Judaism: A Non-Ethical Look at the Akeida
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One of the most fundamental stories in Jewish history is that of the Akeida. Avraham takes Yitzchak with him and together they head up Mount Moriah, where Avraham is supposed to sacrifice Yitzchak to God – per God's command. The drama reaches its height when Avraham raises the knife, prepared to go through with it and do Hashem's will – when he is suddenly stopped by the angel who tells Avraham that he must not harm Yitzchak, that it was all a test, and that Avraham had passed.
When we read this story, the ethical question is always raised: How could God command Avraham to do that? How could Avraham even think of going through with it? How does one suspend the ethics he grew up with, and in the blink of an eye be willing to sacrifice his own son? These are certainly difficult questions. Of course, one must remember that Avraham was a prophet, and the reality that one experiences as a prophet may take a significant toll so that one's doubts play less of a part in the decision-making process. Nevertheless, the ethical question still stands.
However, rather than tackling the issue head-on, as many have done before me, I would like to offer the following insight: The Torah itself seems completely uninterested in this issue. While we feel compelled to hash and re-hash the moral dilemmas which come out of this story, the verses themselves betray no such discussion, not in Avraham's own thoughts, nor in Hashem's reaction. I believe this is important to point out, because dealing with the ethical questions – while it may be of personal importance to us – conceals from us the real point of this story. So what is the real focus of the story of the Akeida?
I think the story has to do with Avraham's ability to listen to God's command; however, his ability to listen to God's command is not measured in the face of ethical issues which plague him, but rather in the face of the explicit promise which Hashem made to him that he would give him a son, Yitzchak, and that this son would be the one which would continue his line spiritually. One moment Hashem tells Avraham that Yitzchak will be his spiritual heir, and the next moment he is asked to sacrifice him – how could both these things be correct? How could they both be God's command?
Avraham's trial was his ability to reconcile the two contradictory statements that God made to him. My Rebbe, Rav Chaim Sabbato, put it another way. Avraham is known as אברהם אוהבי, Avraham who loves me. Avraham loved Hashem, he followed Him across countries, trusted and believed in Him every step of the way, and never questioned Him for a moment. Avraham's Avodat Hashem, his way of serving Hashem, went completely through the track of love, rather than that of fear and awe.
Hashem, though, wanted Avraham's service of Him to be complete, so that his devotion to him would be whole on every level, and so an unlikely trial was developed. In order to test Avraham's יראה, his awe, and not his אהבה, Hashem had to devise a situation where doing what Hashem asked him to do was less clear. In such a situation, where Hashem's own words contradicted each other, Avraham – for the first time – did not see his path lying clearly before him. For the first time he had to follow Hashem's words, not because he knew what was going on, and not out of a clear trust and belief in Hashem – but rather out of blind obedience.
This is why Hashem praises him after the Akeida: עתה ידעתי כי ירא אלוקים אתה – now I see that you are indeed fearful of God. What was new now that we didn't know before? Our explanation makes it clear: before the Akeida we knew that Avraham would follow Hashem out of love, but now we know that even where there is only fear and awe Avraham will still follow Hashem.
In my opinion, this can help us get a perspective on the moral questions referred to at the beginning. As I have already stated, the Torah is less concerned with those questions, and is in fact more concerned with Avraham's ability to obey God's will blindly. I think that in our world today, blind obedience is not something which we are able to work with.
Most people want to understand their religion, to connect to halakha, to see eye to eye with the things religion asks of them. Nevertheless, it is important for us to take a page out of Avraham's book.
While it's okay to demand answers and to want to know the reasons for most things, it is also important to realize that from time to time there will be things that we cannot possibly understand. This does not exempt us from doing them, of course. We must learn how to deal with those situations as well, and how to bow to God's will at times, even when it seems not to make any sense to us.
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