This week’s Parashah, concludes with the story of Akeidat Yitzchak (BeReishit 22:1-19), the binding of Yitzchak. We read how Hashem commands Avraham to slaughter his son, how Avraham willingly takes the steps to do so, and how right before he brings the knife down a Malach Hashem, an angel of God, stops him.
Rashi (22:6 s.v. VaYeilechu Sheneihem Yachdav) comments that Avraham thought from the beginning that Yitzchak was going to be slaughtered. Many other Mefarshim are also of the opinion that when Hashem commanded Avraham to slaughter his son, it was a literal commandment.
Rav David Fohrman suggests that we often suffer from a “lullaby effect” when it comes to the story of Akeidat Yitzchak. Since many of us have heard the story repeated so often from the time we were young, we tend to become desensitized to the horrific possibility of how this story would have turned out had the Malach not interfered at the last second. We instead focus on the actual happy ending of the story, in which Yitzchak is spared.
Because of our familiarity with the story of Akeidat Yitzchak, we sometimes do not pose what otherwise would be obvious questions on it. The traditional understanding of Akeidat Yitzchak is troublesome in certain aspects. Yitzchak asks his father, “Hinei HaEish VeHaEitzim, VeAyeih HaSeh LeOlah,” “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the offering?” (22:7), in response to which Avraham says, “Elokim Yir’eh Lo HaSeh LeOlah,” “Hashem will seek out for Himself the lamb for the offering” (22:8). If we assume that at this point Avraham expects to sacrifice his son, as far as Avraham knows, this statement is a lie. How can we say that Avraham, one of our forefathers and role models, would straight out lie to his son as they walk to the place where he knows he will kill him?
Another difficulty arises from the fact that we consider Akeidat Yitzchak to be one of ten tests which with which Hashem tested Avraham. Why? Even though it must have been difficult for Avraham to sacrifice his only son, it seems from the text that the incident was more trying for Yitzchak than for Avraham. Avraham was explicitly told by Hashem to sacrifice his son. Although a very difficult task, the Master of the Universe asked him to do it. Yitzchak, on the other hand, had to listen to his father to offer his own life. Surely the second of these two perspectives is the more trying one.
Rav Elimelech of Lizhensk, in his commentary on the Torah Noam Elimelech, answers these questions with an untraditional explanation of Akeidat Yitzchak. He writes that Avraham and Yitzchak knew from the beginning that Yitzchak would, in the end, not be slaughtered. Avraham, the forefather to whom the Midah of kindness is attributed, knew that Hashem would not force him to slaughter his son, as that would be a cruel and unethical act. But even though Avraham knew that in the end he would not have to sacrifice his son, he tried to distance that thought from his mind. The Torah writes, “VaYar Et HaMakom MeiRachok,” “And he [Avraham] saw the place from afar” (22:4). Ramban explains that this “place” is the land of Moriah, where he would soon sacrifice his son. Rav Elimelech adds that this Pasuk is specifically referring to the famous dream that Ya’akov would dream there. Avraham saw this, and deduced that Yitzchak would survive and that Ya’akov would be his son. However, even though Avraham knew that his son would not be killed, he did everything in accordance with Hashem’s commandment, as if he was sacrificing Yitzchak.
This, explains Rav Elimelech, shows why Yitzchak was having trouble going along with what he was supposed to do. Since he knew that a lamb would be sacrificed in his place, Yitzchak asked where it was. When Avraham responded that Hashem would seek out the lamb, he was trying to tell Yitzchak that he had to go along with what they were commanded to do. This is why Avraham is credited with passing the test and not Yitzchak. Avraham not only had to go along with what he was commanded; he also had to convince his son to do the same.
Although this approach to Akeidat Yitzchak is untraditional, we should always delve into different explanations to traditional stories. If we do so, we will hopefully have a richer and more satisfying understanding of what Hashem is trying to communicate to us through biblical narratives.