The Nisayon of Avraham
הרב משה סתיו
The nisayon of the akeida was not simply a test for Avraham (or Yitzchak). It was an event of great significance for future generations as part of the establishment of the brit between the avot and HaKadosh Baruch Hu, and thereby between Klal Yisrael and HaKadosh Baruch Hu. The akeida established the location of the future mizbei’ach, and it finalized the choice of Yitzchak as the one who would continue Avraham’s path. It was in the course of the akeida that Avraham told his ne’arim, “Remain here with the donkey” (Bereishit 22:5), expressing the complete separation between Yisrael and the other nations.
Given the centrality and importance of the akeida, it is particularly interesting that the Torah introduces the event with an out of the ordinary headline, which appears to be a caveat: “And God tested Avraham” (22:1). It seems that the Torah wished to emphasize that the akeida is not an act that should be imitated or replicated. One should not misunderstand and think that there is any place for human sacrifice. Chazal write this in their explication of the pasuk, “And they built altars… to burn their sons and their daughters by fire, which I did not command and which never occurred to me” (Yirmiyahu 7:31) – even when I commanded Avraham, I did not intend that he would actually sacrifice Yitzchak. The human sacrifice condemned by Yirmeyahu is indeed an abomination. For this reason, the Torah itself emphasizes that this was only a nisayon, a test. What is the meaning of this?
There is another possible meaning of the word nisayon – to make great. This is its meaning in the pasuk describing the purpose of Matan Torah as, “In order nesot you” (Shemot 20:17). Some commentators have explained that this is similarly the meaning of nisayon in our context. According to that view, however, we must still consider the significance of this particular act as a nisayon.
According to the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim, the nisayon of the akeida established the belief in the truth of nevua, for if Avraham had any doubts about the power of nevua, they would certainly not have followed its instruction regarding the akeida. This is all the more so true of Yitzchak, who was clearly not a young child at the time (even according to the peshat of the story, without the drasha of Chazal), and who therefore would have fought back had he doubted the authenticity of the nevua. This may be alluded to in the words of the tefilla recited on the Yamim Nora’aim, “And recall akeidat Yitzchak for his descendants.” The main purpose of the akeida was for the sake of the faith of their descendants.
Another perspective is suggested by Chazal, who present Avraham’s tefilla in the aftermath of the akeida. Avraham describes the inherent contradiction between the two messages that he had received – on the one hand, “For through Yitzchak will you have descendants” (Bereishit 21:12), and on the other hand, “And bring him up as an olah on one of the mountains that I will show you” (22:2). Rav Chaim of Brisk famously noted that when Avraham did not receive a response, he did not continue to question, as he was not asking out of curiosity; he was asking simply to better understand what Hashem intended. For this reason, he did not pose this question before the akeida, as it was irrelevant; he was going to follow through on Hashem’s command in any event. He asked after the akeida in the same manner in which a lamdan asks a question on the Rambam – not out of criticism, but rather out of the desire to understand. The questions posed by a believer are part of the process of leaning and understanding. Avraham’s question articulates the inner conflict that he had to cope with in following Hashem’s command. Avraham’s greatness in fulfilling the command of the akeida can be seen by understanding this conflict.
In Pirkei Avot, we learn, “Antignos Ish Socho… said: Do not be like servants who serve their master in order to receive reward, but rather be like servants who serve their master without the condition of receiving reward” (Avot 1:3). Chazal tell us that this teaching led two of Antignosus’s students – Tzakok and Baytos – to leave a Torah lifestyle, as they thought that their teacher implied that there was no eventual reward.
The Rambam explains in a number of contexts that one who fulfills mitzvot or learns Torah in order to achieve some goal – whether physical blessing or spiritual reward in the form of Olam HaBa – detracts from the honor of the Torah by making it only a means to an end. This, however, leads to an internal contradiction. In order for a person to act, he must have a goal and purpose that he wishes to achieve; if he acts out of compulsion, he is not acting properly. In the reality of this world, it is impossible for man to dedicate himself to avodat Hashem without feeling that it serves the purpose of self-perfection.
Throughout Avraham’s life, all of his actions – his generosity and his dedication to the will of Hashem – were intertwined with his sense that he was fulfilling his destiny, and thereby achieving self-perfection. When Avraham asked, “What can you give me, and I go about childless” (Bereishit 15:2), he articulates his sense that without an heir to continue his work, there is no significance to what he has accomplished during his life. But when Avraham goes to the akeida, he overcomes this natural inclination to desire meaning in his actions. He follows the command because he recognizes it as truth, resigning himself completely to the divine truth. This was the nature of the nisayon of the akeida.
After the test, the malach tells Avraham, “Now I know that you fear God” (22:12). We would have expected that Avraham would be commended for his love of God, not his fear of God. However, given our explanation, we understand that the depth of the nisayon was really about yirat Hashem, not ahavat Hashem. As the Rambam writes (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah), fear of God – recognition of man’s lowliness and lack of understanding in comparison to complete perfection – is the basis for all knowledge of Hashem.
The midrash describes the attempts of the satan to convince Avraham not to follow the command of the akeida: “I heard from behind the curtain that a sheep will be sacrificed, and not Yitzchak.” Avraham responded, “Such is the punishment of a liar! Even when he speaks the truth, he is not believed. I will go in my innocence.” Avraham knew, deep down, that Yitzchak would not be sacrificed, yet he refused to listen to the satan. He insisted on acting properly, following Hashem’s command. Avraham had spent many years searching for Hashem, and he well recognized that Hashem always arranges matters for the best; he knew that somehow Yitzchak would remain alive. He even told his ne’arim, “We will go to there… and we will return to you” (22:5) – as Rashi comments, he “prophesized” that they would both return. The words reflected Avraham’s subconscious knowledge that Yitzchak would return. Nevertheless, Avraham acted as though he did not know what would happen; he ignored the satan’s statement that the entire process was unnecessary. Avraham continues on his way, not even hoping for another solution. Even when the malach calls out to him, Avraham does not rush to stop the akeida.
By way of comparison, imagine a person who arrives at an elaborate wedding, and all kids of gourmet wines and meats are being served. He is ready to begin enjoying the feast, but then he realizes that the hashgacha is unclear, and he can’t get hold of the mashgiach on the phone. It seems that there is really no problem with the kashrut, but a ben Torah does not put something in his mouth without first conducting a halachic evaluation, and that is impossible under the circumstances. Eating non-kosher food is not the nisayon here. The nisayon is overcoming the feeling that a silly problem with the telephone is preventing him from enjoying the feast, and that is frustrating.
When Avraham and his son walked together to the akeida, they expressed the perfection and eternity of the nation, which combines practical understanding and complete faith. This gave Avraham the ability to continue to believe even under what appeared to be impossible circumstances.
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