Imagination Meets Reality

And it was after these events that the L-rd tested Avraham.  And He said to him, “Avraham.” And he said, “I am here.” (Sefer Beresheit 22:1)

Outline of the Akeydah

This passage introduces the account to the Akeydah – the binding of Yitzchak.  Hashem tests[1] Avraham.  He commands him to offer Yitzchak as a sacrifice.  Avraham travels with Yitzchak to the place appointed for the sacrifice.  He builds an altar.  He binds Yitzchak and prepares to slaughter him.  Before Avraham carries out his intention, an angel calls out to him and commands him to not sacrifice or harm his son. A ram appears and Avraham offers the ram in Yitzchak’s place.

The Akeydah presents many problems.  Let’s consider a few of these.

And he said: Do not send your hand against the lad and do nothing to him.  Now I know that you are G-d fearing.  You did not withhold your son, your only one, from Me.   (Sefer Beresheit 22:12)

Avraham’s dialogue with Hashem

In the above passage, the angel calls to Avraham and speaks to him in the name of Hashem.  He tells him to not harm Yitzchak.  Through his willingness to sacrifice his son, he has demonstrated his absolute commitment to the will of Hashem.

Rashi, quoting the midrash, comments that at this point Avraham questioned Hashem.  Hashem promised him that from Yitzchak and his descendants would emerge the nation that would be associated with him.  Then, Hashem told him to offer Yitzchak as a sacrifice.  Now, he told him to not harm Yitzchak.  How can these statements be reconciled?

Hashem responded that there is no contradiction.  He never retracted His covenant with Avraham to create a nation through Yitzchak.  He also did not reverse Himself regarding Yitzchak’s sacrifice.  This is because He never instructed Avraham to slaughter Yitzchak.  He told him to place him upon the altar.  Now, He told him to remove him from the altar.[2]

What is the meaning of this midrash?  Avraham was confused.  He was unable to reconcile Hashem’s various promises and directives.  Hashem’s response was that His statements were not contradictory.  Avraham misinterpreted the directive to offer Yitzchak.  He was not commanded to sacrifice him, only to place him on the altar.

This response seems contrived.  This is for two reasons.  First, Hashem told Avraham to offer Yitzchak as a burnt offering.  How can the directive to remove him from the altar be reconciled with this commandment?  Second, Hashem understood that Avraham would interpret His words as a command to sacrifice Yitzchak.  Hashem relied upon this interpretation.  The test of the Akeydah was predicated upon Avraham concluding that he was commanded to sacrifice Yitzchak.  How could Hashem claim He had not really directed Avraham to sacrifice his son?

And Avraham named that place, Hashem will see, as it is said to this day: On the mountain, Hashem will be seen.  (Sefer Beresheit 22:14)

Yitzchak’s ashes are collected and piled upon the mountain

Avraham names the site of the Akeydah “Hashem Will See”.  The Bait HaMikdash – the Sacred Temple – will be built on this site and the Divine Presence will dwell there.  Commenting on this passage, Rashi quotes the midrash.  In future generations Hashem will look upon the ashes of Yitzchak, collected into a pile on this mountain, and He will be moved to forgive the Jewish people of their sins.[3]

These comments are very difficult to understand.  Yitzchak was not offered as a sacrifice.  Hashem directed Avraham to remove him from the altar.  According to this midrash, Yitzchak’s ashes are collected and standing upon the mountain.  How can this assertion be reconciled with the Torah’s account of the Akeydah?

And after this Avraham lifted his eyes and he saw that there was a ram entangled in a tree by its horns.  He went, he took the ram, and he offered it as a burnt offering in the place of his son.  (Sefer Bereshiet 22:13)

Avraham offers a ram in place of Yitzchak

This question is addressed by Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik – GRIZ.  His response is based upon another comment of Rashi.  In the above passage Avraham observes a ram on the mountain.  He offers the ram as a burnt offering “in the place of his son”.  In what sense was this ram “in place” of Yitzchak?  Rashi comments:

What is the meaning of “in place of his son”?  With each element of the sacrifice service that he performed upon it, he prayed and he said, “May it be the will (of Hashem) that this will be treated as if it is performed upon my son – as if he is slaughtered, as if his blood is sprinkled upon the altar, as if he is skinned, as if he is burned and transformed into ashes.[4] 

GRIZ explains that the ram that Avraham offered was a substitute for and a representative of Yitzchak.  Through the ram, Avraham offered Yitzchak as a burnt offering.  The ashes of the ram are identified as the ashes of Yitzchak.

