Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bereishit‘, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
Two towering events serve as dramatic bookends within Parshat Vayeira: the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Amora and the Akeida (the aborted sacrifice of Yitzchak).
Avraham reacts to the first of these events true to expected form. Unable to accept an unacceptable reality, he argues, debates and struggles with his Creator. He is determined to change God’s mind.
When confronted with the commandment to sacrifice his son, however, Avraham is silent and obedient.
Why does Avraham react to the challenge of the Akeida with deafening silence? Where is the Avraham that we have come to know – the man who is unwilling to accept the world as it is; the man who, unlike Noach before him, struggles with his Creator at every stage of his life (see Noach 2, Approaches b, c)?
Clearly bothered by Avraham’s apparent silence in the face of the Akeida, scholars across the ages, in the Midrash and beyond, fill in the blanks of the biblical text. They claim that, at least internally, Avraham was not silent at all. These scholars paint a picture of an Avraham terribly torn by the task that lies before him. He is not only a father moved beyond measure by compassion and love for his son, but also a patriarch unable to reconcile God’s previous promises to him – of a nation to be created through Yitzchak – with the current commandment to sacrifice that very son.
The Midrash, for example, presents a detailed narrative in which Satan appears to Avraham in the guise of an old man. Step after step, along the journey to Mount Moriah, this old man argues with the patriarch: “Where are you going? Old man! Have you lost your mind? A child is given to you after a hundred years, and you go to slaughter him? Tomorrow God will accuse you of murder, of shedding the blood of your own son!”
When Satan sees that Avraham is not dissuaded from his path, he creates physical obstacles blocking the patriarch’s journey, to no avail. Avraham is determined to carry through with the sacrifice of Yitzchak in response to God’s command.
Using the beautiful picturesque method so characteristic of Midrashic literature, the rabbis detail the profound internal struggle that must have been taking place within Avraham’s soul. The old man who appears before the patriarch is clearly Avraham’s own alter ego as the patriarch wrestles with his powerful doubts: After waiting so long for a son, am I now to lose him by my own hand? How could a God who promised me yesterday that Yitzchak will be the progenitor of a great nation now command Yitzchak’s death? Will God change his mind again tomorrow?
Neither these doubts nor any physical obstacles, however, sway Avraham from his path. Against all odds, he will carry out the will of God.
Rashi, for his part, sees Avraham’s struggle reflected in the text itself as the Akeida begins. God’s commandment reflects a series of unwritten responses on the part of the patriarch. God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Yitzchak.”
At each stage of this commandment, claims Rashi, Avraham argued: When God said, “Take your son,” Avraham responded, “I have two sons.”
When God said, “Your only son,” Avraham responded, “Each one of them is the only son born of his mother.”
When God said, “Whom you love,” Avraham responded, “I love them both.”
Only then does God say, “Yitzchak.”
Rashi portrays Avraham fighting against the dawning realization that Yitzchak is to be the subject of God’s command. Step-by-step, the darkness closes in, until, finally, God makes his intentions crystal clear.
While the Midrash, Rashi, and other commentaries portray a complex picture of struggle on Avraham’s part, however, our fundamental problem remains.
Why is it left to the rabbis to paint this picture? As we have noted, the Torah does not shy away from detailing other occasions when Avraham grapples with his destiny and with his world.
Why then, within our own parsha, does the Torah clearly chronicle Avraham’s struggle concerning the evil cities of Sodom and Amora, yet leave him conspicuously silent as he confronts the Akeida?
The answer may lie in recognizing that the two events before us represent two separate realms within God’s relationship to man.
When it comes to Sodom and Amora, God is operating within the realm of din, “judgment.”
God’s commandment concerning the Akeida, on the other hand, takes place squarely in the realm of nissayon, “trial.”
When God relates to man in the realm of din, everything makes sense. There is clear cause and effect. God says, “The inhabitants of the cities of Sodom and Amora are evil; therefore they deserve to perish.”
As long as we remain within the sphere of din, we can argue and struggle with our Creator. God is, in fact, inviting us to do so. Perhaps there is a logical argument to be made that can sway God from His intended path; perhaps one more prayer, one more plea will tip the balance of judgment in our favor.
That is why Avraham argues with God in defense of Sodom and Amora.
When God brings us into the world of nissayon, on the other hand, nothing makes sense. God Himself is hidden from view, and there is no perceptible logic to his actions.
Here, argument and struggle are futile. Everything that is happening is beyond our ken. There are certainly reasons for God’s actions, but we cannot begin to understand them.
Our challenge within the realm of nissayon is solely to pass the trial, to respond to God’s will with dignity as we remain constant in our faith and loyalty to Him.
That is why Avraham is silent in the face of the Akeida. He realizes that he has entered the world of nissayon, and that his challenges have changed.
A beautiful possible textual allusion to God’s “hiddeness” at the time of the Akeida can be found in three words embedded within the text of the narrative itself. As Avraham approaches Mount Moriah, the site of the Akeida, the Torah states, Va’ya’ar et hamakom mei’rachok, “And he saw the place from afar.”
The rabbis wonder: How did Avraham know that he had reached his destination? God had never referred to Mount Moriah by name, but had simply said, “…raise him [Yitzchak] as an offering upon one of the mountains which I shall tell you.”
The Midrash responds that Avraham knew that he had reached his destination because he saw “a cloud tied to the mountain.”
The imagery of Mount Moriah enveloped in mist is particularly telling. God’s appearance in a cloud, a phenomenon that occurs on a number of occasions within biblical literature, always reflects the hidden element of God’s being, even at a time of revelation. By suggesting that Avraham is able to identify Mount Moriah by the cloud that surrounds it, the Midrash alludes to the hidden nature of God’s presence at this difficult moment in Avraham’s life.
An even more direct possibility lies in an alternative application of the word makom in this sentence. Makom is one of the titles given to God within our literature. This sentence may therefore read: Va’ya’ar et HaMakom mei’rachok, “And he saw God from afar.” As Avraham approaches the site of the Akeida, God is hidden and distant.In a similar vein, Jewish tradition mandates the formula of consolation recited at the home of a mourner: HaMakom y’nachem etchem b’toch she’ar aveilei Tzion v’Yerushalayim, “May God console you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
God is, once again, referred to in this sorrowful ritual by the appellation HaMakom. We turn to the mourner and we say, “May God, who seems distant from you at this difficult time of your life, come closer and console you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
Points to Ponder
Avraham, through prophetic vision, was able to distinguish between the two realms of din and nissayon. He could clearly see the difference between God’s logical decision concerning Sodom and Amora, and the inexplicable commandment of the Akeida. The patriarch was, therefore, able to react to each of these major events in Parshat Vayeira in appropriate fashion.
We, however, are unable to make this distinction. We never know whether a particular challenge facing us in life is a reflection of din, of nissayon, or of a combination of the two. We are, therefore, meant to react to all challenges of life on both levels at once. We struggle, pray, plead and argue for Justice. At the same time, when all the prayers have been recited and all our arguments have been offered, we turn to God, and we accept his will. We then pray again; but this time we pray that God grant us the strength to pass the test.