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
Our confrontation with Akeidat Yitzchak, the classical example of nissayon (a trial administered by God to test man) in biblical literature, provides us with a perfect opportunity to explore the concept of nissayon within Jewish thought as a whole.
The rabbis delineate ten separate tests administered by God to Avraham over the course of the patriarch’s lifetime. Some are found in the biblical text, while others are only recorded in Midrashic literature. The most dramatic of these tests is Akeidat Yitzchak (the aborted sacrifice of Yitzchak). The very concept of God testing man, however, is very difficult to comprehend. A test is usually administered for the purpose of gathering information. God, however, is all-knowing. He knows in advance whether Avraham will or will not “pass” a specific test. Why, then, are these tests necessary at all?
Two distinct approaches are suggested by the classical commentaries:
- God tests man to enable man to become aware of his own capabilities and actualize his own potential.
None of us knows before a moment of crisis exactly how we will respond. If a fire breaks out in a crowded theater, some of us will save our own lives without thought for anyone else, while others will be heroic. The quality of our actions, however, cannot be predicted in advance. Through the course of the tests that he experiences, man learns the full extent of his own capabilities.Even further, after that moment of crisis, we are no longer the people we were before. The very experience, and our corresponding reaction, changes us. Our potential for good or for bad is actualized and concretely shapes our further actions.
An individual changes with each passing test.
- God tests an individual to proclaim that individual’s capabilities to others. As Avraham undergoes each test his greatness is recorded as an example for the world. That is why the word nissayon (test) is derived from the word nes (banner).
A person’s true nature is revealed in the quality of his responses to the tests that confront him.In every generation, God will test man, say the rabbis, for each and both of these reasons.
While these explanations help us understand the biblical concept of nissayon in general, a specific question emerges when we consider the text describing the Akeida. The answer to this question creates yet another layer in our understanding of this powerful test…
Avraham’s most dramatic test, the Akeida, is introduced in the Torah by four seemingly superfluous words, which appear from time to time in the biblical text: Va’yehi achar hadevarim ha’eileh, ”And it was after these things.”
These words seem unnecessary because, as a rule, the Torah follows chronological order. Unless we are told otherwise, by the text itself or by rabbinic interpretation, events occurred in their recorded sequence. [Note: Periodically, the rabbis will clarify a puzzling sequence of events in the text by explaining that the Torah is not written in chronological order. This leads to the common misconception that the whole Torah narrative is not generally sequential. As a rule, however, temporal order is maintained in the text except in unusual cases where the rabbis specifically note an exception – and, even in those cases, the issue is often subject to debate.]
Why then, if the text is generally sequential, does the Torah periodically find it necessary to introduce an event with the phrase “and it was after these things”?
In order, explain the rabbis, to draw a thematic connection between the event that just occurred and the event that is about to occur.
Therein, however, lies the problem. Immediately before the Akeida, the Torah relates that Avraham contracts a covenant with the king of the Philistines, Avimelech. This covenant is viewed in rabbinic tradition as a negative and dangerous step on Avraham’s part.
What possible connection could there be, however, between the aborted sacrifice of Yitzchak, one of the most well known and significant episodes in the Torah, and this ill-fated covenant?
Some scholars, unable to find a connection between the two events, immediately turn to a Midrashic approach.
Rashi, for example, cites a Midrash quoted in the Talmud as his only explanation for the phrase in question. The Talmud interprets the introductory phrase of the Akeida to mean “And it was after these words” rather than “And it was after these things” (the root of the word devarim is considered in this case to be diber, “to speak,” rather than davar, “thing”).
Two possible sets of words, suggests the Talmud, set the Akeida in motion:
- The words of Satan, who turns to God and argues, “During the entire party that Avraham made on the occasion of the birth of his son he did not offer you one sacrifice.” To this accusation God responds: “Avraham’s entire
celebration was in honor of his son. Were I to command him to sacrifice that son, he would not refuse.”
- The words of Yishmael who mocks Yitzchak by saying, “I was willing to undergo circumcision at the age of thirteen years; at the time of your circumcision you were but an infant.” Yitzchak responds: “You mock me on the basis of one limb? Were God to ask me to sacrifice myself entirely to him I would not refuse.”
Other scholars, such as the Ohr Hachaim, struggle to remain true to the flow of the text. They suggest that the phrase “and it was after these things” connects the Akeida not to the covenant directly but to the series of events that preceded it. These events included: Avraham and Sara’s long wait for a child, God’s promise that Avraham’s legacy would live on through Yitzchak, and Yitzchak’s birth and growth into manhood. These events, says the Ohr Hachaim, create the setting for the Akeida – a setting rife with deep trauma, conflict and tribulation.
A few other commentaries, however – Rashi’s grandson the Rashbam prominently among them – are bold enough to suggest what to Rashi was apparently unthinkable. The Akeida, they say, was, at least on one level, the direct result of Avraham’s covenant with Avimelech.
