The Binding of Isaac is one of the most complicated and disturbing of biblical stories. Tomes have been written throughout the centuries to try to make sense of this event. Perhaps the key to unlocking this complicated story lies with the unsung and often overlooked “hero” of the story — the ram. This animal gives its life and saves the life of Isaac, who until that moment had been designated to be the sacrifice, requested by God “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, even Isaac, and get you into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you of” (Genesis 22:2). Once Isaac is bound on the altar, the knife in Abraham’s hand, an angel forbids the harming of Isaac, leaving Abraham to spot a ram caught in the thicket. The timing of the arrival of a replacement for Isaac that was easily accessible to the elderly Abraham can be viewed as nothing short of miraculous.
According to the Mishnah (Ethics if the Fathers, 5:8), the six days of creation were topped off, right before the onset of Shabbat. These several critical products of God’s handiwork were inherently miraculous — in place as essential for select future events. Abraham’s ram is on this list, indicating that God had planned from the very beginning of the world for an animal to take the place of Isaac.
Close attention to the chronology of the Bible’s account of creation makes it clear that the sin of Adam and Eve took place fairly early on Day 6. If this ram was created at the end of Day Six, after the sin, its very existence hints to God’s realization that humanity must be able to repent.
Says the Gemara: “Why do we blow on a ram’s horn? The Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘Sound before Me a ram’s horn so that I may remember on your behalf the binding of Isaac the son of Abraham, and account it to you as if you had bound yourselves before Me'” (Rosh Hashanah 16a). Therefore, God plans the binding of Isaac, and the ram’s replacement of him on the altar, so that the blowing of the shofar, specifically from a ram, serves as a trigger for humanity to repent, and thereby wipe out sin – nothing short of miraculous.
That is, teshuvah,repentance, the ability not only to rebuild one’s relationship with God, but actually undo past events, is outside of natural law and constitutes a miracle in its own right. We often underappreciate the gift of teshuvah, along with its wondrous properties.
Abraham overcomes the limits of humanity with his willingness to heed God’s command regarding Isaac. Teshuvah allows humanity to overcome its limitations of habituation and willfulness, to atone for sin.
This ram oddly, miraculously, continues to play an important part in other historically significant wondrous events.
Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 30 explains:
Hanina ben Dosa said: The ram that was created at twilight on the sixth day of creation — not a part of it was without purpose. The ram’s ash was the foundation for the altar within the Temple Hall; its sinews provided the ten strings for the harp David played on; its hide became the leather girdle on the loins of Elijah, ever remembered on good occasions; its two horns were made into shofars — the left horn is the one the Holy One blew on Mount Sinai; and the right horn, larger than the left one, the Holy One will blow in the time-to-come, as is said, “And it shall come to pass on that day, that a large horn shall be blown” (Isa. 27:13).
This ram is now not only connected to the Akedah and creation of the world, but also to the revelation at Sinai and to the future redemption. At the Akedah, the ram helps to redeem Isaac; at Sinai, it aids the Jewish nation; and in the future, it will play a role in redeeming the whole world.
The connection between the Akedah and the giving of Torah is emphasized in the midrash that associates the mountain of Sinai where the Torah was given as being a “breakoff” of the Mount Moriah where the binding occurred. The midrash is indicating that these two events have to be integrally connected, the physically connection is to reveal a deeper philosophical connection. Indeed, there are more similarities between the two episodes. Both stories occur up a mountain, in an unknown land, covered with clouds on the third day. Both stories represent man’s submission and acceptance of God’s reign on this earth. According to Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl, the spiritual greatness necessary for the Jewish nation comes from the Akedah. The striking similarities teach man and then a nation’s purpose in the world, to serve God as God sees fit.
From Abraham’s first response of “Heneni — I am here” (Genesis 22:1) to the removal of Isaac from the altar and his replacement with the ram, Abraham shows that it is not his desire or his personal sense of justice that motivates him. Abraham’s consuming desire is to fulfill God’s will. Service of God means doing what He commands. True fear of God, therefore, comes not while doing what comes naturally, says the Vilna Gaon, but in acting against one’s nature, proving that fear of God. Abraham is commanded to go against his outstanding character trait of kindness (chesed) and to take knife in hand, against his inner nature. That is what makes God say, “Now I know that you are God fearing” (Genesis 22:12). When later, according to the midrash, God offers the Torah to the other nations and they refuse, their message is the same: it is not natural to accept laws and limitations on your own behavior (even as the Jewish people agree unconditionally).
The test of Abraham at the Akedah was part of God’s larger plan for creation. It is an indication of the forgiveness, and the potential for forgiveness, that the Divine put in place from the very beginning of creation.
Given that so much of what people experience seems to them to be inexplicable – the binding of Isaac no exception — perhaps the lesson of the Akedah is that there is a plan.