by Rabbi Avi Billet
One of the most written about passages in all of the Torah is the tale of Akedat Yitzchak. Between the commentaries who try to make sense of it, as well as a number of great philosophers, everyone has an opinion as to what is the lesson to be taken from the Binding of Isaac. Surely there are many lessons!
While the text itself offers many hints, most of which are literally lost in any translation, two phrases which don’t get enough attention are the opening, and the message of the angel who stops Avraham from completing the deed.
The opening phrase is “אחר הדברים האלה” (and it was after these events/words/things) that God called to Avraham and gave him the instructions that would change history.
After what things? After which events? After what words were exchanged? The word דברים has different meanings, and therefore different possibilities can be applied to this introduction. Did the instructions from God follow naturally – was it always God’s intent to send Avraham, with his son, to the top of the mountain? Or was this a response to something else that happened prior, leading to “after these events, God (then/had already) tested Avraham”?
The message of the angel is to stay your hand, “For now I know that you are God fearing, and you have not held back your son from me.”
Why does the angel emphasize his knowing now that Avraham is God-fearing? Wouldn’t that have been obvious? Especially according to the commentator who suggests that והא-לקים נסה את אברהם means “God had already tested Avraham” and there is something else going on here, perhaps the declaration that Avraham is God-fearing is actually the point of the story.
In his book on Avraham, Professor Yonatan Grossman shares a number of ways the text of the Torah in the Akedah narrative reflects language that has been utilized in previous tales. The emphasis of some of these connections are credited to Rav Yoel Bin Nun.
There are three narratives that precede the Akedah: 1. Avraham and Sarah in Gerar, which includes her being taken by the king and all which follows that abduction, 2. Birth of Yitzchak and the sending away of Yishmael and Hagar, 3. The peace accords between Avraham and Avimelekh, who is accompanied by his general, Fichol.
Consider that Avraham explains his need to declare Sarah his sister based in the concern that he is unaware whether there is a “Fear of God” in Gerar (20:11). Compare this to the angel’s discovery that Avraham is indeed God-fearing (22:12).
Avimelekh arises early in the morning (20:8) as does Avraham (22:3).
Avimelekh challenges what triggered Avraham “to do this thing” (to declare his wife his sister) (20:10), and the angel uses that same phrase noting “on account of your doing this thing” (22:16) you are now going to be blessed.
In preventing Avimelekh from touching Sarah, God notes to Avimelekh in a dream “I know that you did all this in innocence, so I have prevented you from sinning and from touching her” (20:6). Avraham is told “Now I know you are God-fearing, you were not preventing your son from me.” (22:12)
There is a promised made between Avraham and Avimelekh (several times at the end of chapter 21), and God makes a promise to Avraham at the end of the Akedah tale (22:16).
The two Avimelekh narratives thus come full circle in their connection to part of Avraham’s experience on the mountain.
Another series of parallels exist in the Yishmael tale:
God instructs to send Yismael out of the home (21:12-13), and God instructs to take Yitzchak to the mountain (22:2).
Yishmael and Hagar take bread and water with them (21:14), Avraham takes the items he’ll need for the sacrifice (22:3).
We are given a depiction of the journey of Hagar and Yishmael (21:14), just as we are given a depiction of the journey of father and son (22:4-8).
Yishmael is on the precipice of death (21:16), as is Yitzchak (22:10).
An angel of God appears from the heavens (21:17 and 22:11) to intervene in a way that will save the child.
God opens her eyes and Hagar sees a well (21:19), and Avraham opens his eyes both to see the mountain and the ram (22:4 and 22:13).
Hagar gives water to Yishmael to drink (21:19), effecting his survival, while Avraham slaughters the ram in Yitzchak’s place (22:14), effecting Yitzchak’s survival.
It is true that the stories are very different, and the other tidbits and details certainly prove that point. But there is no denying that motifs are clearly repeated, and are used both as literary devices and as calling cards that there is something deeper going on here.
Is Avraham being sent to the mountain with Yitzchak to have a greater appreciation of his relationship with his son? Is he being sent there to prove his God-fearing status? Are these happening because this is what he is up to in his life? Or is it a response to some of the flags raised in the narratives of the previous two chapters, in the way Avimelekh is deceived without his even having a chance to prove his being God-fearing, and in the way Hagar and Yishmael are expelled from the home without being given a chance to mend broken relationships.
The point I take in noting these parallels is much simpler than any involved analysis can give us. It boils down to two things:
1. Nothing happens in a vacuum. God operates this world in terms we understand as מדה כנגד מדה (measure for measure) and even when we think He is not watching, when we see the measure for measure in our lives, we know that He is indeed watching.
2. The second point is a question of how we emerge from any trial. Do we, like Avraham, demonstrate that we are God fearing? If yes, then no matter what we’ve been through, we’ve passed the test. If not, then we still have much to work on.
We are all going through a trial. While there is much debate as to where it started and when it will end, one thing is clear to me. It is the human response, both up until now, and that will follow in the coming weeks and months, that will determine whether we are deserving of having our lives return to normal.
When we put our fate into the hands of man, we are simply violating the words we say daily in Tehillim 146 (the first Hallelukah):
1Hallelujah! My soul, praise the Lord.
2I shall praise the Lord in my life; I shall sing to the Lord as long as I exist.3Do not trust in princes, in the son of man, who has no salvation.4His spirit leaves, he returns to his soil; on that day, his thoughts are lost.5Praiseworthy is he in whose help is the God of Jacob; his hope is in the Lord his God.א הַֽלְלוּיָ֡הּ הַלְלִ֥י נַפְשִׁ֗י אֶת־ה’:ב אֲהַֽלְלָ֣ה ה' בְּחַיָּ֑י אֲזַמְּרָ֖ה לֵֽאלֹהַ֣י בְּעוֹדִֽי:ג אַל־תִּבְטְח֥וּ בִנְדִיבִ֑ים בְּבֶן־אָדָ֓ם | שֶׁ֚אֵ֖ין ל֥וֹ תְשׁוּעָֽה:ד תֵּצֵ֣א ר֖וּחוֹ יָשֻׁ֣ב לְאַדְמָת֑וֹ בַּיּ֥וֹם הַ֜ה֗וּא אָֽבְד֥וּ עֶשְׁתֹּנֹתָֽיו:ה אַשְׁרֵ֗י שֶׁ֚אֵ֣-ל יַֽעֲקֹ֣ב בְּעֶזְר֑וֹ שִׂבְר֖וֹ עַל־ה' אֱ-לֹהָֽיו:
When we fear God more than anything else, we will return to normal. May we merit to see that reality shift very soon.