The Akeidah

I.  Extent of the Trial

The Akeidah was the final and the supreme trial of Abraham. As we have seen, it was necessary to submit Abraham to ten trials in order to elevate him to his spiritual peak. After the Akeidah, he had thirty-eight years to live. But he was not tested again because he had already gained his ultimate height, nothing could be gained by testing him further. The Akeidah has assumed a central role in Jewish liturgy.

Like every trial, the Akeidah forced its subject to make a painful choice that ran counter to his nature and inclination. The test can be understood on many levels and in many dimensions ~ all of them valid. That it was the climatic test of Abraham’s greatness is reason enough for it to have been of such complexity, for it stands to reason that the extent of the reward called for an ordeal of parallel proportions.

Abraham had waited a hundred years for the gift of a son. He had been told by God that his heir must be born from Sarah, but it was a physical impossibility for them to have a child together. God raised him above the stars which are His emissaries to preside over the natural functioning of the universe and told him that the rules of nature do not apply to him and Sarah. As Abram and Sarai, they would not have children, but as Abraham and Sarah, they would (15:5). The couple waited many years after that vision until Isaac was finally born to him. Now they were both old, Abraham was 137 and Sarah was 127. Their rejuvenation had not continued; they had had no other children together. Isaac was thirty-seven, a mature man who had proven himself to be a deserving successor to Abraham’s mantle. Now Abraham was asked to slaughter him. Now in human terms, the task of him was incomprehensible. An only son! There was no chance short of a miracle that another son would be born ~ could another miracle be expected? To bring him to the altar and to inflict the cut with his own hands!

Abraham had built an empire of accomplishments in the service of God. In the sense that the offspring of the righteous are their good deeds, Abraham had armies and armies of children. From the time he was fifty-two he had been teaching the multitudes and leading people under the wings of the Shechinah. Though he lived in an immoral, idolatrous society, even they considered him a ‘Prince of God’ (23:6) and he gained respect wherever he went. Everywhere his teaching was that people must emulate God who abhors cruelty and loves kindness, that human sacrifice is murder, and that idolatry is a denial of the true God.

What would happen to his followers and those who admired him if he slaughtered Isaac and the world learned that Abraham’s teachings had been violated in the grossest manner by the preacher himself? His entire lifetime of achievement would have been nullified. He would have been despised, vilified, and ridiculed. Human nature being what it is, not only his critics, but even his past followers, would probably have embarked on orgies of excess, because the one supreme moral force acting as the conscience of the world would have been irreparably discredited. Human beings can endure many forms of suffering, but none is more difficult than disgrace ~ the fate awaiting Abraham when he returned from Mount Moriah without Isaac at his side. Could he endure all that in order to satisfy the wish of God.

Abraham had been as loyal a servant of God as had ever lived. He had been assured by God that his destiny would be continued through Isaac and none other. Now there would be no Isaac and as a result the work of Abraham himself would not endure. On the other hand, he understood that the greater goal of sanctifying God’s Name would be enhanced by his deed. For the sacrifice asked of him would demonstrate conclusively that Abraham held back nothing from God ~ not his son, not his reputation, not even his lifetime of spiritual fulfillment. In God’s scale of values, that degree of dedication outweighed all the jeers of scoffers and skeptics. It mattered not that Abraham would lose his following or that not a soul would understand the magnitude of his deed. He was alone when he began his work but that did not detract from his greatness; he would be alone when he finished his work and be even greater because he would give up so much. God does not measure value in numbers. What is more his supreme obedience would prove that accomplishment on earth, accomplishment measurable in human terms, had no ultimate value at all if God’s will were otherwise. Because it was the Divine Will, the destruction of his life’s edifice would be his greatest and most genuinely tangible achievement because, and in the Heavenly balance, it would outweigh everything else he had ever done.

Intellectually, Abraham could surely have understood that infinitely better than we could. Could he also feel it is the depths of his soul and with all of his emotions? It was his son, his loss, his sacrifice. Could he feel the same joy in serving God by slaughtering Isaac that he had in raising him?

