In our final issue discussing Akeidat Yitzchak, we shall discuss the problem of Hashem appearing to change His mind at the Akeidah. Hashem initially seems to instruct Avraham to offer Yitzchak as a Korban (sacrifice), and subsequently He instructs Avraham via a Malach (angel) not to harm Yitzchak. A pillar of Torah belief is that Hashem’s commands are not subject to change, as we state in the “Yigdal” poem, “Lo Yachalif HaKeil VeLo Yamir Dato LeOlamim,” “Hashem will never switch nor replace his laws.” How, then, could Hashem have altered His command to Avraham, especially in such a short time span?! We shall analyze both Rashi’s and Radak’s respective solutions to this vexing problem.
Rashi – Offer not Slaughter
Rashi (Bereishit 22:2 s.v. VeHaaleihu) adopts an incredible solution to this problem. He explains (citing Pesikta Zutrata) that if we examine the command, we find that Hashem commanded Avraham to “Offer Yitzchak up” but not to slaughter him. Thus, Hashem did not change His command, for as soon as Avraham placed Yitzchak on the altar and displayed his readiness to sacrifice him, Hashem intervened and said that Avraham had already fulfilled the command and may now release Yitzchak.
Rashi’s approach is astonishing in that it seems to indicate that Avraham Avinu misunderstood Hashem’s command. This is highly surprising, as the Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:24) writes that one of the primary lessons of the Akeidah is that a Navi must be absolutely certain of his prophecy. If Avraham had harbored even the slightest doubt regarding his prophecy, he would have not gone through with the Akeidah.
I posed this question to Rav Yoel Bin Nun, who replied that this question hinges on a question of profound importance regarding the Akeidah: Was Avraham going to the Akeidah hoping that he would not have to offer Yitzchak or knowing that he would not have to offer him? Rashi seems to adopt the latter possibility, as Avraham knew from the start that he was not required to actually kill Yitzchak. Accordingly, Avraham did not misinterpret Hashem’s command.
The problem with this answer is that it leaves unanswered why Avraham took a knife to slaughter Yitzchak. Rav Yoel suggested that by doing so, Avraham was intimating to Hashem, “Is this truly what you want me to do?”
Interestingly, Rav Yoel (in his work Pirkei HaAvot) believes that his fundamental question has an altogether too practical and unfortunate Nafka Minah (ramification). What should be the attitude of parents who send their son to fight in Tzahal? Should the parents’ attitude be one of hope that their son emerge unscathed, or should they have Bitachon in Hashem and feel certain that their son will return whole from Tzahal? This question, Rav Yoel believes, hinges on what Avraham Avinu’s attitude was during the three day journey to the Akeidah.
We should note that Rav Saadiah Gaon (Bereishit 22:2) does not subscribe to Rashi’s approach, as he interprets “VeHaaleihu” as “Slaughter him.” According to Rasag, Avraham Avinu expected to have to slaughter Yitzchak. This, of course, leads to the problem of how Hashem changed his mind and ordered Avraham not to slaughter Yitzchak when He initially ordered him to slaughter his son.
Radak – The Ram as a Substitute for Yitzchak
The Radak (22:2 s.v. VeHaaleihu) presents another incredible solution to this problem. He explains that since Avraham demonstrated his willingness to fully comply with the command, Hashem considered it as if Yitzchak was actually offered on the Mizbeiach. This approach seems to fit with the Gemara’s teaching (Kiddushin 40a) that when a Jew is fully resolved to perform a Mitzvah but did not actually perform it, Hashem regards it as the equivalent of having performed the Mitzvah.
An alternative understanding of the Radak is based on the Ramban’s (Vayikra 1:9) understanding of Korbanot. Theoretically, the Ramban explains, the individual offering a Korban should sacrifice himself. Since this is impractical, we offer an animal Korban as a substitute. Similarly, we can say that when Avraham offered the ram as a Korban, it was as if Yitzchak had been slaughtered. The ram substituted for Yitzchak, and Hashem’s command to slaughter Yitzchak was fulfilled through the ram. The Torah’s explicit statement that the ram was offered “Tachat Beno” “In place of his son” (22:13), clearly supports this approach.
Moreover, this idea fits beautifully with the Radak’s (ad. loc.) assertion that the Akeidah initiated Har HaMoriyah, the site of the future Beit HaMikdash (as stated in Divrei HaYamim 2:3:1), as the location for Korbanot. Accordingly, the Akeidah established the paradigm for Korbanot, that of an animal serving as a substitute for the individual offering the Korban.
