This Torah portion contains God's tenth and last trial of Abraham: the binding of Isaac.
Abraham is commanded to sacrifice his son, his beloved son Isaac. Abraham does not complain. He does not engage God in dialogue. He does not negotiate with God, as he had on other occasions. It seems that Abraham senses that this is something which he must do.
What was the purpose of the test? Numerous scholars over countless generations, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, have studied this text and attempted to penetrate the lesson of the passage. Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, in his book The Fear and Trembling, labels the act a "leap of faith," a term which has entered the lexicon of virtually all contemporary religious thinkers. But it is interesting that in Jewish sources, Abraham is not described as one who excelled in faith per se, as much as he is described as the one who loved God.
The Zohar states:
So it is written 'thou didst love righteousness and hate wickedness' [Psalms 45:8] and it is further written 'Abraham who loves me.' [Isaiah 41:8] Abraham is said to have loved God because he loved righteousness; this was Abraham's love of God in which he excelled over all of his contemporaries. [Zohar 1:76b]
Based on Jewish sources, then, we should label Abraham's action as a "leap of love" rather than a "leap of faith". His love of God allowed Abraham to respond willingly when called upon to sacrifice his own son, a "grotesque" task to any parent's mind.
If he could do it so willingly, what then was the test, what then was the challenge?
At first glance such a question seems absurd, as the very notion of child sacrifice is abhorrent to modern man. However, when seen conceptually, the act of an individual who is willing to sacrifice his child for his own ideals is really not alien to us. Even enlightened, modern Democratic societies are prepared to sacrifice their children for their ideals -- for example, to protect the country or ideology. Indeed, were this not so, there would be no war. As difficult as sacrificing one's child is, it would seem that most societies today deem it justifiable when done for the sake of one's beliefs.
Perhaps Abraham's challenge lay in the fact that he had previously been told that Isaac would be his spiritual heir. If Isaac would die, he could not inherit Abraham's legacy, he could not lead. More importantly, Isaac's death would indicate that the word of God could not be trusted.
Philo of Alexandria suggested that the sacrifice of Isaac, whose name meant "will laugh," would result in the eradication of all laughter from the world. Surely, for Abraham, the death of his beloved son would mark a spiritual death of a kind, the death of his relationship with his God, whose word would be proven as fickle.
Midrashic and Kabbalistic sources offer a deeper understanding of the dilemma: Abraham is described as the individual who excelled at the trait of kindness; he was a giving person. Abraham, in his understanding of monotheism, knew that God has no needs, that God is all-powerful, that there was nothing that he could give God and do for God. Abraham tried to impress upon his pagan neighbors that God does not need their sacrifices, does not need anything. All that man can do is to try to be like God. Therefore, just as God had created the world through incredible kindness and love, kindness was Abraham's credo. Now, God was calling upon Abraham to go against the very basis of his life's mission.
Viktor Frankel, in his classic work Man's Search for Meaning, describes the need for meaning as one of the most profound needs within the hierarchy of human existence.
What God was asking of Abraham was not merely to sacrifice his son Isaac, but to sacrifice his own life's meaning. We can clearly appreciate that had the test been to entertain 50, 100 or 200 guests for dinner, Abraham would have risen to the challenge heroically, with a smile on his face and gladness in his heart. That would not have been a challenge. That would have fit within Abraham's world view as an act of kindness. Instead, God asked Abraham to perform the act which is the very antithesis of kindness, to kill his son. This may be the most difficult aspect of the story of the binding of Isaac. With one blow of the sword Abraham would be conceding to all his pagan neighbors that his mission had come to an end, and that instead of inspiring them to embrace his world-view, he was throwing in the towel and accepting their twisted rites and rituals. His life's meaning would perish along with Isaac.
Only when we understand that the greatness of Abraham was his kindness, are we able to appreciate the significance of this test. The first step toward religious development is taking one's capabilities, one's natural gifts, and utilizing them for a divine mission. What God wanted Abraham to gain from this challenge was the appreciation that man can go beyond his natural tendencies and skills. Therefore God calls upon Abraham to perform an act which is antithetical ' the complete opposite ' of his natural instinct.
What is considered the complete opposite of kindness? Justice. Justice means carrying out the sentence of the judge with exactitude.
This understanding is buttressed by an analysis of the name of God used in this text.
And it came to pass after these things, that God (Elohim) tested Abraham, and said to him, Abraham; and he said, 'Behold, here I am.' And He said, 'Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you. [Genesis 22:1-2]
In Hebrew, the name of God used here is Elohim (Elokim in non-essential use), the name associated with judgment. (The name of God associated with kindness is the ineffable YKVK which we generally render as the Adonai, Lord.) It is fascinating that at the conclusion of the ordeal the text states:
And the angel of God (the Lord) called to him from heaven, and said, 'Abraham, Abraham.' And he said, 'Here am I.' And he said, 'Lay not your hand upon the lad, nor do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God (Elohim), seeing that you did not withhold your son, your only son, from me.' [Genesis 22:11-12]
The angel of the Lord of kindness states that it is now known that Abraham has the ability to relate to Elohim, the God of judgment. [See Michtav Me'eliyahu, for a full discussion of this point]. When Abraham is prepared to sacrifice his son, he has passed the test, and the sacrifice itself becomes unnecessary.
Abraham's tenth test, therefore, is to relate to God in a manner in which he was unaccustomed, to excel in a type of worship which was contrary to his instinct. Greatness, then, is not merely using your skills in the service of God, but developing new skills for the service of God. This test was not for God's benefit -- the All-Knowing One knew Abraham's potential. This test was for the benefit of Abraham, to elevate him to a level which he could not previously have imagined.
