Gently Down the Stream

June 24, 2009

17 min read


Vayeira (Genesis 18-22 )

Exploring the depth on the Binding of Isaac.

And it happened after these things that God tested Abraham and said to him, "Abraham," and he replied, "Here I am." And He said, "Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah. Bring him up there as an offering upon one of the mountains which I shall tell you." (Genesis 22, 1-2)

The story of this test, known as the Akeida, is one of the seminal events of Jewish history.

Furthermore, the Akeida is perhaps the single greatest point of merit in the Jewish treasury. Whenever the Jewish people need to beseech God on a matter that requires His extraordinary indulgence, the mention of the merit of the Akeida inevitably constitutes one of the chief points of their presentation. The blessing of remembrance recited on Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgement, provides a good illustration:

Remember the Akeida of Isaac when you look at his children today and therefore remember your covenant with us.

It is a very difficult thing to write about the Akeida, as there is always the fear that anything the writer might say in the effort of bringing it down to earth could reduce the majesty of the event. In our analysis, we cannot presume to encapsulate the smallest part of its drama in what follows.

How can we relate to the idea of God putting Abraham through such a barbaric experience?

With that in mind, let us broach the question that arises immediately: How can we relate to the idea of God putting Abraham through such a barbaric experience for the sake of a test that God must have known He would pass? For a test is not a punishment. The very fact that the Torah describes it as a test indicates that neither Abraham or Isaac had done anything wrong.


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Nachmanides, in his treatise on reward and punishment, "Sha'ar Hagmul," explains at length that the fact that God decided to test Abraham is a sign of his great merit. God never tests anyone who faces the slightest risk of failure.

When the potter wants to test the power of his kiln, he doesn't test it by striking his weak pots that he knows will shatter from a single blow. How does he test it? By striking his strongest pots that he knows can withstand being repeatedly hammered by his strongest blows. Similarly, God never tests the rasha who cannot measure up to intense scrutiny. Who does He test? The tzadik, the "holy man." As it is written: God will test the Zadik (Tehilim,11,5) and it says, God tested Abraham. (Bereishis Raba, 55,2)

In fact, he goes on to explain that when the Torah tells us that someone is being tested, this characterization is only valid from the point of view of the one undergoing the test. As the human subject has free will and does not necessarily know his spiritual potential, he feels like he is on trial and is terrified of failure. Moreover, this is certainly the proper attitude to adopt towards the prospect of undergoing Divine scrutiny. One of the very first blessings we recite each morning contains the request: "Do not put us to the test." But to God these are not tests as He is always sure of the outcome.

What then is the purpose of this exercise?

Nachmanides explains that the purpose is to actualize hidden spiritual potentials. By dint of much hard labor, a person may have fully developed his potential to reach certain spiritual heights, but unless he is called upon to apply his potential to a real life situation, it will never be actualized.

Heroes are produced by circumstances.

Heroes are produced by circumstances. The brave soldier who crawls through enemy fire to rescue his wounded comrade always had the necessary courage, but even he was not aware of this inner resource until the need for the rescue arose. He can only be awarded the glory and honor that are the proper dues of his great courage after he has actually performed the heroic deed.


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Thus God tested Abraham to actualize his spiritual potential and to merit receiving the great spiritual awards that He wished to bestow on him. Accordingly, a study of the Akeida ought to expose a quality of spiritual greatness in Abraham that had not appeared previously as part of his spiritual profile.

At the conclusion of the Akeida, the Torah says:

"Do not stretch out your hand against the lad nor do anything to him for now I know that you are a God- fearing man, since you have not withheld your son, your only one, from me." (Genesis 22:12)

Apparently, hidden in Abraham's personality was the spiritual potential for the fear of God, but it required the imposition of this test to be actualized.

But how can we possibly understand this? After all, previous to this test, Abraham was willing to jump into a fiery furnace rather than renounce his loyalty to God even before God ever spoke to him! Abraham consumed every bit of energy in his possession to sanctify God's name in the world for a solid 136 years up to this point in his life! Why, after all that, did he require this test to actualize his fear of God?

Spiritual events are difficult to assess by means of their outer real life manifestations. By definition, the dominant portion of such events take place in the inner world of the human soul, where they are well concealed from prying eyes. Sometimes you can only comprehend the spiritual dynamics of such events by analyzing how they altered the spiritual dimensions of the world at large.

When we study the Akeida in this light, we find that it inaugurated two monumental spiritual changes in the world.


  1. The first of these was the creation of the possibility of having the presence of God living among us in His Temple.



  2. The second was the establishment of the connection between mortal human beings and the world of Techiyat Hametim, or "the resurrection of the dead." Let us examine both of these changes and see how they are related.



