Akeidat Yitzchak (the binding of Isaac) certainly constitutes a central theme in Jewish life in general and Rosh HaShanah specifically. The basic story by itself expresses an incredibly powerful message even if one does not delve deeply into the story. However, in the next three issues we shall take a deeper look into this key story in an attempt to further enrich and reveal new facets of our experience of the Yamim Nora’im.
Why did Hashem Test Avraham with the Akeidah?
When one ponders the Akeidah, a most basic question arises: Why did Hashem issue such a soul-wrenching order to Avraham Avinu? An answer may be gleaned from the words that introduce the Akeidah: “And it was after these events and Hashem tested Avraham” (Bereishit 22:1). Somehow, certain preceding events triggered Hashem’s commandment to perform the Akeidah. We shall present four explanations of which event triggered the Akeidah - two cited by Rashi, that of the Rashbam, and a variation of the Rashbam presented by Rav Yoel Bin Nun in his work Pirkei HaAvot on Sefer Bereishit.
Approach #1 of Rashi
Rashi cites one approach in Chazal (Sanhedrin 89b) that “After these matters” does not refer to a prior event recorded in Sefer Bereishit. Rather, Hashem issued the Akeidah command after the words that the Satan had with Hashem. The Satan accused Avraham, say Chazal, of not having offered even one bull or ram at all the meals that Avraham conducted. Presumably, this refers to the meals recorded in Bereishit Perek 21, such as the meal Avraham Avinu made for Yitzchak and the meal he shared with Avimelech. Hashem responded that would He command Avraham to sacrifice his son, Avraham would not hesitate to do so, whereupon such a command was indeed issued.
According to this Midrash, the Akeidah was a punishment to Avraham Avinu for his failure to offer Korbanot. His willingness to offer Yitzchak (and sacrifice the ram) made up for his failure to offer Korbanot in Perek 21. In other words, the correction matched the spiritual shortcoming. Indeed, at the conclusion of the Akeidah, Hashem tells Avraham that now He knows that Avraham is worthy of having his descendents receive Eretz Yisrael, because he has demonstrated that he is a Yerei Elokim (God-fearing man). Apparently, there was a bit of a spiritual deficiency in Avraham Avinu before the Akeidah that might have disqualified him from receiving this Berachah to the fullest extent With the Akeidah, Avraham corrected that spiritual shortcoming by expressing the spiritual greatness that until now lay dormant within his personality (see Ramban to Bereishit 22:1).
One may ask, though, what textual support Chazal have for this assertion. We might suggest that Chazal derive the idea from the book of Iyov. Iyov is the only other story in Tanach in which a Tzaddik is tested with emotionally-wrenching experiences involving his children. Chazal might reason that just as Iyov’s test was triggered by the Satan pointing out a spiritual deficiency in him (Iyov 1:9-12 and 2:4-6), so too Avraham’s test was caused by the Satan noting a spiritual deficit in him. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, in his great work The Lonely Man of Faith, writes that Iyov’s failure was that he sacrificed only on behalf of his family member’s and no one else (Iyov 1:5). He later corrected this misstep at the conclusion of the Sefer (Iyov 42:10) by praying on behalf of someone other than a family member. In the interim, Iyov was tested by the loss of his children. Similarly, Avraham’s initial failure was in lack of sacrifices, and he had to make up for it with a near sacrifice of his precious Yitzchak. My Talmid Avi Levinson, though, questions why Iyov in fact lost his children and Avraham Avinu did not lose Yitzchak. Perhaps offering the ram as substitute for Yitzchak avoided the loss of Yitzchak, as we shall discuss in the third issue of this series.
Approach #2 of Rashi
The second approach that Rashi cites from Chazal (Sanhedrin ad. loc.) also does not understand the words “After these matters” to refer to an event that is recorded in the Chumash. Rather, this approach asserts, it refers to a conversation Yitzchak had with Yishmael. Chazal say that Yishmael was glorifying himself above Yitzchak by claiming that he was more dedicated to Hashem than Yitzchak was, because he had received a Brit Milah at age thirteen and yet did not protest, while Yitzchak had his Brit at eight days old when the pain involved is far more tolerable than at age thirteen. Yitzchak, in turn, responded, “You seek to prove your superiority in regard to one limb, but if Hashem told me to sacrifice myself before Him, I would not object.”
The major difference between the two approaches is the question of the focus of the Akeidah. The first approach sees Avraham as the protagonist, whereas the second views Yitzchak as the primary character. According to this latter explanation, the Akeidah demonstrates Yitzchak’s spiritual superiority over Yishmael, thereby justifying Hashem giving Eretz Yisrael to Yitzchak’s descendents rather than to Yishmael’s descendents. Indeed, as we noted earlier, the Akeidah concludes with a promise that Avraham’s children will defeat their enemies. The Akeidah explains why Yitzchak deserves to have his children defeat Yishmael’s children in their struggle for Eretz Yisrael. We should note that these disparate approaches are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to say that the Akeidah served move than one purpose.
