Parshas Vayera - Akeidas Yitzchak: Who Do You Serve?
Updated: Jan 9, 2021
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Of the many amazing stories that we find in the Torah, among the most dramatic is the story of Akeidas Yitzchak. At one hundred years old Avraham was finally blessed with Yitzchak. Now, after nine tests from Hashem (see Bartneura on Avos 5:3), Avraham would face the most difficult one. God has asked Avraham to sacrifice his thirty seven year old son, Yitzchak. Ultimately, Avraham displays his willingness to sacrifice Yitzchak but in the end God calls it off at the last minute.
As we consider the story, so many questions arise. Let us go passuk by passuk and go through each question.
וַיְהִ֗י אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה וְהָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים נִסָּ֖ה אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלָ֔יו אַבְרָהָ֖ם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי
"And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham, and He said to him, "Abraham," and he said, "Here I am." (Bereishis 22:1)
This is the tenth test that Avraham Avinu would face. Yet in no other test does the Torah use the word נִסָּ֖ה, tested. What makes this test so unique that the Torah actually calls it a nisayon?
Furthermore, is this test only for Avraham? What about Yitzchak who was to play the role of korban? Consider the words of Rashi:
ויש אומרים אחר דבריו של ישמעאל שהיה מתפאר על יצחק שמל בן שלש עשרה שנה ולא מיחה, אמר לו יצחק באבר אחד אתה מיראני, אילו אמר לי הקב"ה זבח עצמך לפני לא הייתי מעכב
And some say,“ after the words of Ishmael,” who was boasting to Isaac that he was circumcised at the age of thirteen, and he did not protest. Isaac said to him,“ With one organ you intimidate me? If the Holy One, blessed be He, said to me, ‘Sacrifice yourself before Me,’ I would not hold back.” - Cf. Gen. Rabbah 55:4.
Rashi makes it clear that Yitzchak professed his willingness to be a korban should Hashem desire that of him. Now he is faced with that task. Will Yitzchak actually back up his words by going willingly to the altar? Is this not a nisyaon? Why does it seem that only Avraham is being tested?
וַיֹּ֡אמֶר קַח־נָ֠א אֶת־בִּנְךָ֨ אֶת־יְחִֽידְךָ֤ אֲשֶׁר־אָהַ֨בְתָּ֙ אֶת־יִצְחָ֔ק וְלֶ֨ךְ־לְךָ֔ אֶל־אֶ֖רֶץ הַמֹּֽרִיָּ֑ה וְהַֽעֲלֵ֤הוּ שָׁם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ה עַ֚ל אַחַ֣ד הֶֽהָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֹמַ֥ר אֵלֶֽיךָ:
"And He said, "Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, yea, Isaac, and go away to the land of Moriah and bring him up there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains, of which I will tell you." (Bereishis 22:2)
Rashi (quoting the Gemara in Sanhedrin) points out that God does not command Avraham to bring Yitzchak as a sacrifice but instead makes a request.
קח נא: אין נא אלא לשון בקשה, אמר לו בבקשה ממך עמוד לי בזה הנסיון, שלא יאמרו הראשונות לא היה בהן ממש
Please take: Heb. קַח נָא is only an expression of a request. He [God] said to him, “I beg of you, pass this test for Me, so that people will not say that the first ones [tests] had no substance."
Why didn't Hashem command Avraham as he did with the other tests?
Could it be that if Avraham doesn't pass this test the earlier tests become meaningless? Avraham Avinu walked into a furnace in Ur Kasdim. He left his entire world behind him to journey to an unknown land. Nine earlier tests Avraham passed with flying colors. Why are they all contingent on this last test?
In fact, why do we need this nisayon at all? Avraham had already proven his willingness to sacrifice everything, even his own life, in his service of God. How does Akeidas Yitzchak teach us anything new?
Lastly, thousands of Jews throughout history have given their lives for God. They did not have any prophecy instructing them to do so but when given the chance to die al kiddush Hashem they readily gave up their lives. The Gemara in Gittin (57b) tells us that after the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash four hundred Jewish boys and girls were sold into slavery for the purpose of prostitution. They took their own lives rather than lose their portion in Olam Haba. This is just one example of many. What is so impressive about the sacrifice Avraham Avinu was willing to make? God asked him to do it! If we had a direct prophecy from God telling us to make an enormous sacrifice, would we not jump at the opportunity?
וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם אַבְרָהָ֜ם בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַיַּֽחֲבשׁ֙ אֶת־חֲמֹר֔וֹ וַיִּקַּ֞ח אֶת־שְׁנֵ֤י נְעָרָיו֙ אִתּ֔וֹ וְאֵ֖ת יִצְחָ֣ק בְּנ֑וֹ וַיְבַקַּע֙ עֲצֵ֣י עֹלָ֔ה וַיָּ֣קָם וַיֵּ֔לֶךְ אֶל־הַמָּק֖וֹם אֲשֶׁר־אָֽמַר־ל֥וֹ הָֽאֱלֹהִֽים:
"And Abraham arose early in the morning, and he saddled his donkey, and he took his two young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for a burnt offering, and he arose and went to the place of which God had told him." (Bereishis 22:3)
Rashi, based on the Gemara in Pesachim (4a), comments on Avrahams awakening:
וישכם: נזדרז למצוה
And…arose early: He hastened to [perform] the commandment.
ויחבש: הוא בעצמו ולא צוה לאחד מעבדיו, שהאהבה מקלקלת השורה:
and he saddled: He himself, and he did not command one of his servants, because love causes a disregard for the standard [of dignified conduct]. — [from Gen. Rabbah 55:8]
Why is Avraham Avinu in a rush to perform this Mitzvah? We would expect that Avraham Avinu would do his utmost to save Yitzchak? Not only because Avraham spent his life fighting against the idolatrous practice of human sacrifice, but because Yitzchak is at least as important as Sodom. When Avraham heard of God's plan to destroy the wicked people of Sodom he was relentless in his argument with God. Only after all of his arguments were exhausted did Avraham Avinu finally accept their fate. And yet when it comes to Yitzchak we don't find that Avraham Avinu argued with God at all? This is especially curious in light of the fact that Avraham Avinu was holding on to a winning argument. The Ran in his Derashos (6) points out that God had already promised Avraham that his nation would come from Yitzchak. The Ran maintains that had Avraham merely reminded God of His promise the entire test would have been called off. Why then does Avraham silently accept Yitzchak's fate? Why does he arise first thing in the morning to sacrifice his heir apparent? Why does he engage in the undignified conduct of saddling his own donkey? Rashi says it is because of the love that he had for God. What about the love of his own son?
Another curious aspect to this story is that Avraham Avinu splits the wood for the korban now, at the beginning of his journey. Though Har HaMoriah is not that far away, it ends up becoming a three day trek. Why does Avraham Avinu split the wood now? Is he afraid that he won't find wood closer to his destination?
וַיִּקַּ֨ח אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֶת־עֲצֵ֣י הָֽעֹלָ֗ה וַיָּ֨שֶׂם֙ עַל־יִצְחָ֣ק בְּנ֔וֹ וַיִּקַּ֣ח בְּיָד֔וֹ אֶת־הָאֵ֖שׁ וְאֶת־הַמַּֽאֲכֶ֑לֶת וַיֵּֽלְכ֥וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם יַחְדָּֽו
"And Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering, and he placed [it] upon his son Isaac, and he took into his hand the fire and the knife, and they both went together." (Bereishis 22:6)
Avraham and Yitzchak left Yishmael and Eliezer behind and journeyed forth "together." The Torah emphasizes the notion that Avraham and Yitzchak went together. Twice more in this story the Torah will repeat their togetherness.
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם אֱלֹהִ֞ים יִרְאֶה־לּ֥וֹ הַשֶּׂ֛ה לְעֹלָ֖ה בְּנִ֑י וַיֵּֽלְכ֥וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם יַחְדָּֽו:
And Abraham said, "God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And they both went together. (Bereishis 22:8)
וַיָּ֤שָׁב אַבְרָהָם֙ אֶל־נְעָרָ֔יו וַיָּקֻ֛מוּ וַיֵּֽלְכ֥וּ יַחְדָּ֖ו אֶל־בְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב אַבְרָהָ֖ם בִּבְאֵ֥ר שָֽׁבַע
And Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer sheba; and Abraham remained in Beer sheba. (Bereishis 22:19)
Why the emphasis on Avraham and Yitzchak walking together?
