Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Vayyera

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Vayyera 5761/ 18 November 2000

The Trial

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner

It has been claimed that Abraham failed in the test of the binding of Isaac. When he was commanded to do this awful thing he should have argued back in the name of morality and humanity, just as he argued tenaciously to save the people of Sodom. But he erred; he reached out his hand with the knife to slaughter his son, and had the angel not forestalled him, a terrible tragedy would have occurred. If so, why did G-d praise him, saying, "For now I know that you fear G-d, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me"(22:12)? According to the argument made by the proponents of this view, this is not said in praise, rather in deprecation: "You are nothing more than a G-d -fearer (yerei shamayim), which is far lower than one who loves G-d."

This interpretation is incorrect. The binding of Isaac is the supreme meritorious act which has stood to the credit of the Jewish people throughout the generations; it is the pinnacle of human spirituality, as is mentioned countless times in faithful sources as well as in our prayers.

Fear of punishment is indeed on a lower level than love of the Lord; but awe in the presence of the sublime approaches love of the Lord and in some respects is even more elevated, as the Maharal of Prague explains at great length in his work Netivot Olam in the chapter on The Fear of G-d. According to the Maharal, awe in the face of the Almighty's greatness is the most wondrous expression of love. To love the Lord means to feel a sense of belonging and close adherence; to be in awe of the Lord means to feel one's insignificance in His Presence, to feel oneself as naught. It is to be so in love with the Lord of the Universe that one accepts total self-effacement because of this intense love. This is the notion of "negation of that which is" that our Hassidic rabbis expanded on and delved into so deeply. This is the fear that was experienced by our patriarch Abraham, who, because he loved the Lord, was willing to put aside all his wishes and values.

We know the magnitude of Abraham's love of humanity and his elevated sense of morality. It is precisely this trait that makes his trial all the greater.

The Vilna Gaon asks with respect to the verse, "For now I know that you fear G-d" (22:12), did the Lord not know this already? He explains that if a person is imbued with love of the Lord and receives a divine command to do an act of kindness, this might not express the person's godfearing character, rather his natural inclination. But when a person does that which is the opposite of his nature, this proves that he fears G-d (cf. the Vilna Gaon's commentary on Proverbs, ch. 30). When Abraham devotedly welcomed visitors, when he saved Lot and argued on behalf of Sodom one could still maintain that all these things were simply his nature. But when he took the knife in hand to slaughter his son, this act surely proved his fear of G-d.

Were it not for Abraham's love of his son, this would have been a lesser trial. Rav Kook stresses in his commentary on the prayer book, Olat Re'iyah, that God did not contend with Abraham that his love of his son was a trifling matter. Quite the contrary, G-d played up this love of his: "your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love" (22:2). Nevertheless, Abraham surely had to make countless rationalizations to himself as he made the three-day journey to the appointed place. Maimonides said this was no precipitous act stemming from excitement of the moment, rather a well-considered decision made after long and careful contemplation (Guide to the Perplexed, 3.24). For three days our greater-than-life-size patriarch marched on in silent compliance -- "So early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass ... and he set out for the place of which G-d had told him" (v. 3) -- but in his head a tempestuous struggle raged. According to the Midrash, Satan accosted him in the form of an old man and asked, "Where are you going?" Abraham replied, "To pray." "So why the wood and the knife?" He answered, "In case we decide to tarry a day or two, and bake and eat." Satan said to him, "A person like you would take the life of his son, given him in his old age, and be culpable for taking his soul?!" Abraham answered, "The Holy One, blessed be He, told me to do so." Satan said, "Is this how one prays?? Is this worship of the Lord?! With a knife and fire?! This is murder!" Abraham answered, "Nevertheless, the Lord told me to do so." (Yalkut Shimoni, Va-Yera, par. 98).

Another variation on this Midrash reads:

Satan headed him off and asked, "My old man, where be you off to? Not to slaughter your son!? 'Your words have kept him who stumbled from falling; You have braced knees that gave way. But now that it overtakes you, it is too much' (Job 4:4-5)." He said to him, " 'I shall go innocently' " (Ps. 26:11). "'Think now,' Satan said, 'what innocent man ever perished?' (Job 4:7)." But Abraham would not listen to Satan (ibid., par. 96).

The Vilna Gaon explains this Midrash as follows: Abraham had spent his entire life trying to bring people closer to G-d, teaching them that passing their sons and daughters through fire to pagan gods is not the way to worship the Lord. Worship of the true Lord is founded on peaceful principles: not to murder, not to commit adultery, not to steal, etc. He succeeded in having his words heard, but now the Lord was commanding him to slaughter his son. Satan argued that henceforth Abraham would lose all his influence. He would no longer be able to encourage the wavering, or "brace knees that gave way" with his words. Abraham responded that he was not afraid of this, for he was going in all innocence, not challenging (Heaven forbid) the Creator's command (Kol Eliyahu, Va-Yera, 12).

Our patriarch Abraham was not naive; he was a great wise man and philosopher, blessed with wisdom of G-d. He was truly great in his love of other human beings, seeking with all his soul to deliver all mankind from its troubles, both material and spiritual; and God had promised him that this would be accomplished by a great nation that would issue from him: "and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you" (12:3). But there the man was, well on in years and without a son. Finally the long-awaited son was born, and he was no disappointment. He, too, was like his father - the finest specimen of the human race. Then the Lord of the Universe asked our patriarch Abraham to give up all his ideas: loving his son, opposing murder, having an impact on his own generation and even influencing the future good of mankind. But Abraham was not about to lose the battle; on the contrary, his victory is the victory of innocence. To be innocent does not necessarily mean to be naive or unenlightened; to be innocent means to have great wisdom but at the same time to know that in worldly matters "one high official is protected by a higher one, and both of them by still higher ones" (Eccles. 5:7).

Abraham is not a tragic hero. He set out on his mission with joy, as Rav Kook notes in his commentary on the prayer book; and he surely returned with joy, for he still had his fear of the Lord as well as his son. All the more so, his bond with his son was strengthened. For not only was there pure human fatherly love here, but Abraham had also been commanded by the Lord to guard and keep his son from all danger. The human had ascended to the level of the divine.

Effacement of oneself in the face of the Lord does not express being weak or pathetic, rather it reflects the greatest heroism. When a person effaces himself in relationship to another, this is a sort of psychological bondage. Self-effacement in the presence of the Lord, however, is like effacing the branch to join up with the root; and this fills a person with strength and joy, with vitality and heroism. The G-d-fearing person does not walk lamely, bent over and spent. In the wake of the binding of Isaac the Lord promised Abraham: "By Myself I swear, the Lord declares: Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your favored one, I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore" (22:16-17) - he will become stronger and greater still - "and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants" (ibid.) - he will be a source of blessing to all mankind, "because you have obeyed My command" - that obedience to the Lord which is the highest of all ideals.

"You must be wholehearted [Heb. tamim] with the Lord your G-d" (Deut. 18:13). Regarding the complex realities of life on earth one should not be naive or innocent [tamim], rather one should be full of foresight and precaution. But regarding the Lord of the Universe, innocence is the supreme virtue, not a trait of the foolish and ignorant, but the trait of the truly wise.

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