A recent New York Times science article on ritual human sacrifice in ancient Ur 4,500 years ago (around Avraham’s time) provides grisly details of a practice prevalent at that time and considered even by the victim to be a great honor. An article to which Avraham Avinu might respond, “Welcome to my world,” as he finds himself confronted by that very same ritual—child sacrifice, to be carried out on his own son Yitzchak.
Ramban explains that this final test of Avraham’s faith is not really a test, per se. It is, rather, a formula by which a person’s abstract potential is developed into concrete character. Furthermore, Ramban points out that Hashem tests only righteous people, who will possibly listen to Him through their free will, rather than evil people, who undoubtedly will not.
But try explaining that to Avraham, who in his heart now believes he is about to sacrifice his beloved son. Moreover, where is the sympathy for poor Yitzchak, who is about to lose his life, the ultimate sacrifice? And, worse, he is about to be killed at the hands of his beloved father!
Yet, according to Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, the Beit HaLevi, it was indeed Avraham, more than Yitzchak, who bore the brunt of Hashem’s command. From the language of the Pasuk, “Kach Na Et Bincha Et Yechidecha,” “Please take your son, your only son” (BeReishit 22:2), we learn that while Avraham had two sons, Yishmael and Yitzchak, Yitzchak was considered Avraham’s only son. The Beit HaLevi writes that losing one out of two sons is less heart-wrenching than losing an only son. But Yitzchak was like Avraham’s only son, so Avraham’s anguish was extreme. And what parent would not sooner sacrifice himself then sacrifice his or her child? Hashem’s test of Avraham’s faith, according to the Beit HaLevi, would not let Avraham take the “easy way out” by offering his own life. The true challenge was whether Avraham would part with someone dearer to him than his own life.
Why didn’t Avraham beg Hashem to kill him instead of his son, as Moshe Rabbeinu did centuries later when Hashem threatened to destroy Bnei Yisrael due to their lack of faith in committing the Cheit HaEigel? Why didn’t Avraham simply kill himself rather than sacrifice his child? We know the Torah is unique in that it depicts the human flaws of our forefathers. In that way, it is the exact opposite of other ancient faiths. Yet the Torah does not record Avraham’s mental anguish or describe how he felt.
Perhaps Avraham saw through the test of the Akeidah, for it is not humanly possible to receive such a command and not dissolve in tears or argue with Hashem, as Avraham did not hesitate to do when pleading for the lives of the undeserving people of Sedom. Maybe Avraham saw in Hashem’s challenge to him intent for him to make a revolutionary statement to the world, a statement about Hashem’s abhorrence of human sacrifice. And it was through the Akeidah that Hashem rejected that practice. In its place, an animal was offered.
Unfortunately, the Torah’s lessons of the value of human life are lost even today in societies that celebrate suicide bombings in the name of religion, especially when newspapers report the bombers’ mothers praising and celebrating their children’s deaths. Instead of glorifying death, we sanctify life. The lesson of the father of Yishmael and Yitzhak seems to have been remembered by one son but not the other.