by R. Gil Student
(See the source sheet for this essay)
It seems that every few years, someone argues that the message of the Akedah, the binding and near-sacrifice of Yitzchak (Gen. 22), is something other than that we should follow God’s commands no matter how hard they may be. I don’t want to speculate why people offer these suggestions and instead take them at face value. They believe this is the simple message of the biblical text and contemporary Orthodox Jews are mistakenly influenced by the 19th century Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard, in his Fear and Trembling, argued that Avraham suspended his ethical concerns in order to follow God’s command. Supposedly, Orthodox Jews have internalized this view and forsaken the true, and possibly even traditional Jewish, understanding of the Akedah. Keep in mind that we read this passage in synagogue on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, yet according to this claim we have adopted a Christian understanding of it.
I don’t want to argue here about the true peshat, the correct simple reading of the biblical text. I say this mainly because there are so many different arguments of a similar nature that I cannot keep up with the latest books and articles on the subject. I am content with Jewish tradition which, long before Kierkegaard was born, established standard approaches to understanding the Akedah.
Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 3:24) was troubled why an omniscient God would need to test anyone. In the course of his discussion, Rambam says that Avraham was prepared to slaughter his son, Yitzchak, based on his fear of God. He did this not out of fear of punishment or desire for reward but out of his exemplary awe of the Creator. God set up this test in order to show the world Avraham’s love and fear of God, which serves as an example from which everyone can learn. After multiple days, during which Avraham thought deeply about this command, he chose to go through with this difficult task until God sent an angel to stop him. In explaining why we read the Akedah passage on Rosh Hashanah, Rav Menachem Meiri (Chibbur Ha-Teshuvah 1:2:2) invokes Rambam’s explanation, saying that all Jews are expected to learn from the Akedah this important lesson of the extent of fearing and loving God — it includes sacrificing even that which is most important to you.
The Mishnah (Avos 5:3) says that Avraham was tested ten times in his life. Commentators disagree over which experiences count among the ten tests but all agree that the Akedah is on the list (Gen. 22:1 seems to make that clear). The commentary attributed to Rashi explains that Avraham is praised for those ten tests because despite everything, out of his great love for God, Avraham never questioned God’s midos, His attributes, His ethics. Avraham accepts God’s command without question. This same language is used by later commentaries on that Mishnah, such as Meiri, Rashbatz and Tosefos Yom Tov. They all praise Avraham for following God’s orders and passing His tests without questioning God’s attributes of justice and mercy.
Most importantly, in the Musaf prayer of Rosh Hashanah, in the Zikhronos blessing (not just a liturgical poem but the actual blessing), we say the following (Sacks translation):
“Remember for our sake, Lord our God, the covenant, the loving-kindness, and the oath that You swore to Abraham our father in Mount Moriah. And let the image of that binding, when our father Abraham bound Isaac his son upon the altar, be present before You; when he suppressed his compassion, to do Your will wholeheartedly. So, too, let Your compassion wrest Your anger from us,…”
According to this blessing, Avraham succeeded in his test by suppressing his compassion for his son in order to fulfill God’s command. In memory of that, we ask God to suppress his anger with compassion. This is the classical Jewish understanding of the message of the Akedah — fulfill God’s commands without question.
Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl (Sichos Al Rosh Hashanah, p. 313) explains with a parable why this is not a suspension of the ethical. Avraham did not stop thinking or reasoning in order to fulfill God’s command. When you are sick and ask a doctor for guidance, why do you follow his advice? Even if you get a second medical opinion that agrees, you can go on the street and find a dozen people with contrary advice. You might not agree either. Why is it logical to follow the doctor’s guidance? Because you seek and follow the most expert opinion on the subject.
When it comes to anything in the world, God is the greatest expert. This is true of ethics, as it is true of anything else. Therefore, when Avraham was commanded by God to slaughter his son, he knew that the most ethical thing to do, the most logical course of action, is to follow God’s guidance. Questioning God is itself illogical and contrary to reason.
As it happened, the outcome of the Akedah was positive and Avraham was redirected at the last minute to refrain from slaughtering his son. Avraham’s profound faith in God was vindicated and continues to be remembered to this day in our prayers. Throughout history, Jews have suffered martyrdom in order to follow God’s commands. The outcome was not always positive, at least in this world, but the lesson of the Akedah is that we must be prepared to sacrifice anything in order to follow what we know is the most ethical path even if we don’t understand how, that of God’s command.