by Rabbi Avi Billet
One of the most enduring challenges in the Binding of Isaac story (hereafter “the Akedah”) is that as much as we explore it, the more we see we don’t understand it.
Which is why the challenge to understand the narrative, the episode, the exchange, the commitment, the relationships become ever more glaring the more we try to unravel what is taking place.
A number of years ago I had a discussion with a fellow educator about this. He was thoroughly convinced that his “approach” to understanding the Akedah was “correct,” while he evaded every question I sent his way, unsatisfactorily resolving the ones he took on, while sidestepping the questions that didn’t jibe with his personal narrative of what the Akedah “means.”
One thing that is very clear to me is that God never intended for Yitzchak to die on the mountain. (as stated in the Talmud Taanit 4a)
I am also pretty confident that Avraham was meant to take Yitzchak to this particular place to give Yitzchak his own “Lekh Lekha experience” (compare 12:1 to 22:2), so Yitzchak could have a similar kind of training to that of his father, especially since Yitzchak had no reason to abandon his father’s household in order to find God, as did his father before him.
I am also mostly convinced that when Avraham is told “Ha’alayhu sham l’olah” (22:2) (“raise him up there to an olah”), that Yitzchak is meant to go up a mountain to experience an olah (burnt offering), and not to himself “be” the olah. In fact, when we compare the way the Torah describes Yitzchak being placed on the altar (22:9) to the way the ram is ultimately placed on the altar (22:13), the Torah’s language makes it clear that when the ram is placed, Avraham fulfills the commandment given to him: “Va’yalayhu l’olah.”
There are many words utilized in the Torah’s narrative which are unclear, confusing, strange. None of them can be ignored, and each one must have a good answer for why it is used. Two of these words are “Ma’achelet” – a very strange word for what seems to be the knife-for-slaughter; and “achar” – the position where Avraham notices the ram. (I don’t have the space to address these here).
I am also not convinced that the word “Nissah” (22:1) – which many translate to mean “tested” – indicates a test at all. In other places in the Torah the word “Nes” can be more accurately defined as a banner. Ibn Ezra essentially argues that “Nissah” means Avraham was being raised above all. God was “showing his [Avraham’s] righteousness to other humans.”
Radak even notes that this is the strangest of “tests” because no one was on the mountain with them to see it! And so, he argues, the whole episode is meant to show Avraham’s love for the Almighty. God tells him to jump, he jumps.
But what of the view that the grammar is wrong? The format of “Nissah” isn’t about how God is about to do anything to Avraham (whether “test” or “raised him up”)! It is a confirmation of what has already been proven! (see Malbim and Ha’Ktav v’Hakabbalah)
Rabbenu Bachaye notes that the purpose of the Akedah was to publicize to the nations Avraham’s greatness in Awe/Reverence/Fear of God (Yirah), and in his love (Ahavah) of God. Love, Rabbenu Bachaye explains, is demonstrated in 3 ways:
1. A person loves his king and goes about demonstrating this through singing the praises of his king. But he will not spend any money to demonstrate this love.Rabbenu Bachaye argues that Avraham had already achieved this highest level. But now, in his being asked to kill Yitzchak, he was asked to prove his love even more. That approach might work if Avraham had been asked to kill Yitzchak. But Rashi is the first to note that God only told Avraham “Ha’alayhu” – lift him up, and God never said “v’shach’tayhu” – to slaughter him.
2. A person who loves the king even more, will give everything he has for his king, except that he is not willing to give up his life for his king.
3. A person who sings in praise of his king, is willing to give everything he has for his king, and is willing to give up his life for his king.
So what is the purpose? I think what Rabbenu Bachaye leaves out of his explanation opens the door for the approach employed by the Sfas Emes (Gerrer Rebbe) in trying to uncover what the purpose of Avraham’s mission was.
In his Drasha of 5641 (1880), he makes the following observation. At what point is the mission deemed to be a success? The second time Avraham declares “Hineni” – I am here ready to do your bidding. (He also said it to Yitzchak as well when he said “I am here, my son,” but he only says the single word “Hineni” to God and to the angel.)
The angel which stops him first calls “Avraham Avraham,” he responds with “Hineni” and then he is told, “Don’t send your hand to the young man, don’t do a thing to him, for now I know/ now I have known/ now I have come to know that you are God-fearing…”
This, the Sfas Emes explains, was the test. We all know Avraham loved God. Avraham is the only person in the Bible described as “My beloved” by God (Yeshayahu 41:8). When God tells him to do anything, he jumps to do it without questioning.
But everything that Avraham has done until now entailed demonstrating love for God. In contrast, this episode was meant to demonstrate Avraham’s reverence of God. On the one hand, as the Sfas Emes explains, to demonstrate that Avraham was prepared to slaughter his son – recognizing that this kind of request could only come from the highest place of serving God, simply because it challenges his love of God! How could you ask me to kill my son when you told me my whole future is in my son? Sfas Emes says Avraham proves his reverence of God through not doing anything to Yitzchak, because he was ready to do what he had been asked.
There is another view, however that it was more difficult for Avraham to take Yitzchak down from the altar, when the passion of his fulfilling God’s will had almost overtaken him.
And I think that in staying his hand, Avraham demonstrated the highest level of both love of God and reverence, all at the same time.
If there is any take home message we can emerge with, it is that our charge is to love God and to fear/revere/be in awe of God at all times. And if we can only serve Him through those lenses, we would also be worthy of being called the children of Avraham.