There are few, if any, incidents in the Torah that are as shrouded in mystery as Akedat Yitzchak, the “binding” of Yitzchak. The mishna in Avot (5:3) states, עֲשָׂרָה נִסְיוֹנוֹת נִתְנַסָּה אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ עָלָיו הַשָּׁלוֹם וְעָמַד בְּכֻלָּם, Asara Nisyanot Nitnasa Avraham Avinu Alav HaShalom v’Amad B’Kulam, Avraham, our patriarch of blessed memory, was tried with ten tests (of faith) and he withstood (i.e. passed) all of them. But many Torah scholars of all eras wonder exactly what was Avraham’s “solution” to this final and greatest test.
Throughout his life, Avraham experienced and embodied that aspect of The Creator we call חסד, Chesed, love/kindness. Even in relationship to the absolute evil of Sadom and Amara (Sodom and Gemorrah), he pleas for mercy and appeals to God’s sense of Chesed and justice. At the very least, his argument results in the saving of Lot and his daughters, perhaps not the most upstanding people, but still not drenched in the evil surrounding them. The question everyone asks is how, in the case of Yitzchak, his own pure son, could he have remained silent. Is Avraham praised for unthinking, allegiance, unquestioning obedience and is that really what God wants of us?
Granted, and this fact makes a fortune for the advertising industry, we’re not such free agents as we often like to picture ourselves. We’re very easily manipulated, subject to many unthinking reflexes and are, to a large degree, pre-programmed. Although בחירה, Bechira, free will, is fundamental to the definition of Human Being, it’s highly circumscribed. The Talmud, Berachot 33b, states, ואמר רבי חנינא: הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים, And Rabbi Chanina says, “All is in the hands of heaven except the fear/recognition of heaven”. We are, indeed, preprogrammed and/or manipulated in most of our decisions, but we’re always able to distinguish the morality of our actions and to alter the pre-programming if we really want to. God wants us to choose the good, but leaves that decision in our hands, וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים, U’vacharta B’Chayim, and choose life (Devarim 30:19).
We return to our question of why was Avraham silent and was his silent acquiescence his “passing grade” in this, the last of his ten tests? Rabbi Shloime Twerski zt”l, in his book Malchut Shlomo, teaches that Avraham’s great accomplishment here was his ability and willingness to abandon his past certainty, his ability to consider, accept and act upon the realization that up to now he had been wrong. Although this theme of constant growth, re-evaluation and admission of our own limitations resonates strongly with me, it still seems like he could, given his prior history and his relationship with God, have at least questioned this commandment.
Students of ancient middle eastern history, including several orthodox, practicing and believing scholars, point out that child sacrifice was prevalent in the area at that time and that nothing that Avraham had previously been told directly countered that practice. Perhaps he agreed since it didn’t seem at all out of the ordinary. It was only, in the culmination of this episode, that the Jewish People are forbidden, eternally, from what we now universally recognize (and, please God, we might one day see an end to) as barbarous behavior. Nonetheless, this “go with the flow” attitude contradicts everything we know about Avraham, the man who pled for the lives of the thoroughly evil.
It’s hinted by some that, perhaps, Avraham already knew that he’d be called back at the last minute. He was merely playing a part in a drama he only partially understood. He was able to agree with starting the journey to Isaac’s sacrifice only because he knew he wouldn’t be called on to actually do it. If that’s true, how can we say that Avraham passed a great test of faith?
Another deep question is why, after hearing instruction directly from God Himself, a pretty strong motivation to go along with whatever is said, he is willing to go along with the voice of a mere מלאך, Malach, an “angel”, a messenger of God who tells him to stop. If, and we can assume he was, Avraham was pre-disposed to mercy, why did he silently obey the first command and, if he was pre-disposed to the Word of God, why didn’t he demand some sort of higher authorization when the first commandment is countermanded?
Although these questions are all at the פשת, pshat, superficial, story level of the Torah, not even looking into the deeper meanings and ideas, they leave us with a dilemma and paradox that can’t be resolved. And maybe that’s the actual key!
Perhaps we’ve finally approached an answer to the question of how did Avraham stand so tall in this, his final and greatest test. Most of us, most of the time, are paralyzed when faced with radical uncertainty at any deep level. We want to understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, even if it’s only a matter of putting labels like “compulsion” or “addictive behavior” on it. The more we learn, the greater the temptation to fool ourselves into thinking that we actually “know“. Our egos and our narcissism refuse to expose us to radical vulnerability such as this.
Perhaps Avraham’s real achievement, enabling the Jewish People and all mankind, if they chose to join us, was the acceptance of paradox, the admission that there are many many things we will never fully know.
When called, the only answer Avraham has is הנני, Hineini, here I am.