The character traits of Israel became engraved into the national spiritual ‘genes’ through the acts and particularly the trials of the Patriarchs. We are Abraham’s offspring and the heirs of his submission to God’s will. We are descendants of Abraham, but he was a son of Terach. Therefore, it is impossible for us to fully comprehend the awesome nature of his response to God’s call to slaughter Isaac. To say that we benefit from his legacy is not to imply that we would do equally well ~ far from it. But we cannot divorce ourselves from our heritage; therefore we cannot imagine how sever the trial was for Abraham who had no patriarchal ancestor named Abraham. Suffice to say that Abraham proved himself so well that he attained perfection in the eyes of the Supreme Judge. That there are those who question his uniqueness on the ground that countless Jewish parents throughout the ages have made similar sacrifices is testimony to how well he succeeded. So totally did Abraham channel his personal ambitions and needs to the will of his Master, that the heritage remains strong almost thirty-seven centuries later.

II.  Uniquely Abraham’s

What of Isaac? The Akeidah is counted as one of Abraham’s trials, but surely Isaac was being tested as well. As we see, Isaac’s achievement was awesome and his performance during those fateful three days leading up to his ascent to the altar has remained part of the national heritage as has Abraham’s. They were partners in approaching the Akeidah and they are partners in affecting us today by their accomplishment. Why then is the trial aspect of the Akediah not ascribed equally to Isaac ~ or, since he was the one who volunteered his own life, why is it understood primarily as Abraham’s trial and only secondarily as Isaac’s?

In commenting on this question, Rabbi Yosaif Yoizel Horowitz of Novardok remarked: “It is harder to live like a Jew than to die like a Jew!”

Isaac was ready to offer his life. That done, all would have been over. He was fully prepared to give everything for the sake of God, but he would not have had to deal with the aftermath.

The supreme sacrifice is not to be regarded lightly but such acts of heroism are not uncommon in human experience. People risk their lives for far smaller causes and they are soon forgotten. Great moments evoke great responses even from ordinary people; surely one would not expect less from Isaac. But Abraham would have to go on, facing Sarah, facing the world, rebuilding his shattered life, once more opening his tent to travelers who would now be afraid to accept the hospitality of the ‘barbarous old man’ who had killed his own son, preaching the word of God to people who would call him a hypocrite, wondering if the lack of a future Jewish generation might not be his unforgivable sin for having allowed his fully grown son to remain unmarried for so long. Isaac had to die like a Jew, but Abraham had to bear the infinitely harder burden of carrying on, of continuing to live like a Jew.

Abraham and Isaac had different primary traits in the service of God. Abraham was the person of ‘chesed’ (kindness) whose primary drive was to help others and use his generous nature to draw them close to God. For him, the Akeidah was a trial of awesome proportions both for what he was called upon to do to Isaac and the effect it would have on his relationship to society. But Isaac was the person of ‘gevurah’ (strength). He was inner-directed and self-critical. He sought to perfect himself and remove any hint of imperfection in himself. To Isaac, the call to give up his life was not difficult. If the way to purge his imperfections was to purge his very life, then his nature would dictate that he do so.

For Abraham to commit such an act, however, required that he rise above his own character as a ‘chesed’ person and act contrary to his way of serving God. To do so would be possible only if his faith were so great that he was capable of acting counter to everything he had understood and believed.

Abraham showed that his devotion came above all other considerations. He injected his unconditional faith into the national character so that no matter how encrusted Israel may become with sin, and no matter how much it fell in line with sin’s fleeting pleasures, there remains the spark of Abraham’s holiness within every son and daughter of Israel. Repentance, therefore, is an ever present possibility if, somehow, that spark can be reached and fanned. The basic urge of Abraham’s children is to be righteous.

