Friday, October 26, 2007

The Binding of Yitzchak

At the end of this week's reading appears the narrative of the binding of Yitzchak, עקדת יצחק. This is how the prayer service of Rosh Hashanah refers to it, "ועקדת יצחק לזרעו ברחמים תזכור." And indeed, Rabbi Hirsch explains that this was a great test of Yitzchak's faith. Yitzchak only found out about this command of Hashem through his oral law-giver, his father. As the Talmud (Sanhedrin 89b) explains, this הוראת שעה, temporary commandment was only relied upon because Avraham had proven himself a true conduit of God's word.

However, the Torah narrates the event as the climactic test of Avraham's faith. His son is passive, inactive, throughout the story. It is Avraham who is commanded by God to bring his son up on an altar, and demonstrate his willingness to sacrifice everything he worked for, and all his hopes for the future, at God's command. Why does the Torah put the emphasis on Avraham?

(It is worth noting, when mentioning this theologically difficult episode, that the pshat is clear that God never intended Avraham to actually carry through with the sacrifice. The Torah decries human sacrifice such as מולך, and the words והעלהו שם לעולה imply that he is only to be brought up, but not slaughtered. The lesson was to be one of devotion to God's will to the extent that, when commanded, we are willing to follow blindly God's word, even when it seems to contradict everything we know about the world and His ways. It is a lesson in humility and יראת שמים, and, according to Rav Kook, a demonstration that passion and active service do not take a back seat to abstract philosophy in Avraham's (and Judaism's) philosophy.)

Rav Yosef Dov, author of the Beis HaLevi, has an interesting take on this. He writes that the harder test was not Yitzchak's. Yitzchak was charged with a martyr's death. Although this is certainly a high level, and a tremendous test, it is absolutely terminative. His martyrdom would not create any emotional, theological or psychological crises in the future because, quite simply, passing his test he would cease to exist.

Not so for Avraham's test. When Yitzchak is gone, Avraham would be left with a void in his life. His most prized acquisition in this world, his whole hope for the future, Yitzchak, would be gone, and Avraham would be left with a sterile existence that would leave no possibility of God's lessons and Avraham's worldview being propagated in this world. Avraham would be left emotionally and psychologically scarred as well. The test for Avraham is less the commandment to sacrifice his son, and more the order to actively destroy all hope for the good future of mankind.

The Beis Halevi points out that while many people would be willing to make the catastrophic show of faith of dying על קידוש השם, it is harder to find people who are willing to forego personal comforts, and live without something they truly desire, for God. Living for God is harder than dying for him. This is why the Torah calls it a test of Avraham. He is the one who we must model, with a willingness to be stripped of all material, emotional and psychological goods in God's service.

In our times, it may seem that the aspects of קידוש השם, martyrdom for God, is not something we need worry about. We do not experience existential fear while serving God. However, we do experience the test of Avraham in our own ways. We give up on prestige, comfort and ease for shabbat, yamim tovim, and kashruth. וחי בהם, living for God through the tests of everyday life, is the more intense and protracted test. It is the one we can find glory through in our lives.