The Rashbam, a commentator who always adheres to the pashut pshat of the text, sees the connection between the two events as crystal clear. He points to one specific phrase in the narrative describing the covenant. The Philistine king turns to Avraham and states, “And now, swear to me by God if you will deal falsely with me or my son or my grandson.”
Avimelech is clearly suggesting a covenant in perpetuity. Avraham agrees.
The patriarch, says the Rashbam, endangers his progeny when he contracts an inter-generational covenant with the likes of Avimelech. While Avraham may make a personal agreement with Avimelech himself, he has no right to make a concrete covenant complete with commitments on behalf of his children and grandchildren. God is, therefore, moved to respond: “You were careless with the son I gave you. You contracted a covenant with them and with their children. Now take that son, offer him as a sacrifice and see what good the contracting of your covenant has done.”
The Rashbam’s suggestion is nothing short of mind-boggling. The Akeida, Avraham’s greatest test, emerges, at least in part, as a corrective for Avraham’s own behavior. Through the Akeida, God lets Avraham know that he is failing to pay enough attention to the effects of his actions upon his own son.
Once this door is opened, other tantalizing clues within the text create a pattern that would seem to support this thesis. After the birth of Yitzchak, for example, Sara recognizes the danger posed to her son by Yishmael, Yitzchak’s half-brother. She insists that Yishmael be exiled from the home. The text then testifies that Avraham, faced with this difficult decision, is “terribly troubled concerning his son.”
The Torah does not clearly specify which son; nor does the text tell us what actually troubles Avraham at this critical moment. Is the patriarch frightened by the danger posed to Yitzchak? Is he troubled by the idea of exiling Yishmael?
A surprising possibility is suggested by the Midrash Rabba and quoted by Rashi. What deeply troubled Avraham at this moment, says the Midrash, was that his son Yishmael had gone so far astray.
Where was Avraham until now? Can the Midrash be suggesting that, for years, the patriarch was unaware of the behavior of his son, Yishmael?
Obviously what prompts the Midrash to make this suggestion is the textual evidence that Sara was aware of what was happening within the home while Avraham was not. Avraham’s sights were on distant horizons, as he attempted to preach the word of God to a waiting world. He wanted to “save the world.” It remained for his wife to recognize the dangerous drama unfolding within their own home and to take the initiative to save her son from that danger. It is no accident, therefore, that God responds to Avraham’s hesitation by stating, “All that Sara says to you – heed her voice.”
Even more telling, perhaps, is the contrast in Avraham’s own behavior before and after the Akeida. Prior to the Akeida, Avraham’s activities are directed in the main towards an outside world. While he prays for a son and is clearly concerned about his familial legacy, on an active level his attention is overwhelmingly directed outward. He “creates souls” in Charan, interfaces with Pharaoh and Avimelech, contracts covenants, fights in a war to save Lot, welcomes guests and argues on behalf of Sodom and Amora. The very sentences prior to the Akeida describe Avraham planting a tree in Be’er Sheva and proselytizing “in the name of the Lord, God of the world.”
The Avraham who emerges following the Akeida is very different. His total focus turns inward, as in the next parsha, Chayei Sara, he occupies himself with two primary tasks: burying Sara, and finding a wife for Yitzchak. Past and future within his own family occupy his attention, and there is no mention of further preaching to the world.
Apparently Avraham, traumatized by the Akeida, learns the lesson that, according to the Rashbam, God wanted to convey. Avraham recognizes that his mission to the world remains of extreme significance and importance. His mission to his own family, however, and his responsibility to his nation’s future, become primary.
At the end of the patriarch’s life we do not know the fate of the many souls whom Avraham touched through his preaching to the world. We do know, however, that Avraham’s legacy is narrowed down to the life of one individual: his son Yitzchak. Avraham realizes that success or failure will depend upon Yitzchak and Yitzchak alone. Perhaps it takes the Akeida to teach the patriarch this lesson.
Points to Ponder
The Rashbam’s bold approach to the Akeida broadens the lessons that can be learned from this event.
On the one hand, we are reminded of the potential “covenants” that we make on a continual basis with an outside world. Particularly in our age, when that world invades our homes through television, computer and other venues, we must be ever vigilant concerning the environment that impinges upon our own as well as our children’s lives. Elements of outside culture that are counterproductive to their well-being must be actively rejected while other aspects must be nurtured. Only such proactive parenting can positively shape our children’s worlds and ensure the safety – both physical and spiritual – of generations to come.
Avraham’s personal journey surrounding the Akeida also serves as a clear reminder of our need to focus on what happens within our families. History is replete with the stories of successful individuals who somehow were not successful within the context of their own homes. Our involvements in our communities and in the outside world, as important as they may be, can never become our sole or even primary focus. Time and effort must be spent on what is most important: the education and the development of our children.