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יִצְחָ֜ק אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֤ם אָבִיו֙ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אָבִ֔י וַיֹּ֖אמֶר הִנֶּ֣נִּי בְנִ֑י וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הִנֵּ֤ה הָאֵשׁ֙ וְהָ֣עֵצִ֔ים וְאַיֵּ֥ה הַשֶּׂ֖ה לְעֹלָֽה
"And Isaac spoke to Abraham his father, and he said, "My father!" And he said, "Here I am, my son." And he said, "Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" (Bereishis 22:7)
Yitzchak is alone with Avraham at this point in the story. Why then does he call out to Avraham, "my father"? Why does Avraham respond by saying, הִנֶּ֣נִּי בְנִ֑י, here I am, my son? Does Yitzchak not see that Avraham is standing right beside him? Only a moment ago the Torah told us that Avraham and Yitzchak were walking together.
וַיָּבֹ֗אוּ אֶל־הַמָּקוֹם֘ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָֽמַר־ל֣וֹ הָֽאֱלֹהִים֒ וַיִּ֨בֶן שָׁ֤ם אַבְרָהָם֙ אֶת־הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חַ וַיַּֽעֲרֹ֖ךְ אֶת־הָֽעֵצִ֑ים וַיַּֽעֲקֹד֙ אֶת־יִצְחָ֣ק בְּנ֔וֹ וַיָּ֤שֶׂם אֹתוֹ֙ עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חַ מִמַּ֖עַל לָֽעֵצִֽים
"And they came to the place of which God had spoken to him, and Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood, and he bound Isaac his son and placed him on the altar upon the wood." (Bereishis 22:9)
Avraham Avinu did four distinct actions in this passuk - he built, he arranged, he bound and he placed. Why then do we specifically call it Akeidas Yitzchak, the binding of Yitzchak? Why not call it the placement of Yitzchak?
Furthermore, a careful reading of the passuk shows us that Avraham Avinu bound Yitzchak before he placed him on the altar. Would it not have made more sense for Yitzchak to sit on the altar and only then be bound by Avraham? Avraham Avinu was well over one hundred years old and Yitzchak was a fully grown man at thirty seven. Surely it makes more sense for Yitzchak to sit himself upon the altar, thus sparing an elderly Avraham the burden of lifting up his son.
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אַל־תִּשְׁלַ֤ח יָֽדְךָ֙ אֶל־הַנַּ֔עַר וְאַל־תַּ֥עַשׂ ל֖וֹ מְא֑וּמָה כִּ֣י | עַתָּ֣ה יָדַ֗עְתִּי כִּֽי־יְרֵ֤א אֱלֹהִים֙ אַ֔תָּה וְלֹ֥א חָשַׂ֛כְתָּ אֶת־בִּנְךָ֥ אֶת־יְחִֽידְךָ֖ מִמֶּֽנִּי:
"And he said, "Do not stretch forth your hand to the lad, nor do the slightest thing to him, for now I know that you are a God fearing man, and you did not withhold your son, your only one, from Me." (Bereishis 22:12)
Now God knows that Avraham is a God fearing man? The other nine tests that Avraham passed did not already prove this?
Furthermore, why does Hashem say that Avraham is a God "fearing" man? Avraham is the great lover of God. Earlier we saw that he even saddled his own donkey because the love that he had for God did not allow him to wait even a moment and have his servants do it for him. Why does God not say, now I know that you are a loving servant?
And in the end, Avraham is spared the agony of sacrificing his beloved son Yitzchak. The Gemara in Gittin (57b) tells the story of Chana and her seven sons. Each son was brought before the emperor and commanded to worship an idol. Each son refused and was subsequently killed. As the last child refused and was about to be executed Chana asked if she could give him a kiss goodbye. She whispered in her child's ear, "My son, go and say to your father Avraham, You bound one son to the altar, but I bound seven altars."
In truth, Chana gave up much more than Avraham Avinu did. She actually lost seven sons. Avraham Avinu almost killed Yitzchak but in the end his life was spared. Why did Chana not say, go tell your father Avraham that I actually lost seven sons while you were only prepared to sacrifice one?
The Rambam in Hilchos Beis HaBechirah (2:1) writes:
The Altar is [to be constructed] in a very precise location,1 which may never be changed, as it is said (II Chronicles 22:1): "This is the Altar for the burnt offerings of Israel."
Isaac was prepared as a sacrifice on the Temple's [future] site, as it is said (Genesis 22:2): "Go to the land of Moriah," and in Chronicles (II 3:1), it is said: "Then, Solomon began to build the House of the Lord in Jerusalem, on Mt. Moriah, where [the Lord] appeared to David, his father, in the place that David had prepared, in the threshing floor of Ornan, the Jebusite."
