One of the most enduring challenges in the Binding of Isaac story, the Akedah, is that as much as we explore it, the less we understand it.
Which is why the challenge to understand the narrative, the episode, the exchange, the commitment, the relationships becomes ever greater the more we try to unravel what is taking place.
A number of years ago I had a discussion with a fellow educator about this. He was thoroughly convinced that his “approach” to understanding the Akedah was “correct,” while he evaded every question I sent his way, unsatisfactorily resolving the ones he took on, while sidestepping the questions that didn’t jibe with his personal narrative of what the Akedah “means.”
One thing that is very clear to me is that G-d never intended for Yitzchak to die on the mountain.
I am also pretty confident that Avraham was meant to take Yitzchak to this particular place to give Yitzchak his own “Lech Lecha experience” (compare 12:1 to 22:2), since Yitzchak had no reason to abandon his father’s household in order to find G-d.
I am also mostly convinced that when Avraham is told “Haalehu sham l’olah” (22:2) (“raise him up there to an offering”), that Yitzchak is meant to go up a mountain to experience an olah, and not to himself be the olah. In fact, when we compare the way the Torah describes Yitzchak being placed on the altar (22:9) to the way the ram is ultimately placed there (22:13), the language makes it clear that Avraham fulfills the commandment with the ram: “Vayalehu l’olah.”
There are many words in the narrative that are unclear or confusing. None of them can be ignored, and each one must have a good reason for why it is used. Two of these words are maachelet, a very strange word for what seems to be a knife for slaughter, and achar, the position in which Avraham notices the ram.
For perhaps the most heretical line of the day, I am also not convinced that the word nisa (22:1), which many translate as “tested,” indicates a test at all. In other places in the Torah, the word nes is more accurately defined as “banner.” Ibn Ezra essentially argues that nisa means Avraham was “raised,” that G-d was “showing his [Avraham’s] righteousness to other humans.”
Radak even notes that this is the strangest of “tests” because no one was on the mountain to see it! And so, he argues, the whole episode is meant to show Avraham’s love for the Almighty. G-d tells him to jump, he jumps.
But what of the view that the grammar is wrong? The conjugation of nisa doesn’t imply that G-d is about to do anything to Avraham (whether “test” or “raise him up”). It is a confirmation of what has already been proven (see Malbim and Haktav Vehakabbalah).
Rabbeinu Bachaye notes that the purpose of the Akedah was to publicize to the nations Avraham’s awe and love of G-d.Love, Rabbeinu Bachaye explains, is demonstrated in three ways:
1. A person loves his king and demonstrates this through singing praises. But he will not spend money to show this love.
2. A person who loves the king even more will give everything he has for him, but not his life.
3. Finally, there is a person who sings in praise of his king, is willing to give everything he has for him, even his life.
Rabbeinu Bachaye argues that Avraham had already achieved this highest level. But in his being asked to kill Yitzchak, he was asked to prove his love even more.
That approach might work if Avraham had been asked to kill Yitzchak. But Rashi is the first to note that G-d only told Avraham “Haalehu,” raise him up, not “shachtehu,” slaughter him.
So what is the purpose? I think what Rabbeinu Bachaye leaves out of his explanation opens the door for the Sfas Emes. In a drasha of 1880, he observes that the mission is deemed to be a success the second time Avraham declares “Hineni” (after saying it to Yitzchak earlier).
The angel who stops him calls, “Avraham, Avraham,” he responds with “Hineni,” and is told, “Don’t send out your hand to the young man, don’t do a thing to him, for now I know that you are G-d-fearing…”
This, the Sfas Emes explains, was the test. We all know Avraham loved G-d. Avraham is the only person in the Bible described as “My beloved” by G-d (Yeshayahu 41:8). When G-d tells him to do something, he jumps to do it without questioning.
But everything he did until now entailed demonstrating love for G-d. In contrast, this episode was meant to demonstrate reverence. On the one hand, as the Sfas Emes explains, it showed that Avraham was prepared to slaughter his son despite the command’s challenging his love of G-d. How could you ask me to kill my son when you told me he is my whole future?
The Sfas Emes says Avraham proves his fear of G-d by not doing anything to Yitzchak, because he was ready to do what he had been asked.
There is another view, however that it was more difficult for Avraham to take Yitzchak down from the altar, when his passion to fulfill G-d’s will had almost overtaken him.
And I think that in staying his hand, Avraham demonstrated the highest level of both love of G-d and reverence at the same time.
If there is any take home message we can emerge with, it is that our charge is to love G-d and to be in awe of G-d at all times. And if we can only serve Him through those lenses, we would also be worthy of being called the children of Avraham.