A Historical Look at LIFE in ALEPPO

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The story of akedat Yitzhak – “the binding of Yitzhak” – ranks among the most dramatic and emotional narratives in the Humash, and its unique importance is reflected in the prominent place it occupies in our prayers.  It is included as part of the section that introduces our daily Shaharit service, and the everlasting merit of this great act is frequently invoked during our High Holiday prayers as we plea to Gd for a favorable judgment.  Avraham exhibited extraordinary faith and sacrifice by preparing to slaughter his beloved son in fulfillment of Gd’s command, until, at the very last moment, he was instructed to withdraw his sword, and he offered an animal sacrifice, instead.  Gd then spoke to Avraham and assured him that the merit of his limitless devotion would remain with his descendants for all eternity.

One of the questions concerning this story with which the commentators grappled is why all the credit seem to be given to Avraham, and not to Yitzhak.  The story begins by framing Gd’s command as a test specifically for Avraham: “It happened after these events that Gd tested Avraham…”  And the promise of reward was expressed to Avraham, not to Yitzchak.  More generally, rabbinic tradition has always focused on the greatness of Avraham’s faith as exhibited in his compliance with Gd’s command. 

But what about Yitzhak?  According to the Midrash cited by Rashi, Yitzchak was not a small child at this time.  In fact, he was an adult.  He unquestioningly allowed his father to bind him upon an altar, ready to be sacrificed to Gd.  Was this not at least as great an act of faith and unbridled devotion as Avraham’s?  Does he not deserve credit for what he was prepared to do?

The answer is that certainly, Yitzhak’s willingness to be sacrificed is no less inspiring than Avraham’s willingness to sacrifice him.  Nevertheless, there was something unique about Avraham’s particular circumstance that made akedat Yitzhak an especially difficult test for him.

Blind Faith

One aspect of Avraham’s unique test has to do with his background, the theological journey upon which he embarked as a young child and continued throughout his life.

Born into a pagan world, Avraham recognized on his own that there must be a single Creator.  He reasoned to himself: If there is a house, it means somebody built it; if there is a painting, it means somebody painted it – and so if there is an earth, it means somebody created it.  Avraham arrived at monotheism through the process of logical deduction, recognizing through reason that there must be a Creator who made us and expects us to serve Him and conduct ourselves in an ethical and kind manner.  This conclusion drove Avraham on a mission to spread this belief far and wide, to convince as many people as possible that their pagan beliefs were fundamentally mistaken.

With this background, we can begin to understand the unique challenge of akedat Yitzhak.  The command to sacrifice his son marked not only an emotional challenge to Avraham, who obviously cherished his dear son, but also a theologicalchallenge.  His faith was grounded in logic, but now Gd commanded him to do something utterly illogical.  Not only does human sacrifice – not to mention the sacrificing of one’s own son! – violate the most basic, elementary ethical norms that Avraham preached, but it also, in this instance, directly contradicted Gd’s own words.  Gd had earlier assured him that a great nation would descend from Yitzhak - and now He commanded Avraham to offer Yitzhak as a sacrifice before Yitzhak married and begot children.  Whereas until now Avraham devoted himself to Gd based on logic and reason, he now needed to follow Gd with blind faith, trusting in Him and fulfilling His commands even when they lay well beyond the limits of human reason.

This is one reason why the command of akedat Yitzhak posed a unique challenge for Avraham, requiring him to make the difficult transition from logical devotion to blind faith.  And thus, the Torah says that as Avraham made his way to Mount Moriah, where he was commanded to offer the sacrifice, “vayar et hamakom merahok – he saw the place from afar.”  The word “hamakom” can also be understood as a reference to Gd, such that the verse in telling us that Avraham at that moment saw Gd from afar.  Until then, Avraham felt that Gd was close, that He was accessible and understandable.  At the time of akedat Yitzhak, however, nothing made sense.  There was no reason or logic.  Gd seemed distant, remote, inscrutable, and confusing.