However, there is another player in the story -- Isaac. According to tradition, Isaac was 37 years old at the time of the event. [Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 56:3] According to the Midrashic and Kabbalistic sources, while Abraham represents kindness, Isaac represents justice. What do we learn about Isaac's role in his own binding?
Abraham awoke early in the morning, saddled his donkey and took his two helpers with him, and also his son Isaac. He split the wood of the burnt-offering, and went to the place that God had told him. On the third day, Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from afar ... Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and placed it on his son Isaac. And in his hand he took the fire and the knife, and they went both of them together. [Genesis 22:3-6]
So father and son traveled together on this mission. It would seem that the togetherness denotes more than mere traveling companions. States the Midrash:
' ... and they went both of them together' -- one to bind and the other to be bound; one to slaughter and the other to be slaughtered. [Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 56:3]
In so many words, they were "in on this together." What follows is a unique dialogue. It is the only time in the entire Biblical literature that Abraham and Isaac speak to one another:
And Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, 'My father.' And he said, 'Here I am, my son.' He said, 'Here is the fire and the wood. Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?' And Abraham said, 'My son, God will provide Himself a lamb for a burnt offering,' and both of them walked on together. [Genesis 22:7-8]
In this dialogue, Isaac questions his father about the sacrifice which will follow. We must recall that Isaac was an adult at this point, well aware of the pagan practices of his neighbors. Yet he walked together with his father, completely dedicated to his father's wishes. Isaac embodies justice and it is his nature to follow the law as set down by his father.
When the moment of execution comes, Isaac is tied down to the altar. The Hebrew for tying or binding is akaida, and the offering of Isaac has been called throughout the ages Akaidat Itzhak, "the binding of Isaac." Yet Abraham was never commanded to tie Isaac, so why did he do it?
Again, the Sages in the Midrash fill in the missing information. They tell us that Isaac is a willing, enthusiastic participant in this excursion. He lies down on the altar, stretches back his neck, and then says to his father: "Father, the soul is willing, but the flesh is weak. Tie me down in order to restrain me, to prevent me from flinching upon seeing the blade."
According to the Midrash, the idea of the binding was completely Isaac's. Therefore, throughout history, we refer to the act as "the binding of Isaac."
As the blade is about to descend, a voice calls from heaven, instructing Abraham to stop. Isaac will be saved; there will be no human sacrifice today nor on any other day, in the Jewish tradition. A ram is sacrificed in Isaac's stead. And then we are told:
So Abraham returned to his helpers and they rose up and went together to Beersheba. [Genesis 22:19]
But what about Isaac? Why did the Torah not tell us about his descent? Did Isaac come down from the mountain? The next time we see him -- a full two chapters later -- Isaac, he is standing in a field, eyes gazing heavenward, praying to God.
Later in his life, Isaac will become blind. The Sages explain that the cause of his blindness was the tears of angels which fell into his eyes during those moments on the mountain, when it appeared his father's knife would end his life [Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 56:8]. Evidently, what the rabbis are trying to communicate is that in some way Isaac was affected by that experience on the mountain. In fact, his sight or perception was forever altered by the events there.
If the test for Abraham was to perform an act which was against his natural kindness, he surely passed with flying colors. But what about Isaac? If his personality is identified with justice, perhaps his test was in coming down the mountain, joining the rest of the world, and relating to God through the attribute of kindness. Did Isaac succeed in his test?
Our Sages relate the following scene which will take place in the future:
R' Shmuel, the son of Nachmani, said in the name of Rav Yonatan: "What does the verse mean, You are our father, for Abraham did not know us and Israel did not recognize us. You [G-d], our Father, Redeemer, forever is Your Name. [Isaiah 63:16]. In the future, God will say to Abraham, 'Your children have sinned against me.' And Abraham will say in front of Him, 'Master of the Universe, wipe them out for of the sanctification of Your Name.' God will say, 'Perhaps Jacob, who had experienced difficulty raising his children, will ask for mercy for the Jewish people.' G-d will say to him, 'Your children have sinned against Me.' Jacob will say in front of Him, 'Master of the Universe, wipe them out for the sanctification of Your Name.' God will say, 'The old man has no reason, and the young one has no advice." God will then say to Isaac, 'Your children have sinned against me.' He will say in front of Him, 'Master of the Universe, my children? My children, and not Your children? When the Jews said, We will do and we will listen, You called them my first-born son, and now You call them my children, and not Your children? Besides, how much did they sin? How many years are the years of a man's life'seventy? Subtract [the first] 20, for which a person is not punished, you are left with 50. Subtract 25, which are evenings, and you are left with 25. Subtract 12-1/2 which a person uses to pray, to eat, and answer nature's call, and you are left with 12-1/2. If You can tolerate all of this, good; if not, then let us split it, half on You and half on me. If you will say that all of the years of their sins are on me, remember that I sacrificed my soul in front of you (for you).'" [Shabbat 89b]
In this amazing passage, we are told that in the future, neither Abraham nor Jacob will stand in defense of the Jews who have sinned. That will be Isaac's role. Isaac will engage God in negotiations reminiscent of Abraham's plea for the cities Sodom and Gomorrah. Isaac will not tolerate the Jews' being punished. He will argue, negotiate, and finally pull out his trump card: in the merit of his being willing to sacrifice himself, God must forgive the people. Why do the Sages expect Isaac to display more kindness than his father Abraham, whose very nature was kindness?
Apparently the trait of kindness which is acquired is stronger than the trait of kindness which comes naturally. So we discern that Isaac did descend the mountain. He did develop the trait of kindness and when he did he surpassed even Abraham himself. Such is the merit of a trait acquired. Isaac did not acquire this trait easily, but the Talmud tells us that the entire Jewish people will be saved on its merit.