“The Sacrifice of an Individual” – Rav Jonathan Bailey
When reading through the episode of the Akeydah – we are immediately struck with waves of drama, tension, suspense, anxiety, love and faith. But what truly is the message behind this enigmatic event?
First, the questions; then, we will formulate an approach:
What is the definition of a ‘nisayon’? According to Ramban, it’s a God-given opportunity to outwardly demonstrate a virtuous trait which otherwise would have gone unexpressed. So what new trait is to be expressed through this episode that he hasn’t expressed before? (1)
Why does this episode specifically have to happen ‘after (אחר) these things’? And why does the following report (of Nachur’s lineage) begin with ‘after (אחרי) these things’? (1 and 20)
Why is it specifically “האלוהים” who commands Avraham? (1)
Why is Yitzchak described as ‘your son, your special one, whom you have loved – Yitzchak’? (2)
Why does it use the words “לך לך” – obviously to refer back to the one in chapter 12, but what connection are we supposed to make? (2)
What is the significance of the expression ‘he lifted up his eyes and saw’ – used twice in this episode – upon seeing the place to bring his son and upon seeing the entangled ram? (4 and 13)
Why does he refer to Yitzchak as “הנער” – especially in light of the narrative referring to the other two as “נעריו” immediately before it? (5)
What is the meaning of the expression “וילכו שניהם יחדיו” used twice? (6 and 8)
Why is there an exaggerated ‘father’ and ‘son’ language? (7-9)
Why is it only an angel of the Lord (as opposed to the label ‘God’ which has been used exclusively up until now) who stops Avraham? (11)
If this is the fulfillment of the God command, why does Avraham ‘only’ receive the ‘Yirei Elokim’ title as the reward, a label also given to Avimelekh, Yosef as the viceroy of Egypt and the Egyptian midwives and expected from Amalek (!)? (12)
Why does Avraham feel the need to slaughter the ram, the only independent action of the entire episode? (13)
Why does it have to say specifically that he brought the ram “תחת בנו” – obviously it was in place of Yitzchak of whom Avraham was just told he shouldn’t touch! (13)
Why does it need to say, ‘an angel spoke to him a second time’? (15)
Why are both symbols of ‘multitudinous descendants’ used here (‘stars’ and ‘sand’) when, up until now, only one or the other had been used (‘stars’ in Brit Ben HaBtarim and ‘sand’ at his departure with Lot)? (17)
Why does he only receive this blessing after having slaughtered the ram; why wasn’t having been ready to slaughter Yitzchak good enough?
If he’s been truly successful in this new test, then shouldn’t he get a new blessing for completing it? This one is almost an exact copy of the one he received at Lekh Lekha! (17-18)
To what ‘voice’ did Avraham heed? (18)
Why does Yitzchak ‘not’ return with Avraham afterwards? (19)
Why does it say “וישב” – the word for the more permanent settling – when he goes to live in Be’er Sheva, while it used the word “ויגר” – the word for a more temporary sojourning – having lived in the Land of the Plishtim ‘ימים רבים’!?
In a Midrash quoted by Rashi on 15; 1, there are two opposing opinions describing the significance of the word “אחר” vs. “אחרי” – the first opinion states that the former is referring to events immediately preceding the current event and the latter refers to events that happened in the distant pass and the other opinion says the opposite. In this case, it’s logical to propose that אחר would refer to events distanced from the current ones because the final pasuk from the previous section ends with Avraham sojourning in the Land of the Plishtim ‘for many days’. So, the command for the Akeydah is immediately set up as happening after the events of a distant past.
God’s labeling of Yitzchak as ‘your son, your special one, whom you loved, Yitzchak’ tells us that for this test Avraham needed to truly appreciate the special beloved relationship he has with his son (his future), the special (non-rejected one), loved (emotional connection) Yitzchak (representative of the Divine future) – i.e. totality of relationship, no matter what the plane; and the extremely familial-focused conversation between Avraham and Yitzchak (7-9) tells us that he was in fact aware of and appreciated the Divinely required understanding.
