Avraham’s Report Card
Soren Kierkegaard, the famous Danish philosopher commented: There were countless generations who knew the story of Abraham by heart, but how many did it render sleepless!?! He’s right, of course, the AKEIDA, abortive sacrifice of Yitzchak, is mind boggling and spine tingling. Any parent who isn’t haunted by the scenario hasn’t thought it through. Of course, there’s a happy ending, and Avraham is praised for his suspension of personal predilections to heed God’s frightful command, and is crowned the ‘God-Fearing Person’. But what was going on in this test?
The are some straightforward answers. Rashi suggests that after Avraham’s response to the request there is an answer to the bad guys who might say that Avraham doesn’t love God as much as the pagans, because they sacrifice their children to their idols. The Ramban is more utilitarian, and informs us that just like utensils get their strength from immersion in a fiery furnace, so, too, Avraham would be strengthened by the experience.
Rav Yosef Albo explains that the whole scenario was to unmask the problem with idolatry which isn’t just the number of gods worshipped. It is also about the manner in which they are worshipped. The test’s main purpose is to teach that we are implacably against human sacrifice. That should also include the modern versions of human sacrifice, like suicide bombers and the like. The Rambam in his laws on the matter is clear that dying for God is a last resort; prima facie we serve God by how we live.
These are wonderful responses to the philosophic issues raised by the sequence of events, but somehow not psychologically satisfying to the emotional enormity of the ordeal. These aren’t answers one loses sleep over. Rav Yehuda Amital, the late great Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etziyon has some powerful observations about the entire scenario.
Rav Amital describes the situation:
We have many Midrashim which describe Avraham’s three days of wrestling with this Divine command…This is crucial. God want us to be Holy Humans, not angels (or robots) lacking human feelings. God wants something else from humanity. That there should exist in one’s heart a tension, a constant struggle between the obligation to perform a command of the King and one’s feelings of kindness and compassion deeply embedded within us.
Part of Avraham’s high grade from God is based on this struggle. Yes, the religious personality ultimately foregoes their own views of ethics for God’s, but not without an intense moral struggle. Rav Amital is also impressed by the fact that not one of the Midrashim (at least, he claims that he couldn’t find any) tries to soothe Avraham with the promise of reward in the World to Come.
The great Rosh Yeshiva understands from this that we reject all forms of human sacrifice, including its modern incarnations like suicide bombers. During those three days and, I imagine, especially those three nights, there was no attempt to assuage the pain of the mission. Rav Soloveitchik weighed in on this issue as well:
The enormous feat of the knight of faith was demonstrated not in the actual compliance with the Divine order but in the manner in which he behaved in the face of this most puzzling Divine absurdity… Abraham implemented the sacrifice of Isaac not on Mount Moriah but in the depths of his heart. He gave up Isaac the very instant God addresses Himself to him and asked him to return his most precious possession to its legitimate master and owner … (Eventually) an absurd cruelty was transformed into a great, heroic deed…
The denouement of the drama includes promises about the great future of the people. But before we have the renewal of the Covenantal Community at the end of the story, we have the intense struggle. In another publication, the Rav described the depth of the challenge that this test presented:
God says to Avraham: “Take now your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, etc.”…Do not fool yourself to think that after you obey Me and bring your son up for a burnt-offering, I will give you another son in place of Yitzchak. When Yitzchak will be slaughtered on the altar – you will remain alone and childless. You will not have another child. You will live your life in incomparable solitude. I want your only son who is irreplaceable. Neither should you think that you will succeed to forget Yitzchak and remove him from your mind. All your life you will think about him…You will spend your nights awake, picking at your emotional wounds. Out of your sleep you will call for Yitzchak, and when you wake up you will find your tent desolate and forsaken. Your life will turn into a long chain of emotional suffering. And nevertheless, I demand this sacrifice.
The Rav knew sorrow, and applied all its lessons to the nerve-wracking trial of our beloved Patriarch. It’s crucial for us to be aware of the reality that probably all parents go through Akeida-like trials. We send our children off to war, we see them rolled unconscious into an operating theater, and, sometimes, there are even worse scenarios.
Bringing children into this dangerous world of ours is an Akeida-like enterprise. Kierkegaard is right. I can’t fathom how we can sleep soundly through the night when we contemplate these issues. But the reward is enormous: fulfillment of personal and national destiny.