III. Trial Intensified

So Abraham’s very nature, as opposed to Isaac’s, dictated that the Akeidah was more his test than his son’s. But the trial was intensified further by the way it was presented. Let’s compare the command of the Akeidah with the command to drive Ishmael from his home. There, God commanded Abraham to follow the superior insight of Sarah. He told him to feel no regret at dispatching the boy, and what is more, He promised Abraham that Ishmael would become a nation for, although only Isaac would have the status of Abraham’s true offspring, Ishmael would still be treated graciously as someone born of Abraham’s seed. Combined with the command that Abraham go against his nature by cutting off his kindness to Ishmael and Hagar, was the assurance that no harm would befall them and that Sarah’s insistence was an expression of God’s own wisdom.

What assurance was he given with regard to the slaughter of Isaac? Was he told that Isaac did not deserve the mantle of Patriarch?.. that he had sinned?… that another would take his place?… that he should cease loving him? NO…

Chapter 22:2 ~ ‘Take your son”…. Isaac remains your son ~ his status is undiminished.”

‘Your only son’ …. He remains unique. Ishmael cannot return to take his place. You were promised a son, and Isaac will always remain the fulfillment of that promise even after you slaughter him.

‘Whom you love’… Continue to love him. Do not take the easy way of convincing yourself that your love was misplaced, that Isaac is unworthy either of your love or of carrying on your mission.

When God uttered those words to Abraham, the Patriarch was infused with a new and greater realization of what Isaac was. His son for whom he had waited a lifetime and for whom all the covenants and promises were made … the bearer of Abraham’s mission … the fulfillment of creation. He was Abraham’s only son. He was unique … there was none like him … he had forged a new way to serve God and no one could take his place.

Abraham loved Isaac. God now confirmed that love and when Abraham heard the words ‘whom you love’, he was infused with a greater love for Isaac than he had ever felt before. Abraham was not to ascend to Mount Moriah with the thought that, little though he understood why, he was removing an unworthy outgrowth of himself. No. He was to go with all the love, respect, expectation, and feeling that an Abraham could possibly feel for an Isaac. He was to go with the realization that Isaac was not expendable and replaceable, neither as a son nor as a Patriarch. And still he was to go. Only by attempting feebly to imagine how difficult God made the trial can we hope to understand how great was the aged father who sought no way to delay or reinterpret, who arose early and with a cheerful willingness to make even the exhausting physical preparations himself.

Faith in the Creator need not supply instant gratification. God need not spell out His reasons and campaign for approval. It is for us to understand that we need not understand. What He wills is right even if our every instinct cries out against it; what He inflicts is merciful even if its immediate result is agony; what He desires is exalting even if its immediate result is despair.

Abraham forged on and his steps etched an eternal path in the history of his children. For if Abraham followed God’s command lovingly even when He was distant, then He would maintain His love for Abraham’s children even when they were spiritually distant and treated badly by people in power. Therefore, too, there remains an inextinguishable spark of love in every Jew. There is a piece of Abraham in every one of his children. It was this remnant that God promised to preserve when he told Abraham, ‘I am your shield’ (15:1), and it is for this eternal pledge that we bless God in our daily prayers saying, ‘Blessed are You, Hashem, Shield of Abraham.’ Not merely for the protection He afforded Abraham ages ago do we bless God. We thank Him for protecting the Abraham within us, the Abrahamic spark of love and devotion that no tidal waves of materialism, oppression, and emancipation can ever extinguish.

Abraham’s ordeal is not done. Satan said to Abraham, ‘Tomorrow God will call you a murderer!’ Abraham replied, ‘Even so, I will do His will’. (Midrash)

Abraham did not even pray for God’s mercy upon Isaac. For the sake of the perversely wicked people of Sodom, Abraham had made a forceful protest to God, but for his own righteous son, he said not a word.

Abraham prayed for Sodom because his chesed character could not endure the destruction of the cities with their people. His prayer was not a personal one, he did not specifically ask for salvation of Lot, his nephew. He begged for heavenly mercy upon the Sodomite sinners because his perception of God was derived from and based upon mercy.

