At the end of this week’s Torah reading, we are confronted with what we are told is Avraham’s final test, the binding of Isaac. In what must be counted as one of the bible’s most harrowing commandments, God tells Avraham to take “your son, your only son, the one you love” and offer him as a sacrifice.
Avraham was an elderly man already at this point, having waited practically his entire life for progeny, finally being blessed with a son after ninety-nine years. Imagine the pain then, the gut wrenching, heart-ripping pain, that Avraham must have felt at such a request. How could it be that God commanded this of him – of all things?!
There’s another oddity about this story. The words, “Lekh Lekha” – go for yourself – appear here, as they do only one other place in the Bible, by Avraham’s first commandment to leave his homeland. There, Rashi – the ubiquitous medieval biblical commentator – comments that it was “for your good and your pleasure.” If the exact same words are used here in the same formulation, they surely must have a similar connotation!
Thankfully, we all know how the story ends. Isaac is not killed, and a ram is instead offered in his place. We are told that God says to Avraham: “for now I know that you are a God fearing man, and you did not withhold your son, your only one, from Me” (Gen 22:12). As strange as that phrase is – surely God knows everything! – I want to focus on a slightly different aspect of the binding.
Why did God command this? Was it just to prove how God fearing Avraham was? Surely God and Avraham knew this already? What was in this test for Avraham, for Isaac, that they had to go through it in this manner? Where was the “for you” part of the “go for you”?
Up until this point, man’s existence is a given. We were promised in Parashat Noah that God will never again destroy the world because of sin, and Avraham relates to the world as if his continued physical existence were a fact. Connection to God, in Avraham’s eyes, guaranteed his well-being. With this command, God teaches Avraham and Isaac a critical lesson.
You are not guaranteed. Life is not a guarantee.
At any moment, a car may come hurtling down the road at high speed and end your life for no other reason than that you are a Jew. Ironically, the more connected you are to God the more likely you are to be targeted! At any moment, it may be your very closeness to God which jeopardises your life.
Avraham’s response to this crisis, however, teaches a very important lesson. Rather than shy away from this responsibility, rather than shirk his duties and reject his God for acting in a way that he may have felt was inappropriate, he hastened to do God’s bidding. As he walked for three days, we can be sure that this was a deliberate act, not one done out of fervent rapture. Avraham thought about what he was going to do, and he was prepared to do it if it was God’s will.
Avraham was responding to an external reality, responding to God, the source of existence. Avraham learnt about the frailty of the human condition, the immediacy with which that which we cherish most can be snuffed out. We can learn that the best vindication of a life is a life well-lived.
Why are we here? Why does it matter to us how long we live? What are we here for? What Avraham teaches us is that all of that does matter, as long as it is connected to Existence Itself. When we stray from that Existence, in an attempt to preserve our petty local lives, we disconnect from the Objective Reality that is God, and without that, there can be no true “for you”. Ultimately, God’s will will manifest. Where will you be?.
“Many are the thoughts in a man’s heart, but it is the will of God which will ultimately emerge” (Proverbs 19:21).