Parshat Vayera contains the Torah's narrative of Akeidat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac. The intensity of this story and potential for contradictory messages make this a complex topic to address. What are we supposed to learn from the Akeida? This biblical narrative deals with the basic questions of one’s relationship with God and nation, parents and children.
The narrative begins with a test.
וַיְהִי, אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וְהָאֱלֹקים, נִסָּה אֶת-אַבְרָהָם.
Even though the Rabbis in mishna Avot teach that Avraham was tested 10 times, this is the only place in Avraham’s life where we are told that God tested Avraham. It would seem that Hashem is testing if Avraham is indeed worthy, although it is unclear what outcome Hashem expects.
Avraham is asked to take his beloved Isaac and “offer him as a burnt offering” וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם, לְעֹלָה. As a standalone directive, this message could represent an obligation on us all to sacrifice that which is most precious to us for the sake of our relationship with Hashem (or our values or our nation). This directive tears at us: Avraham is asked for no clear reason to be completely ready to sacrifice not just everything in a material sense, but another person, his son, Sara’s son, the son with whom he was promised a future nation – by The Almighty. The narrative itself slowly focuses on the object of the sacrifice: take your son, your only one, your beloved one….Isaac.
But what is being tested? Will this trial demonstrate Avraham’s awe for God, his love for God in his obeisance beyond his love for his son and the actualization of building a nation which he had been working toward alongside his wife Sarah for decades? Is it the sacrifice of human ethics and rationality in favor of what Avraham heard as a Divine command? Or, is it that this test was geared to illustrate that this type of command and sacrifice is not the kind of relationship HaKadosh Baruch Hu has in mind with human beings: A willingness to sacrifice human relationship and existence in order to create a closer bond with God.
This is the same Avraham who challenged God: Will the God, Judge of the entire earth not do Mishpat (18:25)?
חָלִלָה לָּךְ--הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל-הָאָרֶץ, לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט
It was personal then also. Lot, his nephew was in Sodom. But, it became a plea for mankind. Certainly, this same Avraham would not allow this directive from Hashem, to sacrifice the son he loves, to go into effect without a question. But, Avraham does not question here. Avraham does not hesitate and continues on course to follow God’s request. He sets off with alacrity to fulfill God’s command. For Avraham, more noble than saving his son was to fulfill the awe-inspiring sacrificial act of giving his beloved son over for a sacrifice.
The Abrabanel says that basically, Avraham did not have a choice: In his words:…
“No matter how horrifying the demand, Abraham must obey God’s command. Therefore, without hesitating for a moment or asking any questions, he set out to fulfill his duty. Since nothing is of greater weight than the will of God, nothing can justify disregarding it. The truly devout must therefore never question God’s motives, even when bidden to comply with a command that appears to be utterly irrational. So intense must be the awe of God, that defying his will would be simply inconceivable. It was with a view to realizing this noblest ideal that Abraham so eagerly looked forward to consummating the awe-inspiring ritual of sacrificing Isaac.”
Even with this support of Abrabanel, the Akeida was a test. Perhaps, God wanted to see the capacity of someone as successful as Avraham, testing if he fully understood that commitment to God also meant commitment to humanity and to a future for the nation that Avraham and Sarah worked so hard to form?
From the moment Avraham raises his hand to Yitzhak, the text itself demonstrates God as distancing from Avraham rather than a close conversation or a new Brit.
Upon Avraham’s choice to lift up his hand to sacrifice Yitzhak, it is no longer God conversing with Avraham. It is a Malach Hashem, an angel who is sent to deliver the message from God that Avraham should not touch the child. God’s distancing is evidence that the choice to sacrifice Avraham was not the correct one. In fact, for the rest of Avraham’s life, he is not in communication directly with Hashem. He no longer enjoys that closeness. For, in that closeness is a distancing from humanity.
The unique relationship in which there is such a profound closeness to God can be so enticing that other relationships, critical to human existence goes the wayside. It is tempting to move oneself into that world of Divine pursuit and conversation to the exclusion of all that is around you. But, that is not human. It is necessary to have kavod haBriot. What a pity if all that God created, that God put in this world is shunted to the side for a personal sense of religiosity.
Religious belief is not to the exclusion of other relationships!