The label of ‘Yirei Elokim’ (the universal, objective, judge label for God) describes a person/nation that is aware of and follows the basic, fundamental requirements of (His) God’s will – the upholding of a moral and ethical system of behavior reflective of His Divine will; the label describes the strict observance of God’s objective system of Right and Wrong, specifically by not killing an innocent. Avimelekh and the midwives were following a just ethical code (in not stealing wives (and killing their husbands) or killing babies, respectively); Yosef allows the brothers to go free because he fears his Egyptian god and therefore wouldn’t be right to cause the death of the brothers’ starving family back in Canan; and Amalek should have followed the ethical code of not attacking the weak and defenseless. Avraham, having been willing to slaughter his son to fulfill God’s specific command, is told: “now I know you’re a Yirei Elokim and you did not hold your son back from me”. Now, we already know Avraham has previously followed a Godly moral and ethical code (i.e. was a Yirei Elokim) – through his discussions concerning the saving of Sedom, his battling with the rouge four kings and his subsequent dealings with the king of Sedom and Malki Tzedek, etc. – so, this statement from the angel must be read as one statement, with the emphasis of the angel’s ‘new’ discovery (what we didn’t already know about Avraham) on the latter, most recently expressed action: ‘now I know that you’re a Yirei Elokim who would also defy his own desires and personality traits in order to fulfill God’s word by killing his son’. The angel states that now, with the willingness to sacrifice his Yitzchak, Avraham has proven that he’d even be willing to defy his deeply engrained Yirei Elokim personae in the face of a Divine command to the contrary. And this is the reason behind requiring Avraham’s recognition (i.e. the multitude of descriptions) and outward expression (i.e. the familial conversation 7-9) of a complete, personal, relationship with Yitzchak before performing his mission; so that when Elokim demanded this ‘sacrifice’, and Avraham was ready to perform it, he outwardly denied any and all semblances of a previously expressed personal relationship by his readiness to kill Yitzchak – a complete denial of his character of Yirei Elokim in light of the Universal God’s demand of him.
(And this explains the label of “האלוהים” – because it’s the very combination of the Universal God plus the specific, related God (“the God”) who now challenged Avraham – the One he knew was asking him to do something he didn’t ‘know’; this also explains why God uses the word “נא” – setting up the dual-context of God’s demanding a terribly difficult mission on the one hand (denial of Avraham’s character), while easing it with a “נא” on the other; placing the harshness of the command within context of the recognizable and familiar Elokim context).
However, this is not the first time Avraham has expressed the trait of faithfully listening to God while therein denying his personality (see R. Hirsch on Breishit 12; 1 and “The Gifts of the Jews”, Thomas Cahill (pg. 63”) – Elokim told him to leave behind his entire life as he knew it, deny his deeply engrained personae and follow Him into an unknown world– so, what makes this a special opportunity to express this ‘repeated’ attribute outwardly? Because, the slaughtering of his son was not the true test of this episode and was not what Avraham truly needed to express. This is why, when Avraham heard the angel’s response, he immediately lifts his eyes and sees (the expression used to connote an observation of something personally significant to the observer) the ram which he immediately slaughters – the only independent action of the entire episode! From the fact that an angel, not God, stops him and the ‘reward’ is an ‘unoriginal’ Yirei Elokim-denying label, Avraham realizes that God’s original command – ‘raise up your son as an Olah’ – has yet to be fulfilled and therefore looks to the fortuitous ram to fulfill it. And the fact that seeing the ram is introduced with the same phrase as when he saw the mountain upon which to sacrifice his son as God commanded, we are to understand that with the ram, as with the mountain, Avraham significantly recognizes the place he can fulfill God’s command!