This explains the otherwise mysterious comment of the Midrash that when Gd gave the Torah to our ancestors at Mount Sinai, Mount Moriah came and joined Mount Sinai.  Our sages found a close link between the event of Matan Torah on Mount Sinai and the event of akedat Yitzhak on Mount Moriah.  At Mount Sinai, Beneh Yisraelproclaimed their commitment to the Torah before even hearing its commands – expressing the blind, unconditional faith that they inherited from Avraham, who followed Gd’s command even “from afar,” when he could not understand.

Working Against Nature

There is much to be said about this explanation and its implications for us and our religious devotion in today’s day and age, when general society shuns blind faith and rejects any belief that cannot be rationally proven.  However, I would like instead to focus on a second reason why akedat Yitzhak marked an especially difficult test for Avraham.

The Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797) taught that the primary reason why we have come into the world is to break our natural negative tendencies.  Whichever negative character trait is the most natural for us, and the most difficult to break – this is the job we were created for:  to struggle against that trait.

A perfect example of how this works is Avraham.

Avraham had many positive qualities, of course, but his most outstanding quality was hesed – loving kindness.  He was naturally drawn to performing kindness, going so far as to offer a heartfelt, impassioned plea for the wicked city of Sedom when Gd revealed His decision to destroy it.  And on the third day after undergoing circumcision at the age of 99, despite his intense discomfort and the unusually oppressive heat, Avraham rushed to serve a multicourse meal to three strangers whom he identified as pagan nomads (though in reality they were angels).  Avraham instinctively dispensed kindness and affection to everyone.  This was his nature.

For this very reason, Gd presented him with the command of akedat Yitzhak – to determine if Avraham would obey Gd even when this required doing the very opposite of what he is naturally inclined to do.  Nothing could possibly be more at odds with Avraham’s kindhearted, generous nature than to slaughter his own son.  This was the diametric opposite of Avraham’s most basic, ingrained instincts.  And this is precisely why Gd presented this test.  Avraham had already shown his extraordinary kindness and love for people, which continue to serve as an inspiring example for us to follow, and have established hesed as a cornerstone and defining characteristic of Jewish life for all time.  But now he needed to show something else – that he would act in direct opposition to his natural hesed instincts if Gd commanded it. 

Why?  Why was it important for Avraham to show that he was capable of acting cruelly?

The answer is that he needed to show that he acted kindly not simply because this came naturally to him, but because this is how Gd wants us to live.  Of course, it is wonderful to be instinctively drawn to kindness.  But sometimes we need to work against our instincts.  As the Gaon of Vilna taught, we are not here to follow our natural inclinations.  To the contrary, our main job is to do the right thing when our instincts tell us not to.  And so, it was not enough for Avraham to be kind, sympathetic, and generous, as was his nature.  He needed to go against his kind nature in order to show that his kindness was real and genuine, and not simply the product of his natural instincts.

This explains why Gd did not simply command Avraham to perform akedat Yitzhak, but actually pleaded with him to do so: “Kah na et bincha– Take, if you please, your son…”  Why did Gd have to beg Avraham to comply?  The Midrash explains that if Avraham had not passed this test, then all his previous tests would not have counted.  Gd pleaded with Avraham to comply with the command of akedat Yitzhak because this test is what confirmed Avraham’s success in all the previous tests he faced.  This test, unlike any other, proved that Avraham was truly devoted to Gd, even when this required opposing his natural instincts.  If he had failed this test, then his previous successes could have been attributed to his nature.  This test was so vitally important because it demonstrated that all along, Avraham was driven not simply by his natural tendencies, but by genuine loyalty to Gd.

Religion is a Struggle

Why is this important for us?  What practical lesson do we learn from this analysis of the significance of akedat Yitzhak?