In Hilchos Beis HaBechirah (2:2) he writes:
It is universally accepted that the place on which David and Solomon built the Altar, the threshing floor of Ornan, is the location where Abraham built the Altar on which he prepared Isaac for sacrifice.
The Abarbanel writes that Akeidas Yitzchak "is forever on our lips in our prayers… for in it lies the entire strength of Israel and their merit before their Heavenly Father…"
The Tur (Orach Chaim 1) says that one should recite the story of the akeida every day.
Forgive me for being somewhat heretical but why do we make such a big deal about the Akeida? Yes Avraham was willing to sacrifice his son and that is something beyond imagination but in the end nothing happened.
וַיִּשָּׂ֨א אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֶת־עֵינָ֗יו וַיַּרְא֙ וְהִנֵּה־אַ֔יִל אַחַ֕ר נֶֽאֱחַ֥ז בַּסְּבַ֖ךְ בְּקַרְנָ֑יו וַיֵּ֤לֶךְ אַבְרָהָם֙ וַיִּקַּ֣ח אֶת־הָאַ֔יִל וַיַּֽעֲלֵ֥הוּ לְעֹלָ֖ה תַּ֥חַת בְּנֽוֹ
"And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and he saw, and lo! there was a ram, [and] after [that] it was caught in a tree by its horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son." (Bereishis 22:13)
The Akeida has been called off. Yitzchak's life has been spared. Why does Avraham feel the need to make a sacrifice?
Rashi quoting the Medrash Tanchuma (Shelach 14) tells us that this ram had been prepared for Avraham since the very beginning of creation. What is the inner meaning of this Medrash?
Furthermore, Rashi explains the superfluous language of "instead of his son."
תחת בנו: מאחר שכתוב ויעלהו לעולה, לא חסר המקרא כלום, מהו תחת בנו, על כל עבודה שעשה ממנו היה מתפלל ואומר יהי רצון שתהא זו כאלו היא עשויה בבני, כאלו בני שחוט, כאלו דמו זרוק, כאלו הוא מופשט, כאלו הוא נקטר ונעשה דשן
instead of his son: Since it is written: “and offered it up for a burnt offering,” nothing is missing in the text. Why then [does it say]: “instead of his son” ? Over every sacrificial act that he performed, he prayed, “May it be [Your] will that this should be deemed as if it were being done to my son: as if my son were slaughtered, as if his blood were sprinkled, as if my son were flayed, as if he were burnt and reduced to ashes.”
Avraham Avinu composed a prayer that accompanied his sacrifices. Every sacrifice was a replacement for Yitzchak. But could sacrificing a ram truly be "instead" of Yitzchak? They are immeasurably different.
Our story concludes with Hashem blessing Avraham:
כִּֽי־בָרֵ֣ךְ אֲבָֽרֶכְךָ֗ וְהַרְבָּ֨ה אַרְבֶּ֤ה אֶת־זַרְעֲךָ֙ כְּכֽוֹכְבֵ֣י הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְכַח֕וֹל אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־שְׂפַ֣ת הַיָּ֑ם וְיִרַ֣שׁ זַרְעֲךָ֔ אֵ֖ת שַׁ֥עַר אֹֽיְבָֽיו: וְהִתְבָּֽרֲכ֣וּ בְזַרְעֲךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל גּוֹיֵ֣י הָאָ֑רֶץ עֵ֕קֶב אֲשֶׁ֥ר שָׁמַ֖עְתָּ בְּקֹלִֽי:
"That I will surely bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand that is on the seashore, and your descendants will inherit the cities of their enemies. And through your children shall be blessed all the nations of the world, because you hearkened to My voice." (Bereishis 22:17,18)
While it is a beautiful bracha that God gives Avraham, it is one that God had already given Avraham earlier (see Bereishis 15:5, 13:6). Why does God bless Avraham again?
Serving God or Serving Yourself?
What does God want from us in this world? When we consider the sin of Adam HaRishon we can gain an insight into the mission for which we are created. Adam had one commandment. Of all the trees in the field he could eat. He was forbidden from eating from the eitz hadaas. Why then did Adam eat from the only tree that wasn't permitted to him?