Indeed, the Mishnah (Tamid 4:1) states that the Korban Tamid (the daily sacrifice) would not have its four legs tied together or its front legs tied together and its back legs tied together. Rather, its foreleg and hind leg on each side would be bound together, which, the Gemara (Tamid 31b) explains, serves as a commemoration of Akeidat Yitzchak. This clearly fits with the idea of Akeidat Yitzchak constituting a paradigm for future Korbanot.
Support for the Ram-for-Yitzchak Approach
Many Midrashim cited by Rashi in his commentary to the Akeidah seem to support the Radak’s approach. Rashi (22:13 s.v. Tachat Beno) cites a Midrash that expresses this idea in an incredibly powerful manner. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 56:9) states:
During each aspect of the offering, Avraham would pray and state “May this be as if it is performed on my son – as if my son is slaughtered, as if his blood is thrown [on the altar], as if his skin is flayed, and as if he was placed on the fire and rendered into ash.”
Another example is Rashi (22:14, citing Bereishit Rabbah ad. loc.) who states that every year Hashem sees Yitzchak’s piled up ashes and is motivated to forgive Bnei Yisrael. The idea of “Yitzchak’s ashes” makes sense only if one subscribes to the idea that Hashem considered things as if Yitzchak was in fact burned at the Akeidah.
Finally, Rashi (to 22:12) cites an astonishing Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 56:7) that states that when Avraham was ordered not to slaughter Yitzchak, initially he responded, “If so I have come here for naught. I will wound him and extract a bit of blood.” Avraham was subsequently instructed not to even wound Yitzchak.
This Midrash seems incredible. Why would Avraham insist on wounding his son if he was not commanded to do so?! An answer might be that Avraham was struggling precisely with our question. Avraham thought that since he was commanded to slaughter Yitzchak, the order could not be reversed. At first, Avraham felt that the resolution to this problem would be to wound Yitzchak, which Hashem would regard as the equivalent of killing him.
Avraham’s quandary as to how to fulfill Hashem’s command to slaughter was resolved when he suddenly discovered the ram with its horns stuck in the thicket. As the Rashbam (22:13) explains, Avraham realized that the message of the “coincidence” was that “This angel is indeed an authentic messenger of Hashem, Who has prepared for me this ram to substitute for my son, and therefore it is caught in the thicket so that I can take it and offer it as a Korban.”
Ramifications for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur
The concept of Hashem’s command to slaughter Yitzchak being implemented in a lenient manner has great ramifications for our Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur experience. We ask Hashem in Selichot (based on the Mishnah that appears on Taanit 15a), “The One Who answered Avraham at Har HaMoriyah, He will answer us.” Similarly, we say, “The One Who answered Yitzchak when he was bound on the altar, He will answer us.” This clearly indicates that Avraham and Yitzchak were praying prior to the discovery of the ram at the Akeidah.
What were they praying for? For Hashem to change His command? That cannot be, because it is impossible. Rather, it seems they were davening that Hashem implement His command in a lenient manner. During Selichot, we cite this as a precedent for Hashem to interpret His decrees for us and for all the Jewish People in a lenient manner.
This also seems to be the reason why we use a ram’s horn for Shofar-blowing, even though the horns of many other animals are also suitable for the Mitzvah. The Gemara (Rosh HaShanah 16a) explains that we use a ram’s horn to remind Hashem of Akeidat Yitzchak. One could say that we marshal the image of the ram’s horn as a symbol of a lenient interpretation of a divine decree. By using a ram’s horn, we plead to Hashem to similarly interpret His decrees for our future in a lenient manner. Indeed, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (cited in Harerei Kedem 1:7) amasses considerable evidence that Tekiat Shofar constitutes a form of Tefillah. How appropriate it is for us to present our wordless prayer using a ram’s horn in our pleas for mercy on our day of judgment.
We hope our discussion of Akeidat Yitzchak has revealed some new facets of this central episode. Moreover, it is an event not only to be studied but also to be relived, as the Gemara (Rosh HaShanah 16a) states that if we properly execute the Mussaf of Rosh HaShanah, Hashem regards it “As if we were bound before Him.” Hopefully, we will achieve this level of intensity in our Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur prayers, whereupon Hashem will respond as mercifully as He did to Avraham and Yitzchak at the Akeidah.