“The man of faith, animated by his great experience, is able to reach a point at which not only his logic of the mind but even his logic of the heart and of the will, everything – even his own “I” awareness – has to give in to an ‘absurd’ commitment” – Rabbi Soloveitchik, “The Lonely Man of Faith”
Nowhere is there to be found a greater example of man’s absurd commitment to God than when Abraham took that legendary “leap of faith” and – in the act known as the akeida – accepted the divine request to bind his son to an altar at the top of Mount Moriah. But God does not make the akeida-like request at the outset of one’s journey, for God is not interested in this kind of absurd acceptance. To give oneself over to such an extent – without first developing faith – demonstrates not devout commitment but blind abandon.
This notion of developing faith, I suggest, is hinted at in the Mishna:
“With ten tests was Abraham, our father, tried and he withstood them all, in order to show how great was his love [for God]” (Avot 5:3).
These ten tests provided Abraham the grist to grind out his faith – learning to accept the absurd – step by step. The tests, according to Maimonides, are as follows:
(1) God tells Abraham to leave hearth and home and move to the land of Canaan, (2) but upon so doing he is faced with a famine. Forced to leave Canaan he arrives in Egypt, (3) whereupon his wife is taken from him. Upon returning to Canaan, his nephew is taken captive and (4) Abraham is forced to go war to retrieve him. (5) His beloved wife does not bear children and he is forced to take an Egyptian concubine. (6) Upon reaching the elderly age of ninety-nine, he is asked to circumcise himself. (7) In the land of Canaan his wife is abducted. (8) Later he is forced to banish the concubine with whom he had developed a relationship, (9) as well as his son through her – whom he held to be his inheritor. (10) And ultimately he is asked to offer the son of his dreams on the altar.
Now, what made these occurrences “tests” was not simply that they were difficult situations but that they went against the promises God had made to Abraham at the outset of his journey: “And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing. And I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse” (Genesis 12:2-3). Each test, then, demanded acceptance of the absurd, of a reality that contradicted a divine promise. Each test, then, demanded faith. As the tests progressed, God revealed Himself to Abraham – sometimes reassuring him, sometimes delivering him from evil – and thus Abraham’s faith was strengthened before the next test.
Our Mishna (Avot 5:3) teaches that through these experiences Abraham evidenced his great love for God; a love demonstrated by accepting the absurd without questioning God’s ways. Abraham, test by test, experienced God – sometimes in open ways, sometimes in hidden ways –and as the relationship progressed, Abraham expanded his devotion through unquestioning submission. Now, clearly there is no great value in thoughtless veneration, rather the point is that as one develops his relationship with God, one develops love, one develops faith. The greatest demonstration of love – to do the will of another without question – is here the greatest demonstration of faith.
Of the ten tests, three come in the form of an explicit divine directive: emigration, circumcision, akeida. These three events are turning points, moments, on the pathway of the ten tests to developing faith.
According to the Midrash (Ber. R. 39:1), Abraham first found God by force of the teleological argument – i.e., design must have a Designer. God then appears to Abraham with the words: “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee. And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing” (Gen. 12:1-2). The directive to emigrate was the beginning of faith, a relatively small personal sacrifice carrying with it great promise. In leaving his homeland, Abraham took the first step toward entering into a relationship with God, willingly accepting the difficulties inherent in emigration; though the difficulties at this stage were admittedly offset by both the promise of pioneering a new world order as well as God’s promises for success. But as difficult as emigration was, the two directives that followed asked for far more.
God approaches Abraham to enter into a covenant, symbolized by circumcision, with the words: “I am God Almighty; walk before Me, and be thou wholehearted (tamim). And I will make My covenant between Me and thee” (Gen. 17:1-2). The Beit HaLevi writes that, “wholeheartedness (temimut) implies that one must fulfill the will of the Creator without investigating why the command is such.” In accepting circumcision, Abraham entered into an eternal covenant with God wherein he agreed to perform God’s will without question. Appropriately, the symbolic enactment of the covenant was a hok, an act done solely because God commanded it (see Rabbi Keidar, Torat Ohel, p.142).
Appropriately, Rabbi Hirsch (Gen. 17:10) explains that the circumcision itself symbolizes unquestioning allegiance: “With the cutting away of the foreskin the whole body receives the stamp of submission to the spirit carrying out the Divine Law of morality.” And it is the act of submission, of deferring to God’s will against one’s own rationality, that characterizes the true movement of faith. Indeed, it is this act of circumcision which is seen to counter, or “repair”, the faithless act of Adam in the Garden of Eden (see Abarbanel, Sefat Emet). There, Adam chose to reject God’s will because it went against his own rationality; here, Abraham chose to accept God’s will despite the fact that it went against his own rationality. There, Adam demonstrated that he would be governed by his own subjective will; here, Abraham demonstrated that he would be loyal to the objective demands of the Creator.
But Abraham had even further to go: “And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him: ‘Abraham’; and he said: ‘Here am I.’ And He said: ‘Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of’” (Genesis 22:1-2). The akeida demanded more than anything that preceded it. Whereas previously Abraham was asked to endure the inconvenience of emigration, to suffer the pain of circumcision, now the akeida demanded that Abraham give up everything, his entire lifework, his entire life – with no promises.
In the akeida Abraham found the ultimate movement of faith and, as such, Abraham truly found God. He had started at the bottom of the mountain with his move away from home, away from comfort, toward an absurd unknown at the behest of God. He moved slowly up the mountain until he was able to make the commitment to God on his very body. This act of faith was significant for in it Abraham demonstrated his willingness to perform the absurd simply because God asked it. With the commitment in his heart now sealed in his flesh he was well on his way to the top of the mountain. At its peak he finds that he must forgo everything he holds dear – even his own “I” awareness – in absurd commitment to God. In so doing, he finds not only God, but himself, for “man cannot find himself without sacrificing himself prior to the finding” (Soloveitchik).
Developing faith is the process of accepting God, of finding God, which ultimately ends in finding oneself. Developing faith starts in small steps of commitment and ends in a great leap of faith. The leap, however, is not made blindly but with eyes closed in love and in faith.