Why, of all the instances of sacrifice and martyrdom that mark – no, define – so much of Jewish history, does the Akedah retain such primacy in our theology and prayer? What makes Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Yitzchak so central to our thinking?
Could any of us match the passion of Abraham’s faith? Promised generations of descendants “as numerous as the stars in heaven” he reached old age without seeing his beloved Sarah “big with child”. Finally, finally God fulfilled His promise and gave Sarah their child, Yitzchak. This son, his only son, his beloved, the son he had awaited for so many years, the son upon whom rested the fulfillment of his faith to follow God’s directive to leave the land of his forebears and go to a land unseen, this is the son he is asked to sacrifice, to give up to God upon an altar he himself must build.
A poet might find irony is the request. A dramatist, cruelty. A comedian, absurdity. But Abraham was not a poet, a dramatist or a comedian. He was a man of God. He heard God’s call and, as he had always done, he answered.
The Pesikta Rabbati teaches that the Akedah took place on Rosh Hashanah and, so it is that, throughout Rosh Hashanah, we invoke Abraham’s supreme act of devotion, praying it will always remain a zechut for all of us. Don Yitzchak Abarbanel reminds us that in the Akedah, “lies the entire glory of Israel and their merit before their Father in Heaven. And that is why it pervades our prayer every day.”
There is no way for us to understand of the immensity of the moment. But was the “immensity of the moment” any less in the hearts and souls of our generations of martyrs? After all, Jewish history is stained with the blood of our people. As Rabbi Soloveitchik states (Abraham’s Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch), “The Akedah was the portent of the many sad and tragic situations in which Jews were summoned to bring the supreme sacrifice, their very existence.”
So why dwell on Avraham’s moment, a moment in which he ultimately was delivered from sacrifice?
Throughout his life, Abraham fought idolatry. From the moment he destroyed the avodah zarah in his father’s shop he preached the message of One God. Idolatry in all forms was anathema to him and his understanding of God and the world. Certainly, high atop the idolatrous practices he decried was child sacrifice. And then, after years upon years of his passionate service to God, he hears the voice telling him to take his son, “as an offering upon one of the mountains which I shall tell you.”
Could God have asked him to do anything more dissonant to his faith?
What of his lifetime of faith and honor? What of his condemnation of idolatry? What of the promise that ki b’Yitzchak yikare lecha zara – that through Yitzchak your seed will be assured? Could it be that the faith that was the bedrock of his existence was misplaced? Could it be that his life was a mockery?
Any of us would have asked these questions and hundreds more like them; we would have rebelled against God’s request. “My God, my God… how could you ask such of thing of me?”
That’s what we would have done. But not Abraham. With Abraham it was simply, I am here.
There was no challenge. No rebellion. No Job-like wrestling with the existential dilemma God presented to him. In fact, for Abraham there was no dilemma.
I am here.
His resolve was immediate and unshakable. What would have been for any of us an unfathomable test, a test we could not understand or bear, Abraham simply passed. He passed because such tests are never passed with our limited understandings or self-aggrandizing philosophizing. They are passed with faith and perseverance.
Confronted by God’s test, Abraham did not think of his neighbors and friends. He did not worry about the scorn they would heap upon him. He did not worry about being called a hypocrite. He did not worry. He did not deliberate.
I am here.
As Rabbi Soloveitchik notes, “Had Abraham engaged the Creator in a debate, had he not immediately surrendered Isaac, had he not experienced the Akedah in its full awesomeness and frightening helplessness, God would not have sent the angel to stop Abraham from implementing the command.”
Had he but wavered all would have been lost.
Abraham’s level of faith demanded no distraction or interference from anything contrary to his faith; nothing to blind the spiritual eye or deafen the inner ear. His faith demanded that he stand alone, isolated, spiritually naked before God. Only then could he achieve glory.
How different from our own estimation of glory!
We measure success in terms of viewership, in how large the crowd filling the arena, in how many “likes” we get or how many ephemeral and electronic followers we claim. But Abraham’s moment was not broadcast live. It was not BREAKING NEWS!!! There was no press to cover the event. No nay-sayers and no “yes-sayers”. No one to impress. No one to implore.
There was just the awesome, naked expression of ultimate faith.
Talk about tests! Who among us could pass such a test?
It would be a miracle.
No surprise there. In fact, in Hebrew such a test is deeply related to miracle. In Hebrew, a miracle is a neis and a test is a nisayon. The relationship is deep and enduring. As Tzvi Freeman puts it, “A miracle is when God breaks out of his standard pattern of natural law and demonstrates unlimited powers. A test is when God invites you to do the same. That is why people who pass tests cause miracles to happen – God is mirroring them.”
These are the tests that break barriers; they are tests of faith. They call a man to rise above and beyond old habits and to embrace a previously unknown tenacity and confidence in his purpose. “The ultimate test is that which takes a person beyond the ultimate barrier, the barrier between creation and Creator,” Tzvi Freeman explains. “Such was the test Abraham passed when he was asked to offer up his son Yitzchak.”
Of Abraham’s ten tests, only the Akedah is explicitly referred to as a test – v’haElokim nisa et Avraham. That is because, as Abarbanel explains, the other nine were carried out to completion as he understood them. Abraham left his homeland, sent away Ishmael etc., but the Akedah remained a test because God did not allow Abraham to sacrifice Yitzchak. Perhaps therefore the Midrash renders the word nisa not simply as test or miracle, but in the sense of elevated, like a neis, a banner such as those carried in the Midbar by the heads of the tribes. By this nisayon/neis God exalted Abraham; He lifted him up until he stood as high as he could ever stand, until, with perfect faith, he had reached beyond the ultimate barrier, the barrier between creation and Creator.
After these events, God never again addressed Abraham. Why would He? There was nothing more to say.
We are not Abraham.
However, each of us is tested. Each of us is called to miracle. And each one of us has within us the ability to reach beyond the barrier separating us from our Creator.
To meet that test, we need to find within ourselves an inner Abraham; we need to find within ourselves some of the ability Abraham had. Not the ability to drive a big car or live in a beautiful house in a gated community; not graduating from an Ivy League college or working at a fancy law firm. Abraham’s ability was, simply, the ability to completely focus his faith, without distraction – petty or otherwise.
Our current world so often seems to be nothing but distractions! Foolishness and noise clamor for our attention. A man of bitachon, of faith, must be aware first, foremost and always of God’s closeness. We cannot arrive at such an awareness by immersing ourselves in the noise and chatter. Looking at our iPhones every two minutes will not bring us closer to God. We must find a way to a small, quiet space; to be alone. Just like Abraham.
But of course, again, we are not Abraham. There is a reason that he is Avinu. But, as I note, we are all tested even if not as intensely as Abraham. We confront challenges big and small. We have all known the isolation and fear during this time of Covid. The comfort we have always found in community has been altered and challenged. Our ability to gather is compromised. But if we are to remain a nation of Abraham’s children, we must be rise to the challenge and emulate him.
Regardless of how wise and learned we may be, the test is not one we can pass with reason, political affiliation, shul membership, zip code or tax bracket. Our faith is first and foremost in that still, silent place within us, where we are alone. As Mishlei makes clear, “There is no wisdom nor understanding nor counsel against Hashem.”
There is no argument, no rebellion. No noise. There is only response.
I am here.