Akeidas Yitzchok, the near sacrifice of Avraham and Sarah’s only son at the command of Hashem… I know I frequently begin my posts with “this may be the most troubling scene in the Torah,” but this time I really mean it.
Nowhere else is there an event so difficult to understand than this. And when I say event, I mean it. We read it in parsha Vayera, then again at Rosh Hashanah, and some even have the custom to read the verses every morning during the Shacharis prayer. Why is this story, a moment that seems to ask us to check our logic, reason, and abhorrence of what is clearly evil, at the door and follow the command of God, the moment that may well be the true inception of the Jewish nation?
Understanding the Zealot
Skeptics use Akeidas Yitzchok as proof that the values of Judaism are no different than any other violent religion. Martyrdom, suicide bombers, honor killings, and wars in the name of divine judgment, all justified by the command of the bible. As if to say once a person becomes so religious, they will ultimately lose sense of the most important human rights in order to uphold their religious institution. Robert Krulwich all but condemns God for dooming Avraham with such an inhumane mission in the Radiolab episode In Silence. Sadly, that takeaway is not only a perversion of the Akeidas Yitzchok, but completely misses the point.
The first thing to understand is where Avraham was coming from. While others had known of God by tradition (Noah, Shem, Eber), Avraham was the first to come to that understanding by discovering it himself, through clarity (this is important for later) of the world. It was only after that understanding God appeared to him.
Secondly, Avraham had tremendous concern for human life. He spent his days teaching that human sacrifice was wrong, as one of the most prevalent forms of idolatry at the time was sacrificing children. When God tells Avraham He’s going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Avraham argues with God to save any possible innocent lives. Even after Avraham circumcises himself and God comes to visit, Avraham abandons God’s presence to care for three weary travelers. So to think that Avraham is a mindless unchallenging follower is a gross mischaracterization.
Thirdly, Yitzchok wasn’t an unsuspecting child, blissfully following his father. Though he is referred to as a lad, the rabbis say he was closer to the age of 37. As Yitzchok and his father are making their way up the mountain, at one point Yitzchok stops and asks…
“Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt-offering?” Avraham responds, “God will show us the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.” And the two of them went together. (Bereishis 22:7-8)
Now, Torah has no punctuation. So Avraham’s response can be understood in a very different way. “God will show us the lamb, for the burnt-offering my son.” According to Rashi, it is at that point that Avraham tells Yitzchok what’s really happening. So when the next verse says, “And the two of them went together,” the Gemara comments that Yitzchok went along with the same spirit as Avraham, willingly.
Clarity to the Point of Obscurity
Akeidas Yitzchok is referred to as the final of ten tests that was given to Avraham. But the question is, what was his test? Simply to follow what God tells Avraham without question? As I mentioned above, Avraham argued with God and was considered meritorious for it, so obviously this test isn’t about obedience. It must be something deeper.
Avraham is told that he is going to be the father of a great nation and that it will happen through Yitzchok. He also knows that human sacrifice is wrong. Those things were clear to him and he followed God because of that clarity. Then God asks of him something that is not only emotionally harrowing, but logically goes against everything he has understood so far. Avraham has a choice. Do I do what logically makes sense? Or do I follow a God who I know is good and brought me to such an exalted level, even though it makes no sense?
At what point are we expected to go against our logic and reasoning to do what God wants? It’s a very dangerous question.
Only once we have clarity and surety that God is in our lives and that we are connected to a Source that is real… then we have to understand that to have an honest relationship with God, we are connecting with something we can never fully understand. Because if we are doing mitzvahs only because we understand them, then our connection to Hashem is exclusively on our terms. If you have relationships that are only on your terms, that’s nothing more than a transactional relationship. What’s in it for me? That’s not a true connection.
The Hardest Tests
Just to be clear, this test could only be given to Avraham. The story isn’t about making us think we should go to extreme ends because we think God wants us to. That’s religious fanaticism. This was about testing a man who wanted more than almost anything to pass on his connection with God to the world through his child. But what’s more important? Passing on the connection or having the truest level of that connection?
For us, we must have a logical understanding that God exists, is in our lives, and wants what’s best for us. It’s the first mitzvah in Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. If we haven’t intellectually proved that to ourselves, it’s a non starter. Then the next step is to know that God is bigger than us. No matter how much we scientifically know about the world, we will always have questions and there will always be mysteries. The same is true for mitzvahs and the Torah. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important to pursue knowledge. But if we are doing mitzvahs only because we understand them, then that in essence is saying God’s not the arbiter of what’s right and wrong, I am. God’s not God. I’m God.
Finally, we’re put here on this earth to fix something in the world. A big part of that is to fix something within ourselves. God will always test us on that character flaw. It will certainly be emotionally difficult to pass those tests and may defy logic. But once we know what our flaws are, it becomes easier to know when they are being tested. For Avraham, it had to do with thinking he had to give up what he thought his purpose in life was. But in doing so it clarified what his life was really about.
No one in our generation will ever have such a test. But that doesn’t mean it won’t feel like it. But should we have the ability to pass our tests we can reach levels of self actualization and growth approaching true greatness. Luckily we have a Torah and teachers of wisdom to guide us.