Firstly, and most obviously, it reminds us that leading a proper Torah life is a struggle.  Baruch Hashem, none of us have ever faced – and, please Gd, will never face – the kind of test that Avraham faced, where a sacrifice of that magnitude is demanded of us.  But even we are called on to make sacrifices, and sometimes difficult sacrifices, each and every day – sacrificing what we instinctively want or instinctively feel is correct. 

Our instincts tell us to stay in bed, but we need to get up for prayer.  Our instincts tell us to relax in our free time, but we need to spend our free time tending to our families, giving to our community, and studying Torah.  Our instincts tell us to cut corners and compromise integrity in business to make more money, but we need to conduct our affairs with perfect honesty.  Our instincts tell us to react angrily to our spouse, our children, our neighbor or coworker, but we need to be patient and forgiving.  Our instincts tell us to insist on having it our way at home, but we need to respect our spouse’s wishes and opinions.

Religious life at times requires us to struggle with our instincts, to perform our own “akedat Yitzchak,” to go against what we naturally feel inclined to do in compliance with Gd’s command.

The Imaginary Chains of Instinct

But there is also an additional lesson to be learned from akedat Yitzhak – that we are fully capable of opposing our instincts.

One of the most tragic problems facing our society today, including our community, is that of addiction.  The addict feels compelled to do something which he knows causes him great harm.  He feels trapped, chained by his instinct to drink the bottle, smoke the cigarette, go to the casino, open the inappropriate webpage, or do what it is that he is addicted to.  He feels powerless.

Even those of us who do not suffer from a clinically diagnosable addiction also have “addictions” of one form or another.  It could be an “addiction” to anger, to laziness, to texting, to browsing, to overeating, to reckless driving, or any other vice.  We all have bad habits that we haven’t yet been able to break.  More often than not, the reason we haven’t broken them is because we feel powerless.  We tell ourselves, “This is just the way I am,” and that’s the end of it.  We just accept that the bad habits are part our beings, and there’s nothing we can ever do to change that.

This is precisely what makes akedat Yitzhak so important, so critical, and such a central part of the foundation of Jewish belief. 

We are the descendants of Avraham Avinu, who was told to do something that directly and drastically contradicted his deepest convictions and instincts – and he did it.  He paved the way for us by showing that we are not trapped, that the chains of instincts are imaginary, that we are not bound by our habits and natural drives.  We are fully in control of our behavior.  We are not compelled to do something even if we feel an instinctive drive to do it.  Our instincts do not control us.  Our habits do not control us.  Our decisions are controlled by nothing in the world other than our Gd-given free will.  Our instincts make the right decisions difficult, but not impossible.  They do not force us to do anything.

The sentence “This is just the way I am” is one which should never cross the lips of a Torah Jew.  It might be true that “This is the way I’ve been,” but that does not dictate the way we are now, or the way we will be tomorrow or the next day.  The only thing that dictates the way we are now are the decisions we make now, and the only thing that dictates the way we will be tomorrow are the decisions we make tomorrow.  Our habits of the past, no matter how ingrained they’ve become, do not control us.

The Purity of the Patriarchs

Many sources speak of “zechut avot” – the merit of our righteous patriarchs which remains with us and assists us to this very day.  Rav Eliyahu Dessler noted the word “zechut” can be punctuated differently to read “zakut– purity.”  We have received from our saintly forbears not only great merit, but also a spark of purity that will never be extinguished.  We have within us the power of sacrifice exhibited by Avraham at the time of akedat Yitzchak, the power of going against our instincts when necessary to do the right thing.

We must always remember – we are not imprisoned by our bad habits.  We exercise full control over ourselves.  We are not stuck.  We can change.  We can be better. 

Of course, it is so much more convenient to feel helpless, to feel that we have no control over ourselves, and to just do whatever we instinctively feel like doing.  But we are never going to achieve without struggle, without sacrifice.  And this starts with the recognition that we are the heirs and students of Avraham Avinu, who showed very clearly that we are in full control of our behavior.

Let us break the imaginary chains that hold us back, and move forward with the confidence that we are fully capable of being the great people that we are expected to be.