Testing Humans and the ‘Akeydah, the Binding of Isaac

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The Human Value of Tests, and the ‘Akeydah

Tests come in three varieties, says R. Arama. Sometimes, the one administering the test seeks knowledge, such as whether a particular plant cures disease (he quotes I Shmuel 17;39, where David cannot walk in Shaul’s armor, for his lack of experience; R. Arama is reading it to mean David was trying it out, to see if it would help or hinder).

A second type of test fosters the subject’s actualizing his/her potential, as Moshe reassures the people after the Giving of the Torah (Shemot 20;16). Putting them through the daunting experience made them more perfect than before (similar to a soldier being ‘battle-tested”).

The Sinai example also fits his third version of test, where a group is challenged to show them the improvement they gain from passing such tests, R. Arama’s prooftext coming from Marah, where Hashem gave some first laws to the people, testing them. Observing a smaller set of laws taught them the value of law in general.

The ‘Akeydah was the second type of test, bringing potential to life. It was not the third type, there to educate others, because no one else would see anything remarkable—they would have seen a man say Gd told him to sacrifice his son, bind his son to the altar, then says Gd told him to stop. They could have dismissed it as all a ploy of his, in other words. Even were another prophet to have ratified Avraham’s claims, people could have insisted they were in cahoots. For a test to impact a larger public, it has to be transparent enough for them to accept it.

Binding Yitzchak for sacrifice moved Avraham fully from the ranks of natural philosopher to Gd-worshipper; a person operating based on philosophy would never sacrifice a child, would see it as the worst idiocy, where the servant of Gd understands it to be the highest expression of love and awe, when commanded by Gd. In Avraham’s case, the challenge was heightened by his having received a prior promise from the same Gd, that his future would run through Yitzchak.

To obey the command, he had to quell his intellectual resistance to extinguishing the vehicle of his future and heed Gd instead. He had to tell himself either some later sin had caused Gd to retract the promise or Gd had decided this form of service mattered more. Whatever his internal monologue, he had to prioritize obedience over understanding.

In doing so, R. Arama thinks he served Gd with his whole person, with all the hopes he had vested in Yitzchak, made clear how he held service of the soul over any other values, including especially the value of continuity through his son.

Why the ‘Akeydah Did Not Need to Come to Fruition

R. Arama knows Avraham never killed his son, which some might say reduces the value of Avraham’s deed and reduces the commitment he showed. He disagrees, because good is different than evil. With evil, the deed matters more than the intention, the reason Kiddushin 40a says Hashem generally does not treat negative thoughts as if the person had acted on them (other than with worship of powers other than Hashem, as R. Arama will explain), where Hashem does credit good intentions as if they had been enacted.

A bad act affects the world regardless of the person’s intentions–Shabbat has been violated, people have been killed, items have been destroyed, regardless of what the perpetrator was thinking– as shown by the Torah’s assigning sacrifices to atone for unwitting deeds. (Or, as my father a”h used to reply when I protested I hadn’t meant some accident: “You should mean it yet?”)

With good, the value lies in the person coming to certain truths, accepting the value and necessity of certain modes of behavior, the actions more about inculcating them, making them a firm part of the person’s intellect.

Full intent intensifies an act, both in terms of punishing a person who did wrong and shaping the character of one who did well. As other legal systems agree, impulsive actions or ones taken in the heat of a moment are not as blameworthy as premeditated ones, although R. Arama thinks even those do start a person down a road which can become more innate.

Worship of a power other than Hashem is more similar to good deeds for this purpose, because both occur primarily in the soul; idolatry, R. Arama is claiming, is a sin of the intellect/soul more than of the world it affects.

The discussion supports the point to which he has been working: Avraham had already had the complete internal experience of the ‘Akeydah when he was fully ready to kill Yitzchak. He had already actualized his readiness to serve Hashem in this way [there’s what to say here, considering R. Arama previously quoted Aristotle’s idea acts shape us as well; in this case, I think he is saying Avraham came so close, there was nothing more actual killing would have done in terms of improving him. As long as he stopped only because Gd interrupted and told him to stop, he had done it all, for R. Arama.

I am not fully convinced here, because R. Arama misses a piece. Were Avraham to have killed Yitzchak, he would have had to live with the ramifications of his good act, which to me would have produced sorts of aftershocks of impact. For another time.]

Confidence in the Historicity of the ‘Akeydah

Before we move to sample his line-by-line readings of the ‘Akeydah, I want to note a point he takes for granted, to consider how far we have sunk from what he took to be obvious. He says the test was written in the Divine Torah, leaving us all sure it happened, as if we saw it ourselves.

I find his prooftext for the idea equally interesting. He points to Shemot 19; 9, where Hashem assures Moshe the Jews will believe in him forever, after the Giving of the Torah. It makes it as if all the Jews had seen it, as if the ‘Akeydah had been performed in front of them, based on their having witnessed what happened at Sinai. More, none of the non-Jewish nations R. Arama knew had ever doubted it, either.

The fly in the ointment in his time were those who had begun to claim the ‘Akeydah was all a prophetic vision, a topic we have seen him address before. In our time, sadly, we have more problems, non-Jews (and Jews) who deny the divinity of the Torah, and/ or doubt the literal veracity of the ‘Akeydah.

It then weakens what we get out of the story, another hurdle for us. Next time, we will see some details of how Avraham handled the ‘Akeydah, reminders of ways we should attempt to emulate our remarkable forefather.

About Gidon Rothstein

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