But for Isaac he could not pray just as he did not pray for Lot. To do so would have meant to pray for a selfish interest. No matter how much he might purify his motives and remove all sense of self from his prayer, no matter how much he would base his plea upon the righteousness of Isaac and the destiny of Israel, he was human and his prayer might well be colored ever so slightly with a selfish plea for Isaac, his own son. To whatever extent that were true, it would not be outer-directed chesed designed only to fulfill God’s wish. It would be a plea for himself. Who more than Abraham had a ‘right’ to make such a plea? That he did not make it demonstrates more than anything else the greatness of the Patriarch and the reason God never removes the memory of the Akeidah from the balance where the fate of Israel is measured.

IV.  Ashes and Life

  • Leviticus 26:44: “And I shall remember My covenant with Jacob, and also my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham shall I remember.” Why does it not specify remembrance in connection with Isaac? Because (God says) the ashes of Isaac are visible before Me gathered together atop the altar.
  • How did they (the Men of the Great Assembly) know where to build the altar (of the Second Temple?…’They saw the ashes of Isaac laying on that place’. (Zevachim 62a)

Isaac’s ashes lay before God. They identify the altar because the Sages knew that the altar of the Temple was built upon the site of Abraham’s altar on Mount Moriah. But how can the Sages speak of Isaac’s ashes when Isaac was never sacrificed and burned. There can be no ashes if Isaac who never became an actual sacrifice, yet the legally specified placement of the altar was determined by the ‘ashes of Isaac.’ A strange paradox! Isaac lived, but his ashes mark the pace of his sacrifice.

Both Abraham and Isaac came with all their hearts to complete the offering. There was no hesitation, no attempt to seek a reprieve. In every sense, except the physical, Abraham did slaughter Isaac and burn his remains as an offering.

No human being had ever done as Isaac did. He truly became Abraham’s offering. He mounted the altar and the knife was at his throat. It took a Divine Command to gain his release. When he descended the altar, he was no less an offering than he was when he ascended it. The ram was his substitute in an even more tangible way than even the purest sacrifice that would ever be brought in fulfillment of God’s command, because it took Isaac’s place on the altar. The ashes of the ram were on the altar in the place of Isaac’s. Thus, the ashes of the ram were Isaac’s in a very real sense.

We must remember that there are two very different worlds: the spiritual world and the physical world. In a higher world, Isaac surely can be seen as ashes. His willingness to become a sacrifice never left God’s cognizance. The spiritual effect of his deed remained imprinted on the top of Mount Moriah.

People attuned to spirituality see things that others don’t see. When Abraham and Isaac approached the mountain, they knew without being told that they had found the place. The saw a beautiful mountain covered by a pillar of smoke – the Shechinah. Their two attendants looked at the same mountain and saw only deserts. Were all four in the same place? Geographically, yes. But in the truest sense they were worlds apart. Abraham and Isaac were at the mountain of God and Ishamael and Eliezer were in the Canaanite desert. From that perspective, the participation of Abraham and Isaac at the Akeidah created his ashes, for he was truly sacrificed in every world but the material one. And in the material world, the ram took his place.

God promised to remember the covenant with Abraham and Jacob, but there was no need to bring the covenant of Isaac back from the past. Isaac’s ashes were before Him always, a living reminder of Isaac’s covenant – because an ascent to such spiritual heights as the Akeidah never dies.

Therefore, too, Isaac’s life after the Akeidah was of a different order than any other. He was a living sacrifice, sanctified and spiritual. For that reason, he was forbidden to leave the Land. Abraham had gone to Egypt and Jacob was to go to Charan and Egypt. But when famine struck in Isaac’s time, God ordered him not to leave Eretz Yisrael; he was a holy offering ~ and offerings may not leave the holy soil.

