At the conclusion of this week’s parsha we read of the Akeidah. It is hard to imagine a more dramatic story with an abundance of philosophical and psychological questions. This episode has been treated from so many prospective it is challenging to find a new angle, so instead I would like to discuss an “old angle”.
Many try to define who was enduring the real test at the Akeidah. The most obvious candidate would clearly be Yitzchak, as it was he who was asked to make the ultimate sacrifice. Despite what we will see in a few moments concerning the other characters, it seems hard to parallel the commitment shown by Yitzchak. Judaism sees life as one of its primary values, the rule that pkuach nefesh takes precedence over nearly all mitzvoth highlights the importance that we give life itself. (Rav Soloveichick expands on this theme beautifully in “Halachic Man”, and sees it as one of the underlying foundations of the great halachic personalities throughout the generations). When an individual is asked to give their life for Hashem he is being presented with the ultimate dilemma: we are granted life to serve Hashem and He has asked that I give it up for Him. It is no surprise that the episode is known as “Akidat Yitzchack”.
The dilemmas presented to Yitzchack however were “toned down”. The way Chazal read the parsha Yitzchack had very little knowledge of the plans until a very late stage. The decision was a difficult one but one that was quick and to the point.
Avraham, on the other hand, was faced by a much more complicated set of dilemmas. Of course he as well had to grapple with the life vs. God’s will issue, but there were various complications to his position. He was firstly faced by confusion concerning God’s real wish. He had been promised a son to continue his dynasty, which had finally come true and now he was being asked to kill him. Which statement of God represented His true plan and which was simply a test?
In addition Avraham’s Akeidah was to last much longer than Yitzchak’s. Assuming that Avraham were to actually kill Yitzchak, the challenge to Yitzchak would have ended while it was to have just begun for Avraham. Avraham would have to return home and explain to everyone what had happened and how this fit in with the rest of his teachings concerning the merciful God. Akeidat Yitzchak would last one day while Akeidat Avraham would last forever.
In addition Avraham was faced with the three and half days from the time he received the command until the event itself. Every step of the way he must have been plagued by the gravity of the questions at hand.
Finally Avraham was faced with explaining all of the above to Sarah. This is not the usual dilemma faced by men throughout the ages of “how am I going to explain this to my wife”, but a much deeper problem. Given the advanced age of Sarah and the destiny that Yitzchak was to have, the blow to Sarah would be enormous. In fact Chazal explain the death of Sarah in the start of next week’s parsha as the natural result of her having found out where they were off to.
So far we have suggested two candidates who had been challenged at the Akeidah and how they dealt with the issues. There is however a third possibility that almost sounds blasphemous. It was God Himself who was being tested at the Akeidah.
I think this approach can be seen by examining three interesting statements of Rashi.
- Rashi on the words “Achar hadevarim haele” 22:1 explains the phrase “after these words” which words? Rashi says after the conversation that the Satan had with God. The Satan claimed that God had made a bad choice by choosing Avraham, to prove his point the Satan says that despite all the lavish meals Avraham puts out he never bothers to offer anything to God. God responds that the feasts were made in honor of the birth of his son Yitzchak and if God were to ask for Yitzchak himself, Avram would agree. To prove the point….. the Akeidah. This very strange conversation is almost a bet between God and the Satan in which God is betting on Avraham.
- In his comments on passuk 2 “Kach Na” “please take” Rashi explains the polite phrase “please” used by God. Hashem says to Avraham “Please stand up to this challenge so that they shouldn’t think that all the previous tests were irrelevant”. Once again Hashem is coxing Avraham along almost in fear of failure in this test, which would reflect badly on God himself.
- At the end of the story we are told that “now I know that you fear God” Rashi explains (passuk 12) “From now on I have what to say to the Satan and the nations when they want to know why I have chosen Avraham”
The combined effect of the comments of Rashi is a unique approach to the Akeidah.
The one who was undergoing the test was Avraham but the one undergoing the TEST was God. A symbiotic relationship was formed at the Akeidah whereby Avraham stands up to the ultimate test and thereby not only justifies his own commitment to God but Gods commitment to him as well. The age-old question of “was he chosen because he was special or was he special because he was chosen?” is answered in this interpretation as the former.
I believe this provides us with an interesting challenge in our understanding of this parsha.
I would like to leave you with a question based on the ideas presented here: How does the Akeidah serve as our “winning card” when it comes to Rosh Hashanah?