This week, we continue exploring the intricacies of a biblical episode of monumental importance, Akeidat Yitzchak, with the goal of enriching our Yamim Nora’im experience. This week we shall discuss the question of whether Yitzchak was a willing participant in the Akeidah or not. Two great commentators to the Chumash, the Radak and Ibn Ezra, debate this question. The Radak (Bereishit 22:9 s.v. VaYaakod) follows the approach of Chazal that Yitzchak was a willing participant, whereas the Ibn Ezra (Bereishit 22:4) argues that Yitzchak was coerced to participate. We shall focus on four aspects of the story which can serve as proof to either opinion.
Avraham Binds Yitzchak
The fact that Avraham had to bind Yitzchak would seem to constitute convincing proof that Yitzchak was not willingly involved in the Akeidah. On the other hand, we do not find Yitzchak offering any resistance to Avraham. Moreover, the Radak (ad. loc.) cites Chazal (Pirkei DeRabi Eliezer 31), who say that Yitzchak requested that he be bound tightly so that his instincts would not overwhelm him and cause him to resist Avraham slaughtering him.
Who is Tested and Rewarded?
The Ibn Ezra cites as compelling evidence the fact the Chumash seems to focus its attention on Avraham during the Akeidah. The introduction to the story states that Hashem tested Avraham, not that He tested Avraham and Yitzchak. Moreover, Hashem presents the reward for compliance to his command to Avraham Avinu with no direct mention of Yitzchak. The Ibn Ezra argues that had Yitzchak been a willing participant, his reward should have been double that of Avraham Avinu. The Ibn Ezra believes that willingness to die is more challenging than obedience to a command to kill, and thus Yitzchak should have received reward as well.
The Radak, though, could respond that it was a far greater challenge for Avraham to kill Yitzchak than for Yitzchak to agree to be sacrificed. As any loving and healthy-minded father understands, there is nothing more difficult than killing one’s child. Nothing runs against human nature more than a father killing his son. This is most certainly so in Avraham Avinu’s case, in which Yitzchak was not only his son but also his student. Yitzchak represented the only hope for Avraham that his life long mission of creating a nation devoted to Hashem (see Bereishit 18:19) would be fulfilled. Moreover, Yitzchak was born in an entirely miraculous and unexpected time. Avraham Avinu clearly expected that Yitzchak would carry on his legacy, as evidenced by the fact that Avraham concluded a treaty with Avimelech (see Bereishit 21:23 with Targum Onkelos) that applied to Avraham’s son and grandson. The enormity of the challenge for Avraham is captured in the words of the initial command, “Take your son, your only [son],Yitzchak” (22:1), which, as noted by Rashi, stress the unusually special relationship Avraham had with Yitzchak.
On the other hand, a healthy-minded and loving son finds it natural to obey his father, especially if the son shares his father’s commitment to Hashem and His commands. Indeed, we find that over the generations many Jews willingly sacrificed their lives out of loyalty to Hashem and His Torah. Today, hundreds of thousands of Jews who live in Eretz Yisrael agree to risk their lives by serving in combat units in Tzahal (the Israel Defense Forces). Accordingly, Radak could argue that although we celebrate Yitzchak’s willingness to sacrifice his life for Hashem as a role model for future generations, Avraham’s actions were far more challenging and exhibited an even deeper sense of dedication and Bitachon (trust) in Hashem.
The Conversation between Avraham and Yitzchak
In the only conversation between Avraham and Yitzchak presented in the Torah (Breishit 22:7-8), Yitzchak asks his father the whereabouts of the lamb that will be sacrificed. Avraham responds that “Hashem will show us the lamb, my son.” The Ibn Ezra cites the fact that Avraham concealed the truth as proof that Yitzchak was an unwilling participant. The Ibn Ezra argues that had Avraham Avinu revealed the truth, Yitzchak would have run away.
The Radak, however, interprets Avraham’s response in a manner similar to how Rashi interprets it. Avraham responded to Yitzchak in a deliberately ambiguous way; the words can be taken to mean either that Hashem will show the two of them the lamb or that Hashem will show them the lamb, which will be “My son,” i.e. Yitzchak. According to this approach, Avraham presented the truth to Yitzchak in an indirect manner in order to couch the message in the gentlest manner possible.
In fact, this Pasuk concludes that “The two of them walked together,” teaching, according to Rashi and Radak, that even though Yitzchak Avinu understood the truth, he walked as one with Avraham Avinu. Yitzchak was fully committed to Avraham’s lifestyle of dedication to Hashem and proved himself to be a worthy successor to the great spiritual legacy of his father. This idea is also presented in the Midrash (cited by Radak to Bereishit 22:4), where Yitzchak is described as sharing Avraham’s vision of a pillar of fire above Har HaMoriyah when gazing at it from afar while Yishmael and Eliezer do not perceive the pillar of fire.
The Age of Yitzchak at the Akeidah
The question of Yitzchak’s willingness to participate in the Akeidah greatly hinges on the question of whether Yitzchak was an adult or a child at the time. We would be much more inclined to say that Yitzchak was a willing participant if he was an adult, since it would be very difficult for Avraham to forcibly tie up an adult Yitzchak. Moreover, the older we assume Yitzchak was, the older Avraham Avinu must have been at the time; it is difficult to believe that a very old man (recall that Avraham was one hundred years old when Yitzchak was born) could forcibly tie up a young adult.
