How Could God Ask Abraham To Sacrifice His Beloved Child?

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, we read one of the most iconic stories in all of the biblical narrative – the binding of Isaac. In a test of his faith and obedience, Abraham is commanded by God to sacrifice his beloved son. Without hesitation, Abraham binds Isaac on the altar and raises the knife to slay him. At the last moment, God calls to him and tells him not to harm his child. Instead he offers a ram that has become caught in the thicket behind him.

The sages offer a variety of profound explanations to this complex and challenging story. Both Abraham, who was willing to overcome his intense love for his son, and Isaac, who knew of his father’s intent and voluntarily offered to sacrifice his life, prove themselves to be paragons of selfless commitment to God’s will. Yet while the story provides us the ultimate example of devotion and self-sacrifice, the question remains – how could God ask Abraham to do such a thing?! Torah does not discourage us from asking such a question. For while we are constantly striving for transcendence, we are simultaneously negotiating a human experience, and as such, we must view even the most esoteric concepts through our human lens.

The mystics teach that this, in fact, is the very essence of our complicated existence. The paradox of a soul in a body is that we must reconcile the infinite and the finite. No easy task! And this is precisely what the binding of Isaac attempts to teach us to do.

What is it that Hashem was trying to accomplish by asking Abraham to sacrifice the thing that was most beloved to him? It was not simply a test of allegiance, but it was the ultimate exercise in “bittul,” or self-nullification. And this, practiced properly and carefully, is the key to a balanced and successful life. We must learn how to nullify ourselves completely in order to then be ourselves most fully.

The crux of the story is that Abraham and Isaac are 100% ready to perform the sacrifice, but the sacrifice is not, in fact, performed. They climb the mountain, ascending to the greatest spiritual heights of transcendence, but then they descend the mountain, returning to the world in tact – and in fact more whole than ever.

Jewish mystical philosophy is steeped with the concept of “bittul/self-nullification.” We recite Shema twice daily and declare God’s absolute oneness, thereby meditating on our essential non-existence. But then we get up from prayer and we re-enter the world, living with the paradox of our simultaneous existence. Judaism is thus a constant flux of transcendence and grounding, leaving the world and then coming back. The mystics refer to this as “ratzo and shov,” running and returning. It’s the rhythm of our breath, out and in, out and in.

What the story of the binding of Isaac teaches us is that to truly experience the infinite, we have to leave every aspect of this reality behind – even love, even those things that are most dear to us. But only for a minute! As soon as Abraham reaches this level of absolute non-attachment and unity, God says ‘STOP! I don’t want you to actually leave the world behind, I want you to go back down from the mountain with your son now that you have both ascended beyond reality. Now you are both ready to teach the world that we can access the infinite within the finite, but only when we are ready to leave every single attachment behind. I want you to be attached, I want you to love and care for one another’ – but we can ultimately do so only when we transcend our individual desires and understand that we are completely unified in a much greater reality.

Excerpted in part From Pnei Hashem, an introduction to the deepest depths of the human experience based on the esoteric teachings of Torah.

About the Author
Pinny Arnon is an award-winning writer in the secular world who was introduced to the wellsprings of Torah as a young adult. After decades of study and frequent interaction with some of the most renowned Rabbis of the generation, Arnon has been encouraged to focus his clear and incisive writing style on the explication of the inner depths of Torah.
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