If you’re much younger than me, unless you’re a country and western fan or a musicologist, you’re probably not familiar with Johnny Cash’s great hit, A Boy Named Sue. Listen to the song for its message or just to refresh your memory…..
Akedat Yitzchak, the “Binding”of Isaac (Bereishit 22-1-19), is one of the great mysteries of the Torah. Avraham, who waited until the age of 100 for the birth of his son, Yitzchak, is suddenly commanded by God to offer him as a sacrifice. Not only do we question why Avraham went along with such a command and why he was praised for doing so, we must also question why God made this demand on Avraham to begin with. Although Yitzchak is saved in the end (as is Avraham from having to actually murder his own son) when a ram is provided by God in his place, this very trauma, and his mother’s, Sara’s, susequent death from shock at news of this occurrence, form much of his (Yitzchak’s) character.
Avraham, in mystical terms, is the personification of Chesed, loving-kindness. Yitzchak, on the other hand, represents, Gevura, strength and Din, strict, inflexible justice. In one sense, they’re considered polar opposites which, however, blend and resolve into Tiferet, beauty and balance, represented by Yaakov, the third patriarch.
However, it’s not considered easy for a Jew to be anything but loving and kind. The Talmud (Yevamot 74a) teaches: שלשה סימנים יש באומה זו: הרחמנים, והביישנין, וגומלי חסדים, “There are three characteristics to this nation–that are merciful, modest and perform kindnesses (Chesed).” To deviate from love and kindness, even when that defies the need for strict judgement, is foreign to the Jewish temperament. Nonetheless, a person and a people require strength (Gevura) in addition to a loving nature (Chesed).
When commanded by God to put his beloved son, as well as himself, through this horrible ordeal, Avraham realized (and saw through רוח הקודש, Ruach haKodesh (prophetic vision)), that the future of his children, the Jewish people, would be filled with challenge, hardship and opposition. Much like the “Boy Named Sue”, Avraham had to prepare future generations with the strength to survive everything that they will confront.
Hopefully, we have the understanding and maturity to thank and praise God for his Chesed (learning that even Gevura is for the purpose of ultimate Chesed), rather than Sue’s reaction to his father. Perhaps that’s the underlying Chesed and love that, as the Talmud explains, describes the Jewish people.