Rashi (Bereishit 23:2, citing Chazal in Bereishit Rabbah 58:5) believes that Yitzchak was thirty seven years old at the time of the Akeidah. Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, believes that he was approximately thirteen. We shall examine the evidence that might support either conclusion.
The assertion that Yitzchak was thirty seven at the time of the Akeidah leads to a perplexing problem. Chazal (Bereishit Rabbah 57:3, cited by Rashi to Bereishit 22:20) teach that Rivkah was born immediately after the Akeidah. The Torah (Bereishit 25:20) states that Yitzchak was forty years old when he married Rivkah. Rivkah, accordingly, was three years old when she encountered Eliezer and subsequently married Yitzchak. This is a seemingly bizarre conclusion.
Chazal (Seder Olam Rabbah chapter one) in fact teach that Rivkah was three years old when she married Yitzchak. However, a simple reading of Bereishit chapter 24 seems to indicate that she was significantly older than that, since she is described (24:16) as a Naarah, which may be translated as a young woman (in formal Halachic terms, a Naarah is a girl between the ages of twelve and twelve and a half). In fact, Tosafot (Yevamot 61b s.v. VeChein) state that the Gemara (Yevamot 61b) clearly indicates that Rivkah was much older than three when she married Yitzchak.
This problem, however, does not necessarily prove that Yitzchak was not an adult at the time of the Akeidah. Indeed, Tosafot quote Rav Shmuel the Chassid of Speyers, who deduced from a different Midrash that Rivkah was fourteen years old when she met Eliezer. (Tosafot conclude that there is a dispute among the Midrashim about this matter). According to Rav Shmuel, Yitzchak was twenty six at the time of the Akeidah. The Ibn Ezra, though, could respond that a Peshat (straightforward) reading of Bereishit 22:20-24 does not compel one to understand that Rivkah was born immediately after the Akeidah. Hence, Rivkah’s age plays no role in determining how old Yitzchak was at the time of the Akeidah.
The Ibn Ezra even cites an opinion that Yitzchak was five years old at the Akeidah. He rejects this opinion, though, based on the Pasuk (Bereishit 22:6) which describes Yitzchak as carrying the wood to the Akeidah. Ibn Ezra therefore concludes that Yitzchak was a pre-adolescent at the time of the Akeidah, capable of carrying a burden but not yet an adult. Rav Yoel Bin Nun (in a personal conversation with this author) adds that the fact that Yiztchak’s speaking role during the Akeidah is limited to inquiring as to the location of the sheep seems to support the Ibn Ezra’s contention that Yitzchak was not an adult during the Akeidah.
The Ibn Ezra might adduce proof from the fact that at the Akeidah (22:12), Yitzchak is referred to as a Naar (lad). This, however, is not a persuasive proof, since there are adults in Tanach who are given the appellation “Naar,” such as Yehoshua (Shemot 33:11, see Ibn Ezra ad. loc.). The word Naar means not only lad but also student. Shmuel is described, “VeHaNaar Naar” (Shmuel 1:1:24, see Daat Mikra commentary ad. loc.), literally “The Naar is a Naar,” which seems to mean that Shmuel, as a lad, served as a student (of Eili). Thus, at Akeidat Yitzchak, Yitzchak, the student of Avraham, could be described as a Naar despite being an adult.
Interestingly, Ibn Ezra’s assertion that Yitzchak was approximately thirteen years old at the Akeidah fits with the second opinion presented by Rashi (cited in last week’s issue) that the command of the Akeidah emerged from a debate between Yitzchak and Yishmael. Yishmael claimed spiritual superiority due to the fact that he consented to Milah at age thirteen, to which Yitzchak responded that he was willing to sacrifice his entire being to Hashem. It is fitting, according to this approach, to say that Yitzchak was thirteen years old at the time of the Akeidah, as it matches the age when Yishmael was circumcised.
I suggested to Rav Yoel a compromise between Ibn Ezra and Radak. The Peshat of the Chumash could be that Yitzchak was a youngster during the Akeidah, but the Derash (deeper, non-literal explanation) adds another level of interpretation by teaching that Yitzchak acted maturely as if he were an adult. In this manner, there is room for both opinions within the text of the Chumash. Rav Yoel thought that this is definitely a viable manner in which to frame the Ibn Ezra-Radak dispute.
If one asks a knowledgeable Jew whether Yitzchak was an adult or child at the time of the Akeidah, he or she is likely to respond that he was an adult. It is emblazoned on the Jewish psyche that Yitzchak was a willing participant in the Akeidah. We look to Yitzchak as a model of readiness to die for Hashem, something that a devoted Jew is willing to do if (God forbid) it become necessary. Moreover, Yitzchak serves as a role model for us, as Rav Yosef Adler notes, because he did not hear Hashem’s command to sacrifice himself. Nonetheless, he fully complied with Hashem’s order, because he trusted that his father accurately comprehended and transmitted the word of Hashem to him. We too make enormous sacrifices in our observance of the Torah because of our confidence that our parents and ancestors have faithfully transmitted the divine expectations of Jews from generation to generation. May the merit of Yitzchak and our seeing his actions at the Akeidah as a genuine model of behavior move Hashem to grant us all a good 5768.