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After the Akeida the Torah tells us:

And Abraham called the name of that site 'YHVH Yireh', as it is said this day, on the mountain the Lord will be seen. (Genesis 22:14)

In bestowing this name to the site, Abraham informs us that until the Akeida there was no place on earth that God could be clearly perceived. Abraham's mission in the Akeida was to bring this perception down to the world. Indeed, it was on this very spot that the Temple was later erected and the altar for sacrificial offerings was placed where Isaac once lay, bound as a sacrifice.

The holy name of God which Abraham uses here -- the unpronounceable Tetragrammaton, YHVH -- has a special significance among the various titles that God selected in His Torah as a means of teaching us His various attributes. This name -- Hebrew for "was, is and will be" -- identifies God as the source of all being in the past present and future. It introduces the idea that God is not only the Creator of all that exists, but that continued existence is impossible without constant Divine input.

The revelation of this aspect of God is necessary for the establishment of the Temple.

Until this aspect of His being could be perceived down here in our world, God could not maintain a residence among us humans in this aspect. And the revelation of this aspect of God is necessary for the establishment of the Temple. No other name of God is ever mentioned in the Book of Leviticus in association with the sacrifices offered in the Temple.

We hope to be able to explain why. Apparently, the Akeida so clearly crystallized the possibility of appreciating God in this aspect that it literally actualized the potential for the Temple.


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In Hebrew the word Yirah, which means "fear" also means "see." Generally speaking, we humans are only frightened of dangers that we can detect and understand. Thus a God-fearing man is also a God-seeing man. Moreover, the level of one's fear/awe of God is directly proportional to the clearness of one's vision of God.

If Abraham is described by the Torah after having passed through the Akeida experience as a God-fearing man, this indicates that the Akeida allowed him to obtain a glimpse of one of the attributes of God that were previously invisible to human beings. Despite the great fear of God that served as the driving force of his life up to the Akeida, it was impossible even for Abraham to experience the fear of God on a level that is engenderd by an attribute of God invisible to man. What he could not see, he could not fear.

The perception of God as YHVH was the spiritual experience whose potential in Abraham the test of the Akeida was designed to actualize. Once human beings could relate to God on this level, they could play host to God's presence in terms of this attribute. The Temple and its sacrifices were the result.


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To bring this idea down to earth, let us look at the second change in the world brought about by the Akeida, the ability to make spiritual contact with God at the level of Techiyat Hametim, "the resurrection of the dead."

Rabbi Yehuda said: "When the knife touched Isaac's neck, his soul flew out of his body. When the Voice emerged from between the cherubim and commanded, "Do not send your hand to hurt the youth..." his soul returned to his body, and Isaac stood up on his feet, and realized that just so would the dead be eventually resuscitated, and he declared, "Blessed are you God, who resuscitates the dead." (Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer, 30)

We still recite this blessing uttered by Isaac. It has been handed down to us as the concluding words of the second blessing of the Shmoneh Esreh. In uttering Isaac's words, we internalize Isaac's feelings as he originally pronounced them, mesmerized by the actual living experience of his freshly returned life. To fully appreciate the profound significance of these words, we must analyze this blessing:

You are mighty forever, My Master, You are the Resurrector of the dead, the Powerful One to deliver us. Causer of the wind to blow and the rain to fall. Sustainer of the living with kindliness, Resurrector of the dead with great mercy, Supporter of the fallen, and Healer of the sick and Releaser of the imprisoned and Fulfiller of His faithfulness to those who sleep in the dust. Who is like You Master of mighty deeds and who can be compared to You? King Who causes death and restores life and causes deliverance to sprout forth. And you are faithful to restore the dead to life. Blessed are You, Lord, Resurrector of the dead.

There is a very perplexing aspect to these words. We praise God for sending us rain, providing us with our livelihoods, for supporting us when we fall, for healing us when we are sick, for releasing us when we are confined by circumstances. We combine these examples of Divine assistance with the praise of God as the One who will return us to life after our deaths. But how can these other manifestations of Divine benevolence, all integral to our everyday existence, be mentioned in the same breath as the phenomenon of returning to life after death? What can they possibly have in common?

Why do we mention the resurrection of the dead at all in our everyday prayers?

More specifically why mention the resuscitation of the dead at all in our everyday prayers?

We can highlight the problem by referring to the well-known Jewish practice of reciting Psalms when someone is sick. Jewish custom dictates that we stop reciting the Psalms if the person we are praying for dies. Why? We address God three times daily as the resuscitator of the dead, so why not keep reciting the Psalms in the hope that God will bring the dead person back to life? The answer is obvious.