Adam's entire existence was defined but what he couldn't do. His creativity was stifled. Adam could not understand why God would want a service that did not include the unique personality with which God endowed him. To sit still and abstain from contributing is indeed a difficult challenge. Ultimately it comes down to a question of ego. If we are serving ourselves we worry about the nature of our contribution. If we are serving another we are only concerned with what they need from us. Adam ate from the eitz hadaas because he could not bare the nature of his service. God did not need Adam's creativity, Adam needed to be creative.
Our mission is to rectify the sin of Adam HaRishon. To do so, we must totally sublimate our entire existence to God. Even our service of God can be narcissistic if we are not careful. Sometimes, when serving God with our unique personality and creativity, we are actually serving ourselves. Of course God created us with particular talents and we must channel those energies into His service. At the same time we have to ask ourselves, if God asked us to sit still and do nothing, if that is what it meant to serve Him, could we do it? Would we be as excited as when we make what we feel are meaningful contributions? If God asked us to go against our very nature in His service, could we change our very essence?
The supreme test is not if we are ready to give up our lives for God. Not to say that to die al kiddush Hashem is easy. It is decidedly difficult. However, it is not the supreme test. The ultimate nisayon is whether or not we are prepared to give over our essence to God. To change our character in His service. To do whatever it is that He wants us to do, even when it goes against every fiber of our being.
Avraham Avinu was the paradigmatic ish chesed. Love was his life. Until Akeidas Yitzchak every service that Avraham ever performed on behalf of God was done with love. It was an expression of Avraham Avinu's essence. When tasked with giving up his life, Avraham did so with love. When commanded to leave everything behind and journey to an unknown land, Avraham did so with love. To sacrifice Yitzchak required Avraham to go against his very nature. It required din as opposed to rachamim. Instead of serving God out of love, Avraham was being asked to serve God with yirah, fear. The greatest test Avraham faced was not in Ur Kasdim. Giving up his life for God was easy. The greatest test Avraham faced was in Har HaMoriah where he was asked to serve God in a way that went against his very essence. The story of the Akeidah embodies our mission as Jews. To serve God with every fiber of our being. Not only with our talents but even with talents we never knew we had. The story of the Akeida is Avraham's journey from love to fear. When asked about the purpose of Chassidus the Alter Rebbe responded, the purpose of chassidus is to change our nature. Note that the Alter Rebbe did not say that it was to change our character. Avraham Avinu did not merely change his character, in moving from chesed to din he changed his very nature.
Akeidas Yitzchak and Rosh Hashanah
The sin of Adam HaRishon took place on Rosh Hashanah. The Ran in Rosh Hashanah (16a) quotes the Pesikta (23) that the world was created on the twenty-fifth of Elul. This puts the creation of Adam and Chava on Rosh HaShanah. The sin and subsequently the expulsion from Gan Eden occurred just a couple of hours later. Adam also did teshuva and was forgiven on the first day of his creation. (It was a busy day) Hashem promised Adam that every Rosh
HaShanah would be a Day of Judgment for all of creation.
Rosh Hashanah is also a day in which Akeidas Yitzchak plays a prominent role. In addition to being the subject of the Torah reading the Gemara in Rosh Hashana (16a) quotes Rav Avahu who explains that we blow shofar from a rams horn so that Hashem will remember Akeidas Yitzchak and consider it as if we bound ourselves to God.
The Medrash (Tanchuma 23) records a conversation between Avraham and God.
Avraham says to Hashem: “We swore that I would not leave this altar until I’ve had my full say.”
Hashem replied to Avraham: “Speak your mind.”
Avraham: “Yesterday, You told me that my offspring would be named after Yitzchak. Now, You are telling me to sacrifice him on the altar. I controlled my inclination and did not protest. In similar fashion, when Yitzchak’s children sin and are in trouble, recall Yitzchak’s “akeidah” on their behalf. Consider it as if his ashes lie here atop the altar. In his merit, forgive them and redeem them.”
Hashem: “You’ve had your say; now, I shall have Mine. Yitzchak’s children are destined to sin and transgress My commands. I will judge them on Rosh HaShanah. If they ask Me to seek merit on their behalf and to remember the akeidah of Yitzchak, they should sound this one’s ‘shofar.’”
Avraham: “What is a ‘shofar’?”
Hashem: “Step back.” Avraham looks around and sees a ram entangled in the thicket by its horns. “They need only blow into the horn of a ram, and I will spare them and pardon their transgressions.”