According to this insight, Hashem’s response to Avraham’s confusion is understood.  Avraham was told to sacrifice his son. Then, Hashem told Avraham that he should not harm his son and He revealed to him a ram.  Hashem explained to Avraham that the command to sacrifice Yitzchak had not been retracted; He had agreed to accept the ram as a substitute for Yitzchak.  The offering of the ram fulfilled the directive to sacrifice Yitzchak. In short, Avraham sacrificed his son, through offering the ram as a burnt offering.[5]

And Avraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it upon Yitzchak his son.  He took in his hand the flame and the knife.  And they went forth together.  (Sefer Beresheit 22:6)

Avraham’s commitment to the Akeydah

GRIZ’s comments leave a fundamental issue unresolved.  He explains, based on Rashi’s comments, that the ram was a substitute for Yitzchak.  He does not mean that it served as a surrogate in a merely technical sense.  He means that in sacrificing the ram Avraham experienced offering his son.  He achieved a remarkable feat of imagination.  How was this possible?

The above passage describes Avraham and Yitzchak proceeding to the site of the Akeydah.  The Torah tells us that they went together. What is the message of this phrase?  Of course, they traveled together!  Rashi comments that the passage is not describing their physical relationship.  It is telling us that they shared the same excitement and anticipation.  Avraham, who understood that he was to sacrifice his son, traveled with Yitzchak who was ignorant of fate awaiting him!  Avraham reconciled himself to the commandment to sacrifice his son and proceeded on his journey in a state of joy – prepared and eager to fulfill Hashem’s commandment.  This is an amazing comment.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l – the Rav – explains that Avraham accepted Hashem’s commandment absolutely.  He did not hesitate or resist.  When he embarked on his journey, his commitment was so perfect and complete, it was as if he had already sacrificed his son. When he reached the site for the sacrifice, the actual sacrifice was no longer a challenge.  In his mind, Yitzchak was already gone.[6]

This insight explains the comments of Rashi and GRIZ.  How did Avraham succeed in imagining that he was sacrificing Yitzchak when he sacrificed the ram?  He achieved this substitution because he had completely accepted the sacrifice of Yitzchak.  Because of this acceptance, he could imagine each act as performed upon his son.

The Rav’s comments also provide an alternative explanation of Hashem’s response to Avraham’s confusion.  Avraham could not reconcile the commandment to sacrifice Yitzchak with the directive to not harm him.  The explanation is that Avraham perfectly and completely accepted upon himself the commandment to sacrifice Yitzchak. This acceptance was as absolute as the actual sacrifice of Yitzchak.  In effect, Yitzchak was sacrificed by Avraham before they even arrived at the designated site.  The actual sacrifice was rendered superfluous.  Hashem responded to Avraham that because in his heart and mind he had sacrificed Yitzchak, the actual sacrifice would add nothing.

And you should love Hashem, your L-rd, with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your resources.  (Sefer Devarim 5:5)

Understanding Avraham

This analysis provides an important insight into Avraham.  We imagine Avraham responding to the command to sacrifice his son with anguish.  We envision him upon the mountain, his knife poised above Yitzchak’s neck, while tears stream from his eyes.  We assume that Avraham fought an intense inner battle – his commitment to Hashem contending with his compassion for his beloved son.  When he is released from the directive to sacrifice Yitzchak, he is relieved from his agony.

Rashi presents Avraham in a completely different light.  Avraham traveled to the appointed mountain prepared to sacrifice his son.  He experienced joy in the opportunity to fulfill the will of Hashem.

Avraham achieved the love of and devotion to Hashem described in the above passage.  He loved Hashem completely. His heart and soul were united in this intense love.  He succeeded in subjugating every aspect of his personality to this all-encompassing love of Hashem.[7]

[1] Hashem does not need to test an individual in order to know him.  The commentators provide a number of explanations for the term “test”.  Ramban suggests that the experience is described from the perspective of Avraham.  From his perspective, the command to sacrifice his son was a test of his devotion to Hashem.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 22:12.

[3] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 22:14.

[4] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 22:13.

[5] Rav Y. Hershkowitz, Torat Chaim on TaNach, p 27.

[6] Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Abraham's Journey, pp 10-12.

[7] This intense commitment should not be confused with fanaticism.  Fanaticism is a commitment to subjective ideals which cannot be objectively confirmed.  Avraham was guided by a prophecy from Hashem that directed him to sacrifice Yitzchak.  He was not acting upon an unfounded belief.

The Torah requires that we serve Hashem wholeheartedly and without reservation.  Its commandments sometimes require that we treat others harshly.  We are required to punish those who violate its commandments.  This applies to even those commandments that are chukim – lacking empirical justification.  We are commanded to uproot idolatry from the Land of Israel – at the point of the sword, if necessary.  How are these behaviors distinguished from fanaticism? How do we distinguish ourselves from others who have murdered and pillaged in the names of their religions?  Furthermore, how can a just G-d require that we punish others for acting according to their best judgment if we have no firmer basis for our beliefs?  If we respond that we act out of faith and need no further license, then we must be prepared to extend the same justification to all those who have persecuted our people on the exact same basis!  If we base ourselves on unfounded faith, then only the accident of birth differentiates Jew from idolator.

These questions clearly confirm that the Torah is intended to be studied and observed as an objective and rationally established system of laws.  The assertion that blind faith is not only adequate but ideal results in all of the questions outlined above.