by Jacob Solomon
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| He (G-d) said, “Please take your son, your only one, whom you love – Isaac.
Go to the land of Moriah, and bring him up as an offering on one of the
mountains which I will specify for you” (22:2).
This passage introduces the famous story of the Akeida – the Binding of Isaac. Whereas other faiths preach the doctrine of Original Sin, the Torah contains the fundamental principle of z’chut avot – the merits of the Fathers: the concept of the ‘Original Blessing’. In consequence of Abraham’s conduct of the Akeida, the narrative concludes: I shall surely bless you and greatly increase your offspring like the stars of the heavens and the sand on the sea shore; your offspring shall inherit the gates of its enemy. And all the nations of the earth shall bless yourselves by your descendents, because you obeyed My voice (22:16-17).
Why did G-d choose this way – of all ways – to test Abraham? Also, why did Abraham not question G-d? Abraham did question G-d’s judgment on Sodom: Will you punish the righteous with the wicked? …It would be sacrilege to you! Shall the Judge of the earth not do justice? (18:24-5). The kal va-homer (a fortiori) which follows is obvious!
In answering these questions, there are several fundamental principles, which, when put together, form an approach towards a deeper understanding of the issues involved behind the narrative.
Firstly, the experience of the Akeida was not Abraham’s first trial – according to both Rashi and the Rambam, it was his tenth. He came to Akeida with the background of the previous nine trials. He did not merely hear voices and act on them: as the narrative relates, he conversed with G-d on many occasions, and he knew the sound of His Voice.
Secondly, the trial was given to Abraham because of who he was – Abraham! Abraham’s special strength was chesed – kindness (Micah 7:20), and concern for the welfare of others, even when they followed selfish, immoral, and corrupt lifestyles. The Akeida contained all the elements of the most extreme cruelty and the absolute negation of Abraham’s life’s work: murder in cold blood, and following the current idol worship practices of sacrificing one’s nearest and dearest (Deut. 12:31). However he believed that he was first and foremost a servant of G-d, and by the time he reached this stage of his life (unlike before the destruction of Sodom) he understood that his own knowledge of G-d was severely limited.
In this context, we may contrast Abraham to Job. Job lived an exemplary life, yet in the face of what would appear to the human mind to be gross injustice, he complained to the Almighty about his suffering. G-d did not condemn Job for protesting, but He answered him:
Who is this who darkens My counsel without knowledge?...
Where were you when I founded the earth?...
Have you walked to the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have you seen the gates of the shadow of death?...
Do you know the laws of the heavens? Can you set up (G-d’s) dominion over the earth? (Job 38)
In other words G-d told Job that his way of looking at his own suffering was a product of his being mortal. Job, said G-d, had no grasp of the Eternal G-d that designed and conducted the universe, and of where he himself fitted in with the Divine Plan.
This was something G-d had to explain to Job. But by the time Abraham had reached advanced age and experience, he was spiritually beyond Job. He understood, as Isaiah puts it, that as the heavens are above the earth, so My ways are above your ways, and my thoughts are above your thoughts (Isaiah 55:9). Abraham accepted the infinite nature of the Almighty, and he understood that as a mere mortal he would never grasp where he fitted in within His overall plan. But Abraham did know something else – that the command came from G-d and no other source, and that he had the Hand of G-d on him at all times. Thus he was submitting ‘his program’ to his ‘Creator’s program’.
This point helps us to understand the various commentators who translate nisa et avraham – ‘G-d spiritually raised Abraham’, rather than ‘tested Abraham’. According to the Ramban, G-d knows that His righteous will carry out his commandments, and He tests them to exercise the spiritual power that was until then only latent. The S’forno emphasizes that carrying out a deed from potential to actual practice is in itself a stage in man’s elevation. According to the explanation above, the Akeida was putting into action something that Abraham had only by then developed in his faith. That was that his own intelligence and understanding were limited, and that that Man had to cooperate with G-d’s Eternal Plan with the knowledge that even where I walk in death’s dark valley, I will not fear evil because You are with me… (Psalms, 23:4).
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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