November 15, 2003 - 5764
Prepared by Rabbi Lee Buckman
Head of School, Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit
Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director
Annual Cycle: Genesis 18:1-22:24 - Hertz, p. 63; Etz Hayim, p. 99
Triennial Cycle 3: Genesis 21:1-22:24 - Hertz, p. 71; Etz Hayim, p. 112
Haftarah: II Kings 4:1-37 - Hertz, p. 76; Etz Hayim, p. 123
Discussion Theme: Why such a test?
Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.” And He said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” So early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. He split the wood for the burnt offering, and he set out for the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar… They arrived at the place of which God had told him. Abraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. Then an angel of the Lord called to him from heaven: "Abraham! Abraham!… Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God since you have not withheld your son, your favored one from Me.” (Genesis 22:1-4, 9-12)
- Since this trial was narrated in the Torah as testimony of the living God, it is as if the trial took place in the presence of every Jew, past, present, and future. No one has failed to witness, through this medium, the greatness of this trial and the steadfastness of Abraham’s faith, which became indelibly fixed in the hearts of all members of the human race. (Isaac Arama in Akedat Yitzchak)
- Should you ask, since the Almighty knew whether Abraham would withstand his trial or not, what was the reason for imposing on him these sufferings? The answer is that the reward for potential good is not the same as that for actual good deeds. “Let not him that girdeth on his armor boast himself as he that putteth it off” (I Kings 20:11). He who has not performed deeds of valor, who is prepared for battle cannot be compared to the one who has actually fought and performed these deeds and already “putteth off” his armor. For this reason God often inflicts suffering on the righteous in order to habituate them so that their outward actions conform to their inner character. The deed will intensify love of God since every action leaves its own indelible mark on the performer. This practice in good actions is called “nisayon.” (Rabbi Josef Albo in Sefer Ikarim)
- “After these things”: After the troubled thoughts that ensued. Who was troubled? Abraham was troubled; he thought, “I have rejoiced and I have spread joy everywhere -- and yet I have never set aside a bullock or a ram for God.” God replied, “In the end you will be told to sacrifice your son and you will not refuse.” Another view: The ministering angels said, “This Abraham has rejoiced and spread joy everywhere — and yet he has never set aside a bullock or ram for God.” God replied, “In the end he will be told to sacrifice his son and he will not refuse.” (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah)
- This soul-shattering event in the life of the patriarch comes at the climax of his career. It is frequently explained as registering a new era in the history of religion, marking the transition from one stage of religious development to another; namely, the rejection of human sacrifice and the substitution of an animal in its place… Rather, the first lesson of the Akeidah episode is to be sought in the definition of the relationship between man and God. Biblical faith is not a posture of passivity… Man’s “emunah,” his steadfast loyalty to God, has meaning only when it reveals itself as the well-spring of action, as being powerful enough to stand the test of suffering and trial. The second lesson of the Akedah is to be found in the divine verdict, “For now I know that you fear God” (22:12). That is to say, the value of an act may lie as much in the inward intention of the doer as in the final execution. God valued the readiness of Abraham to make the extreme sacrifice even though it was not completed. (Nahum Sarna in Understanding Genesis)
- We are all like Abraham; so involved in our outside world — our careers, interests, or principles — that we do not or cannot see that it is our child, or spouse or parent that is bound on the altar. We are so adept at sacrificing that which is truly important to us on the altars we have erected that we may ask whether we are capable of hearing the cry of the angel before it’s too late. (Rabbi Norman Cohen, Self, Struggle, and Change)
Commentators have struggled, just as we have, to make sense of God’s test. What was the purpose of the test? Why does Abraham, who protested when the people of Sodom and Gemorrah were to be destroyed, remain silent? Did he pass the test?