And what is the true nature of this command? If not to slaughter his son, what did God really want from Avraham? It didn’t say ‘slaughter your son as an Olah’, rather it stated ‘raise up your son as an Olah’, an offering which symbolizes a total dedication to God; therefore, the command required a total dedication to God to be performed with his most special and beloved son. So, when an angel stops Avraham from physically slaughtering his son, Avraham realizes that while that necessary, expressive act is concluded, God as yet still requires the son-dedication; so he lifts up his eyes (used once before in this episode when he saw the place to fulfill God’s will from afar), sees the ram with which to truly fulfill God’s will, and slaughters it, specifically, ‘in place of his son’ – this is the fulfillment of God’s true command – an Olah-type dedication ‘with’ his special son – and is why the angel speaks a second time, i.e. specifically in relation to the first time – in other words, an extension of the first action, a necessary addition to the process. The bringing of a קרבן is always the symbolic ‘offering’ of the person bringing it; so when Avraham offers the ram ‘in place of his son’ in an Olah fashion, he is truly dedicating his son, fully, to God.
God commands Avraham, after successfully fulfilling his personal challenges in his relationship with God, at the end of his life, to dedicate the next generation, the next link on the Avraham legacy, to that very same Divinely guided path of life. Avraham’s final ‘mission’ is to establish a fitting heir, to totally dedicate his son to the way of God that Avraham has thus far followed to continue the legacy and lead the future as described in the Brit Ben HaBtarim. This is why it says “לך לך” at the beginning of this episode, too – for this is a new “לך לך” for Yitzchak, modeled after and dedicated through the “לך לך vehicle” with which Avraham triumphed. And this is why the angel says, ‘because you did this thing (i.e. slaughtered the ram in your son’s place) and did not hold back your son from Me’ – because both actions were required: an unwavering willingness to follow God’s command here as a symbolic representation of Avraham’s faithful service to God until this point (his original לך לך), along with the total dedication of his son into this Divinely-devoted context (Yitzchak’s לך לך) – and he, having completed the task in its entirety, only now receives the brakha.
And the brakha he receives for this successful fulfillment of God’s will perfectly reflects the meaning of His command (that of totally dedicating the next generation to God). A) The brakha encompasses all aspects of past brakhot, stars and sand. B) The details are similar to the brakha Avraham received upon his first expression of Divine dedication leaving his homeland. C) Almost the entire brakha is specifically focused on his descendants – ‘I will increase your descendants…they will inherit the gates of their enemies; all the nations will be blessed through them’. And all of this is ‘because you listened to My voice’; and the only God ‘voice’ of this entire episode was in the first verse, the command to dedicate his son as an Olah! This also explains the reason why Yitzchak is ‘missing’ when Avraham departs from the mountain: as opposed to the two times it states that ‘they went together’ in the beginning of the story, at the end, at the conclusion of Avraham’s dedication of Yitzchak, his son is unmentioned, symbolically not an active player in the departure; he does not return just as he came, they are one and the same people, Yitzchak incorporated into the Avraham personae, the perfect extension of Avraham’s role.
And this is why this episode starts with “אחר” – because it was at the conclusion of his life, after the distant original לך לך – that Avraham has one more test to accomplish; having completed his mission (“הדברים האלה”), the last thing to do was to pass the mantel. And right after we hear of Avraham’s’ complete dedication of his offspring to the legacy which he initiated, successfully passing his baton in the next generation through the Akeydah episode, the very next report of the Torah is the birth of this ‘new link’s’ wife (introduced by “אחרי” – the word denoting immediately after the most recently mentioned events), who, together, will create the next generation in the Avraham Promise.
Also interesting to note, that when God tells Yitzchak not to leave Eretz Yisrael during the famine because he will receive the Avraham brakha (so there’s no need to ponder other paths for survival, e.g. exiting to Egypt), He ends the detailed list of what he will receive with ‘because Avraham listened to my voice’ – the very same words used in the Akeydah episode – in other words, Yitzchak, the next generation, will receive the Avraham Promise only because of Avraham’s dedication of him, Yitzchak, at the Akeydah. Interesting to note also, God doesn’t ever speak to Avraham again after this episode; i.e. his Divine charge has been completed, the next generation’s has begun.
And this is why previous to this episode, even though he sojourned for ‘many days’, Avraham nonetheless only ‘sojourned’, temporarily; however, after the akeydah and the transference of his mission to the next generation, we are immediately told that he ‘settled’, permanently.