We only pray for God's help when it can be extended to us in terms of solutions that are a part of the phenomena of our world. The resuscitation of the dead will take place in the World to Come. There is no such phenomenon in our world and therefore the power of prayer does not extend to it.

In other words, God is invisible to us in His aspect of resuscitator of the dead. So why mention this aspect of God altogether in our daily prayers?

The purpose of these prayers is to connect to God in the here and now. Such connections can only be established in terms of those attributes that God displays in our world, as it is this aspect of Himself that He rendered accessible and visible to us.


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This question is the key we need to unlock the secret of the Akeida. In fact we are declaring in our prayers that when God sends us rain, or heals us when we are sick, or provides us with our livelihood, He is displaying this very Divine attribute of the Resuscitator of the dead. In other words we can only connect to God's visible attributes because we are people who will eventually undergo the resuscitation of the dead! We must reach all the way to Techiyat Hametim -- the very resurrection of the dead -- to gain access to the attributes of God that are part of our own world!

Daily contact and interaction with the Infinite is only possible for people who are themselves infinite to some degree. For those who exist only in the realm of the finite God provided the resources of the natural world. There is natural rain, natural powers of healing and natural abundance. God does not interfere with these. In the world of nature, there is only so much to go around and it is not His way to deprive one person to benefit another. But for one who exists in the world of the infinite, there are infinite resources available to draw on.


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Abraham spent his entire life in teaching the world the evils of idol worship and human sacrifice. If he would have interpreted God's command to sacrifice Isaac as a command to simply kill him, he surely would have protested. For Abraham did have objections to God's command. The Midrash informs us about the objections he wanted to utter but disciplined himself to suppress.

"Master of the universe, when you told me to take Isaac and offer him up as a sacrifice I had what to answer. I could have said, 'Yesterday you promised me, Only Isaac's offspring will be considered yours (Genesis 21:12), and now you tell me to offer him up as a sacrifice?' But I said nothing. Therefore I ask of you, just as I suppressed my mercy to carry out your will without protest, when my children come up before you for judgment you also suppress your anger and do not allow the mention of their negative deeds." (Bereishi raba, 56,10)

There are many other Midrashic sources that are substantially in conformity with this one.

Rabbi Dessler asks, why does no source quote the most obvious objection? Surely it is absolutely immoral to kill a human being and offer him up as a sacrifice! How could God command Abraham to do something so absolutely horrendous in His service? How could Abraham keep silent on this issue?


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The substance of his answer is that Abraham interpreted the Akeida correctly from the very beginning.

Isaac experienced the resuscitation of the dead as a result of the Akeida.

If the Midrash tells us that Isaac experienced the resuscitation of the dead as a result of almost going through it, we understand that this is what it was meant to accomplish all along. The difference between the Akeida as originally planned and the way it was finally executed is only in the degree of strength of the revelation.

As the Akeida was not executed to conclusion in the actual world it only managed to establish a connection with the world of Techiyat Hametim on the lofty level of spiritual experience. Had it actually gone to its culmination as a real event, it would have connected our world to the world of Techiyat Hametim physically and would have abolished the need to die altogether.

Thus we find that Abraham is actually disappointed when the angel revokes the Divine command. Rashi tells us in the name of the Midrash that each act of service Abraham preformed on the ram (which replaced Isaac on the altar) he uttered the following prayer: "May it be the will of God to regard what I am doing as though I was doing it to my son Isaac; as though it was my son who was being slaughtered, as though it was his blood that was sprinkled on the altar, as though it was he who was being skinned, as though it was his flesh that was being burned and transformed into ashes."

The withdrawal of God's command to sacrifice Isaac was not understood by Abraham as the timely revocation of a horrendous edict. He understood that God had taught him an enduring lesson through the Akeida. The Akeida was an essential aspect of his Divine service but he could only perform this act of service symbolically at the present time.


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The idea is simple yet profound. When you offer your life to God and He gives it back to you after accepting it, your life returns to you profoundly transformed. It is no longer life that emanates from the world of nature. It flows to you directly from the wellsprings of God. You are eternally linked to God through life itself.

The Akeida was given to Abraham, the first Jew, as a means of changing the direction of the flow of life. Instead of originating in nature and flowing back to God, which is the direction in which life flows for the rest of humanity, a Jew's life flows from God towards the world. The flow of every individual Jewish life originates in the wellsprings of eternity, and the spiritual currents that power this flow end in the minor tributary of the finite world.

Whatever assistance God sends through Divine providence to a Jew flows along this river of life. All the supplies carried by the barges that float on this river driven by the powerful current of the Jewish life-force originate in the world of the infinite. Their destination is this world, but their embarkation point is located in the world of Techiyat Hametim.

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