing. He was the son whom G-d informed them would be the inheritor of their spiritual mission (and progenitor of a "chosen" nation): to be a blessing to the earth and its inhabitants, to sanctify the physical world by following "the way of
Hashem, doing charity and justice" (18, 19).
And then, when Isaac was 37 years old (according to our Oral Tradition), Hashem commanded Avraham to sacrifice his son. No lengthy explanation, no commentary to soften the stark Divine injunction:
"And it happened…that G-d tested Avraham and He said to him,
‘Avraham,’and he said, ‘Here I am.’ And He said, ‘Please take your son, your singular
one, whom you love—Yitzhak—go to the land of Moriah, and bring him up there as an offering
upon one of the mountains which I shall tell you.’"
In Kierkegaard’s discussion (insofar as my very imperfect memory of the Monarch Notes edition serves me…), this command to Avraham epitomizes the utter "absurdity" of the leap of faith required, at times, of the person of religious faith.
Indeed, this commandment to Avraham surely does seem outlandishly absurd and illogical. He is told to slaughter the very son whom G-d had promised would be his spiritual heir, the child to whom the noble, and world-transforming Truth that he had dedicated every moment of his adult life to propagating (a universe created by One loving G-d, Who wished only to bestow good on mankind, created in His image, etc.) was faithfully entrusted. How could G-d ask such a thing?
What’s more, this commandment was diametrically opposed to a specific practice (human sacrifice) which our commentaries tell us was endemic in the ancient Canaanite world…and against which Avraham had specifically crusaded for years. As Rabbi Elie Munk writes in his beautiful commentary, The Call of the Torah (available from Mesorah Publications):
"…human sacrifice was among the most abominable forms of idolatry which
he had relentlessly subjected to public condemnation in the name of G-d…now
he himself suddenly receives the Divine command to proceed with the sacrifice
of his own son." (Commentary on Bereishis, p. 284)
Besides the normal human emotions for his child that he was being asked to "overcome," a horror at the desecration of
G-d’s Name that the fulfillment of this commandment would cause in the world at large surely arose in
Avraham. The loving G-d that he had taught thousands to recognize and serve would be exposed as no better than the cruel deities of Mesopotamia!
How did Avraham react to this commandment? With zerizus (alacrity): arising early the following morning, he even saddled his own donkey for the journey, rather than allow one of his many servants to do the job
(Midrash Rabbah). He journeyed for three days without wavering, bound his son on the altar he built and reached out for the knife without hesitation…until the angel commanded him to stay his hand. (A last-inning deliverance worthy of the New York Yankees!)
To understand the Akeidah properly, insofar as it represented a "test" for Avraham (the culmination of a series of "tests," in fact), we must part company with Kierkegaard on one crucial point. According to William Barrett in his study of Existentialist philosophy, Irrational Man, Kierkegaard posits that Avraham wrestled with an inner uncertainty as to the "authenticity" of this commandment to slaughter his son:
"This calling is anguish, for Avraham is suspended between the fear of
disobeying G-d and the doubt that this call may be from Him—he feels it
may instead be the demoniacal voice of pride asking for a sacrifice that need
not be made." (p. 166)
This is not borne out at all by the traditional understanding of the story, as discussed by our Sages in the Oral Tradition and the classical commentaries. For one thing, the true prophetic experience (and the command to kill Yitzhak, like all "commandments" given to our patriarchs and matriarchs, and to Moshe, etc., falls under that category) admits of no doubt or uncertainty whatsoever in the mind of the recipient. As
Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto writes in his classic study, The Way of G-d:
"When a person attains prophecy at its highest level, everything reaching
him during the prophetic experience is perceived undistorted, and is fully
understood…being that his prophetic experience binds him to G-d, and it was G-d Himself Who was revealed to him and
acted upon him, he realizes that the images that he perceived were visions of prophecy, resulting from
Divine Influence…The prophet then feels no uncertainty about his being a
Prophet, about any aspect of his prophecy, or about its origin and
results." (Feldheim edition; p. 221; my emphasis)
Rabbi Munk, citing Maimonidies’ Guide to the Perplexed, echoes this point:
"…had the prophetic dream been obscure for the prophets, had there remained
any doubt or uncertainty regarding what they had perceived in a prophetic vision, they would not have
been so eager to carry out what was repugnant to human nature, and if Avraham had had doubts he would not have
consented to perform an act of such gravity." (p. 281)
In short, Avraham felt no anguish of uncertainty about the source of the "absurd" command. He knew it was the One Loving G-d, whom he had dedicated his life to serving. If there was anguish, it was at the prospect of losing his son, and of reconciling this prophetic communication with its contradictory predecessors.
