The Akedah’s real challenge to Avraham avinu


The Akedah represents the ultimate trial that any parent could possibly bear. It must have been exceedingly difficult for Avraham Avinu, who was the personification of gemilut chasadim. With his four-door tent perpetually open to passing wayfarers, his pleas to Hashem on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, and countless other deeds, Avraham was the embodiment of chesed in action. As such, Hashem’s direct command to him to bring his son as a korban olah appears astonishing.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the Rav) explained the Akedah from the perspective of sacrifice in the service of Hashem, “the idea of sacrifice is a cornerstone of Judaism, and the Akedah has inevitably introduced sacrificial action as part of our historical drama.”

An analysis of this aspect of avodat Hashem is essential to understanding humankind’s relationship with the Almighty. The Rav interpreted avodat Hashem as “service awareness,” that is, our entire being is under Hashem’s control. The Rav urges us to recognize the Almighty’s total mastery over the universe and ourselves: “G-d from time to time calls upon man to return to Him whatever is His. He demands that man give not a part but the whole of himself. He requires of man to return divine property to its rightful owner.”

In light of this last point, we can gain an important insight as to why Hashem commanded Avraham to bring Yitzchak as a korban olah: Avraham was returning to G-d that which was always His.

When analyzing the Akedah, it is crucial to remember that the Almighty’s commandment to Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchak was absolute and unequivocal. Although a direct reading of Bereishit 22:1-2 leaves no doubt that Avraham was commanded to offer Yitzchak as a korban olah, toward the end of our narrative, Hashem, through His malach, commands Avraham to refrain from harming Yitzchak and to offer the ram He provided in his place.

Although one might think authentic sacrifice can only be achieved if we fulfill the literal meaning of this term, the Rav teaches us that there are two ways in which this can be realized — physical and experiential.

Therefore, in his view Avraham did indeed sacrifice Yitzchak; the sacrifice, however, was not physical but experiential. As such, the Rav states, it took place in the innermost “recesses of his personality.”

For all intents and purposes, then, Yitzchak, in the persona of Avraham’s son, ceased to exist. True, the physical form of Yitzchak remained; nonetheless his experience had transformed him so profoundly that he was now kulu l’Hashem (totally and completely Hashem’s). Moreover, since this change was spiritual and experiential, rather than physical, the Rav opines that it took place before Avraham ever arrived at Mount Moriah: “Abraham implemented the sacrifice of Isaac not on Mount Moriah but in the depths of his heart. He gave up Isaac the very instant G-d addressed Himself to him and asked him to return his most precious possession to its legitimate master and owner. Immediatedly, with no arguing or pleading, Abraham surrendered Isaac.”

We are not the Avot and the Emahot, yet, we, too, are presented with untold challenges in our lives. What should our response ideally be?

Long ago, Dovid HaMelech said it best when he proclaimed: “I shall raise my eyes to the mountains, from where will my help come? My help is from the L-rd, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to falter; Your Guardian will not slumber.” (Tehillim 121:1-3) Just as our ancestor, Avraham, “lifted up his eyes” and saw the ram Hashem had provided, so, too, may we raise our eyes and recognize that the Almighty is watching over us, and is ever our Protector. V’chane yihi ratzon.