One might again wonder where in the Chumash Chazal see evidence of this second approach. Firstly, Chazal understand that Yishmael and Yitzchak continue the conflict between Hagar and Sarah Imeinu that began when the former became pregnant with Yishmael (see Rashi to Bereishit 21:9 for an example). In addition, at least four significant parallels between the story of the freeing of Yishmael (Bereishit 21:1-21) and Akeidat Yitzchak demonstrate the link between the two.
In both stories, “VaYashkeim Avraham BaBoker,” “And Avraham arose in the morning,” to give up a child. Yitzchak nearly dies at the Akeidah, and Yishmael nearly dies in the desert. In both cases, the child is saved by a Malach (angel). In both instances, something is revealed to save the child; the ram for Yitzchak and the well for Yishmael. Thus Chazal have ample evidence to support a connection between Akeidat Yitzchak and Yishmael.
Rashbam – A Punishment
The Rashbam explains that “After these matters” refers to the episode that is recorded immediately before the Akeidah - the treaty that Avraham Avinu made with Avimelech (Bereishit 21:22-34). It is hardly surprising that the Rashbam interprets this way, since his commentary is based on Peshuto Shel Mikra, the straightforward reading of the text, which would indicate that the Akeidah is based on the events recorded immediately beforehand. Rashbam, unlike Rashi, does not look to Midrashim to solve problems in the text of the Chumash. Instead, he looks for solutions within the Chumash itself (see Rashbam to Bereishit 37:1).
It is illuminating that Rashbam states that the Akeidah served as a punishment to Avraham for having made the treaty with Avimelech. The Rashbam regards this treaty as a betrayal of Hashem’s promise of Eretz Yisrael to Avraham. Needless to say, this Rashbam is often cited by Religious Zionist opponents of land concessions to Arabs (as I note in my Gray Matter I p. 137). Support for Rashbam’s assertion also may be derived from the conclusion of the Akeidah, when Hashem swears to Avraham that his children will conquer Eretz Yisrael. Rashbam probably understands the fact that Hashem had to reissue this promise as an indication that Avraham did something that caused him to be unworthy of receiving the earlier promises. The dedication displayed and punishment endured by Avraham Avinu at the Akeidah restored his worthiness.
Rav Yoel Bin Nun cites numerous linguistic parallels between the Akeidah and the Avimelech stories to support Rashbam’s argument that the two events are linked. He notes that an oath takes place in both stories. Hashem spares (“Chasach”) Avimelech (20:6) from sinning, and Avraham does not spare (“Lo Chasachta”) Yitzchak (22:16). Avraham rebukes Avimelech for lack of Yirat Elokim in his kingdom (20:11), and Hashem praises Avraham for the Yirat Elokim he displayed at the Akeidah (22:12). The words “VaYishlach” and “VaYikach” (“he extended” and “he took”) appear in both sections (20:2 and 22:10). In both stories the words “Asita Et HaDavar HaZeh,” “You have done this matter,” appear (20:10 and 22:17).
Rav Yoel Bin Nun’s Variation on the Rashbam
Rav Yoel suggests that one can accept the linkage between the Avimelech stories and the Akeidah and yet not subscribe to the idea that the Akeidah is a punishment for Avraham concluding the treaty with Avimelech. Rav Yoel explains (as I understand it) that in Sefer Bereishit, we find many negative personalities. Paroh, Chamor and Shechem are examples of characters that are unambiguously evil. However, there are other characters who are more of a neutral moral/spiritual stature. Avimelech is an example of such a character.
Rav Yoel argues that the Akeidah may be understood as a test that is necessary to demonstrate why Avraham merits Eretz Yisrael and why his descendants deserve to conquer the land from the descendants of the likes of Avimelech. A proof to this is the fact that Hashem promises Avraham that his descendents will inherit the land of their enemies immediately after the Akeidah. In a combination of Rashbam’s view and Rashi’s second approach, Rav Yoel suggests that the Akeidah comes to demonstrate the superiority of Avraham Avinu over Avimelech and his ilk.
The question of Hashem’s motivation for the Akeidah has puzzled thoughtful readers (both Jewish and non-Jewish) of the Chumash for generations. We have presented four explanations of this astonishing divine commandment. During the Yamim Nora’im, we cite Avraham Avinu’s incredible courage at the Akeidah, indirectly demonstrating our worthiness by identifying with Avraham’s actions. In addition, since we are his descendants to whom Hashem promised that as a result of the Akeidah we will defeat our enemies, we indicate to Hashem our worthiness to be the beneficiaries of His oath to Avraham after the Akeidah. We pray that the merit of Akeidat Yitzchak stand us in good stead during the Yamim Nora’im and help us be deserving of a good year both as individuals and as a community.
Next week (IY”H and B”N), we shall discuss the role of Yitzchak Avinu at the Akeidah.