There was, however, no hesitation whatsoever in actually striving to carry out the Divine commandment.
No hesitation, or hemming and hawing. This is an important point, for there is a common and mistaken conception of Jewish religiosity in vogue nowadays that elevates "wrestling with G-d" to the highest spiritual level (based, in part, on one understanding of the etymology of our designation, Yisrael). Opposed to this is "blind obedience" to G-d, which is somehow less "intellectual," less spiritually authentic.
Now, it’s true that "wrestling with G-d" is, in a sense, an experience that we all go through. A certain commandment or ethical imperative--representing the call of G-d--conflicts with our desires (bodily, egotistical, etc.), and we wrestle with our conscience or battle with our passions, if you will. A tragedy befalls an individual, or a nation, and we "wrestle" with the question of why such a thing happened, how a loving G-d could allow evil to exist, etc. We do have tests of faith, and occasionally out-and-out tussles with the will of G-d as it impinges on our comfortable lives. But that’s only because we have not fully internalized our obligation to follow "the way of G-d." Wrestling is frequently the sad reality of our lives and evidence of our all-too-human nature, perhaps, but it is most definitely not a religious ideal. Rather, unconditional (not "blind") obedience, as epitomized by Avraham in his response to this "absurd" call, is what is expected of the Jewish people. Unconditional obedience (coupled with the striving to understand, to the best of our ability) is the highest, and noblest, goal. Again, Rabbi Elie
"…Avraham’s affirmative reply instantly followed the Divine call. Avraham
commits himself fully; he is ready for anything, for any new duty, for any
sacrifice…His religion is as far removed from mystical contemplation as it
is from naïve faith or theological philosophy. Above all else, it is absolute
devotion to the Divine will." (p. 283)
You can counter that Avraham knew he was hearing G-d’s voice, while we must have "faith" in the authenticity of the Torah and its commandments. ("If only G-d talked to me clearly, I’d follow what He says.") True. That should be an incentive for a person to investigate for him or herself the foundations of our traditional faith in the Torah…and come to some conclusion on the matter. If only so that the spiritual futility of an entire life spent in "wrestling" with G-d--instead of walking (and progressing) in knowledge and practice of His ways--can be avoided.
Yet, even for those of us who do suffer from lack of perfect clarity (and that is all of us), I think the example of Avraham in the Akeidah can be very relevant…and inspiring. For there is at least some area of Torah observance or religious-ethical life which is clear and compelling to each one of us, and when that particular Divine imperative conflicts with our human desires (or our logic), we must learn from the example of Avraham. G-d called him to carry out a most uncomfortable
commandment…and he replied, "Hineni," "Here I am…ready and willing."
Sound pretty stark? Here’s some reassurance. Never forget a crucial axiom regarding the "tests" (or better, spiritual opportunities) that Hashem sends us. He never sends us a test we cannot handle. The Midrash is clear on this point: we have the resources to "pass," that is, to be elevated and spiritually improved by, any test that comes our way.
"R. Jonathan said: A potter does not examine defective vessels, because he cannot give them a single blow without breaking them. What then does he examine? Only the sound vessels, for he will not break them even with many blows. Similarly, the Holy One, blessed be He, tests not the wicked but the righteous, as it says, ' The Lord trieth the righteous.’ R. Jose b. R. Hanina said: When a flax worker knows that his flax is of good quality, the more he beats it the more it improves and the more it glistens…"
(Midrash Rabbah: Bereishis, 55-2; Soncino translation)
As Ramban sums it up, "all trials in the Torah are for the good of the one being tried." Their purpose is to bring out, to actualize, our hidden potential.
May we meet all the many tests that come our way in life with the unflinching spirit of our great forefather, using them to bring to actuality our vast hidden potential. Hashem, the Source of all blessings and the "Shield of Avraham," is surely behind them all.
Into Genesis |
Insights Into Exodus | Insights Into Leviticus
Insights into Numbers | Insights
Edelstein, Savannah Kollel. Phone: 355-0157; fax: 354-9923; e-mail address: Yosef18@aol.com
Produced and distributed by
the Ben Portman Computer facilities of the Savannah Kollel.
This Dvar Torah page created and hosted
courtesy of OU.ORG. No responsibility for its contents may be
implied or taken by the OU.