When the Akeidah was over, Abraham sent Isaac to the Academy of Shem to study Torah, for he said, ‘Whatever I have attained is only because of the Torah, therefore I want it to remain with my children forever.’ (Midrash)

Indeed, Isaac’s life after the Akeidah was different in more than a symbolic way:

  • “When the sword reached Isaac’s neck, his soul left him. When God’s voice came from between the two cherubim telling Abraham not to harm him, his soul returned to his body … Isaac experienced the resuscitation of the dead and said ‘Blessed are You, Hashem, Who makes the dead live!’” (Pesikta d’Rabbi Eliezer 31)

As the Zohar says, the letters of ‘Isaac’ form the words ‘the end of life’. Isaac’s earthly life had truly come to an end. Only the word of God brought his soul back to him. He blessed God for having given him the gift of life anew. His new life was a gift of God; his mortal life had truly ended. Thus, the intention of Abraham and Isaac to offer everything to God was fulfilled. The Isaac who walked away from the Akeidah was not the same one who had come to it. He was even greater than he had been earlier for he had given his life as a gift to God. That earlier life, the earthly one before Isaac became a sacrifice, merged with the ashes of the ram, ashes that never leave the notice of God.

Strangely, the name chosen for that climactic even hardly seems to symbolize its true essence, Akeidah Yitzchock, the binding of Isaac. True, upon placing himself upon the altar, Isaac asked his father to bind him tight lest he interfere with the knife-stroke by inadvertently moving, thereby rendering the sacrifice unfit, but that is so minor an aspect of the incident that it hardly seems appropriate to base the title of the event upon it. Sacrifice of Isaac! Slaughter of Isaac! Gift of Isaac! Selflessness of Isaac! Why ‘binding of Isaac’?

However, the name was well chosen indeed, for the very triviality it expressed reveals the greatness of Isaac.

Abraham and Isaac walked together for three days. We can imagine the turbulence in the heart of Abraham who knew why they were going, and the serenity of Isaac who thought that he would join with his father in offering an animal on the holy mountain of the future Temple. How different their feelings must have been! But the Torah testifies that ‘the two of them went together’ (22.6). Together they went, equal in resolve ~ equal in serenity ~ one to bind and the other to be bound; one to slaughter and the other to be slaughtered (Midrash). Neither thought of tragedy, only of the Creator Whose will they were going to perform.

Then Isaac learned of his destiny. ‘You are the ‘sheep’ my son!’ And again (22:8) ‘the two of them went together’. Now it was Isaac who should have been broken and depressed, but it wasn’t. The mood remained the same. The only thing that mattered was God’s will ~ whatever form it’s fulfillment would take.

It was enough of Isaac that he volunteer himself as a sacrifice. Surely he could not have had the presence of mind to worry about details. Few are the people who can maintain their calm in trying circumstances. The true test is not how one reacts when the trial comes, for a person is not himself when he is struck by tragedy. The test is how well he has lived his life in order to be prepared for the crisis. It is too late when the awful moment comes to make preparations or develop the personality to cope with it. Abraham’s response, Isaac’s response, were not born on Mount Moriah. Their reaction had been nurtured within them for years. The trial was no more than the means to reveal what had been present within them.

The measure of Isaac’s greatness was that he was conscious even of the danger that a reflex moment might ruin the slaughter. Of all the things to think of! It was a vital detail, but surely not a noticeable major aspect of the panorama of the trial. How could he be as calm? But he did think of that and he was calm.

Did his life mean so little to him? No, his life was exceedingly important to him because it was the tool with which to serve God, and without his life his service would be over. Life is so precious!! Isaac’s life was precious beyond value, but only because it was the tool with which to serve God. The greatest indication of his greatness is that, in the last moments of his worldly life, he thought not of his last will and testament, of the future generations he would not produce, or of the aged parents whom his loss would bereave. He thought of a reflex action, a sudden movement, a misplace stroke of the knife, a life that might be squandered if it were not returned to its Maker through a proper slaughter.

“Bind me tight lest I move due to fear of the knife and I cause you anguish. And perhaps the slaughter would be unfit and the offering would not be credited to you. Bind me well, very well.”

At such a time, Isaac thought of small things. People can rise up to great occasions and often do ~ even little people! But only the greatest people rise to the smallest needs.

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