Moshe Rabbainu almost runs the risk of this very violation. In Parshat B’haalotkha, in Sefer Bamidbar (Numbers), we see that with a complaining people who require leadership, Moshe is becoming much more comfortable in the company of God in the Ohel Moed. He wants to withdraw from the people. When Eldad and Meidad begin to prophesize in the camp: something viewed as a negative, at least they are engaging with the people. God sends Moshe right back into the camp to connect with the Am. Moshe is told that he cannot just be with God. That is not what it means to be a leader - a leader who represents what it means to be a religious individual. In Sefer Devarim, we witness Moshe’s last moments. He wants to engage Bnei Yisrael. Instead of having them come to him, Moshe goes out to the people. Moshe has learned the significance of service to God not only in his own connection to the Divine. But service to the Divine is in one’s commitment to and connection with humanity…that can connect one deeper with God.
Avraham’s relationship with God is not the only one affected by the Akeida. Yitzhak shows great allegiance to his father. Avraham, shows great allegiance to Avinu sheBaShamayim, to Hashem. Yitzhak says Hinaini when called by Avraham. Avraham replying Hinaini when called by Hashem. Each child in awe of the Father. The depth of the relationship with Avraham and Isaac will be in jeopardy if Avraham fails to see that religiosity is also being a protective parent to Isaac. Even though at the end, Avraham is stopped, his relationship with his son is distanced.
We see Avraham and Yitzhak walking together afterward, but, they never speak again. (We know that Speaking is key to a relationship). How deeply affected we are by the fact that this relationship has been compromised. In fact, in Parshat Chayei Sara, Eliezer, Avraham’s servant, is the one who serves as the liason between Yitzhak and Avraham. Yitzhak is bereft after losing his mother and is inconsolable until he meets Rivka. It is not until Avraham dies and Ishmael and Yitzhak bury Avraham that we see a physical reunion between Avraham and Yitzhak.
In the text we do not see Avraham in conversations in a direct way as before. Perhaps God felt that Avraham was unable to handle the closeness of the relationship. But, it is clear that God’s distance to Avraham was as a result of his choice to put the Awe of God over the life of his son and the future of the nation. Nevertheless, Avraham spends the rest of his days ensuring a respectful burial place for his family and we see him involved through Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac, focusing on what it means to build upon a nation that he almost single handedly decimated. Make no mistake, this is Avraham involved in religious life.
If one examines the reward the follows the episode of the Akeida, there is nothing new in the bracha offered to Avraham. Everything has been promised to him already. Because Avraham does not raise his hand, in fact, he does not completely fail and he has reinstated the blessing offered him. Yet, one item is added, a blessing more for Yitzhak …a blessing of security. The only difference is seen in the following:
יז כִּי-בָרֵךְ אֲבָרֶכְךָ, וְהַרְבָּה אַרְבֶּה אֶת-זַרְעֲךָ כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְכַחוֹל, אֲשֶׁר עַל-שְׂפַת הַיָּם; וְיִרַשׁ זַרְעֲךָ, אֵת שַׁעַר אֹיְבָיו.
that in blessing I will bless you, and in multiplying I will multiply your seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;
The enemies piece was only necessary now. The nation that Avraham founded will have those who seek to destroy it - internally or externally. The recognition of God as Creator and Supreme Being is not enough. There needs to exist an appreciation for and respect for what God created. Without the sense of humanity as a partnership with the recognition of God, religiosity is not present. Believe in God, have faith in God, be in awe of God and in doing so have a respect for what God created. Many believe that religiosity is beyond the person to my right and left. No. In fact religiosity requires us all otherwise it is void.
The Chiddush of the Akeida, what we learn here cannot be that one is willing to kill one’s child because of religious values. This cannot just be about a person’s willingness to follow God even though it might mean death of his son. Because people have been killing and allowing themselves to be killed because of religious convictions throughout history.
Avraham's failing was partially in not fully understanding what Hashem wanted him to do and by misinterpreting His command, Avraham almost brought tragedy on himself and on his progeny. God was testing if Avraham understood and I argue that he did not. In that sense, we appreciate why this narrative is read during Aseret Yemei Teshuva, the second day of Rosh Hashana. When we say in Selichot, L'kha Hashem hatzdakah v'lanu boshet hapanim becomes all the more clear. Our failures in understanding and misinterpreting what Hashem asks of us, is what causes us to have boshet hapanim – to be embarrased. On the other hand, L'kha Hashem hatzdakah is a state of Divine perfection which we strive to emulate.
This premise of Avraham Avinu's boshet hapanim extends to all the Avot; each of who achieved greatness in their formation of Am Yisrael and Kabbalat Hamitzvot, but who were each less successful in their tasks and significant responsibilities to their
We pray for the seichel, the wisdom, to act in accordance with the values God has given us in this world and perhaps through correcting our errors gain a better understanding of our role in this world. With this, humanity succeeds.