In Rosh Hashanah Mussaf we say ועקידת יצחק לזרעו היום ברחמים תזכור
In Selichos we say, He who answered Avraham Avinu on Har HaMoriah, may He answer us. He Who answered his son Yitzchak atop the mizbeiach, may He answer us.
What is the connection between Akeidas Yitzchak and Rosh Hashanah?
The Shvilei Pinchas explains that the binding of Yitzchak's hand and feet was a tikkun for the sin of Adam and Chava that was done with their hands and feet. Avos D’Rabbi Nasan (1:5) says in order to persuade Chava to sin the Nachash showed Chava that he could touch the tree with his hands and feet without dying; he told her that she could also touch the tree without dying. The eitz hadaas screamed at the nachash, not to touch it. This is the inner meaning of the passuk in Tehillim (36:12): “Bring me not the foot of the arrogant, and let the hand of the wicked not move me.”
With this in mind we can explain why the nachash was punished with the removal of his hands and feet as he would now slither across the earth. The hands and feet of the Nachash led Adam and Chava to walk to the tree and touch it with their hands as they removed its fruit.
The Medrash Shochar Tov (Tehillim) explains that the passuk in Tehilim (1:1) “Praiseworthy is the man that did not walk in the counsel of the wicked, and did not stand in the path of the sinful, and did not sit in the company of the scornful.” is referring to Adam HaRishon.
Yitzchak Avinu was bound, hand and foot together, as a rectification for the sin of Adam HaRishon who sinned with his hands and feet.
Chazal (Tanna Dbei Eliyahu Rabbah 6, Bereishis Rabbah 2:11) explain that on the day that Avraham Avinu bound Yitzchak on the mizbeiach, Hashem established the korban tamid. The Mishnah in Tamid (31b) notes that the animals hand and feet are bound together. The Gra explains (Tamid 4, 1) explains that binding the hands and feet was intended to invoke the memory of Akeidas Yitzchak.
The Mishna teaches that an animal may not be allowed out on Shabbos while bound. The Gemara in Shabbos (54a) quotes Rav Yehudah who explains that this refers to the binding of hand and foot, as was done to Yitzchak at the Akeida. Rashi explains that Yitzchak’s hands and feet were stretched backwards; each hand was bound to its corresponding foot. This exposed the back of the neck where he could be shechted.
On Rosh Hashanah we recall the binding of Yitzchak's hands and feet to rectify the sin of Adam HaRishon that was done with his hands and feet on Rosh Hashanah. Interestingly, the gematria of וְהָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים נִסָּ֖ה אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֑ם, and God tested Avraham is 861, the very same gematria of the words Rosh Hashanah.
Through the remembrance of the Akeida we are forgiven for our sins. Adam sinned because his ego dictated that he needed to use his creativity to serve God. His hands and feet (ie. his creativity) were his downfall. Avraham totally sublimated his will (chesed) before God, binding his sons hands and feet, in act of strict justice (din). Just as Avraham changed his nature for God, we ask God to, so to speak, change his nature for us. Instead of punishing us with His attribute of strict justice, we ask God to forgive us with compassion.
This is why every day in davening, after the recitation of the akeida, we say:
Master of the world! May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our fathers, to remember in our favor the covenant of our fathers. Even as Abraham our father held back his compassion from his only son and desired to slay him in order to do Your will, so may Your mercy hold back Your anger from us; let Your compassion prevail over Your acts of retaliation. Be lenient with us, Lord our God, and deal with us kindly and mercifully. In Your great goodness, may Your fierce wrath turn away from Your people, Your city, Your land, and Your heritage. Fulfill, Lord our God, what You promised us through Moses Your servant, as it is said: "I will remember my covenant with Jacob; also my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the land."
Akeidas Yitzchak and Kerias Yam Suf
The theme that Avraham Avinu changed his nature in the service of God allows us to explain a fascinating Medrash.
The passuk tells us, “Avraham arose in the morning and he saddled his donkey; he took his two young men with him and Yitzchak, his son; he split the wood for the olah, and stood up and went to the place of which G-d had spoken to him.” (Bereishis 22:3)
The Medrash in Bereishis Rabbah (55:8) tells us that as a reward for the splitting of the wood Hashem would split the sea at the Yam Suf. Just as the passuk says“He split the wood for the olah” it also states “And the waters split.”(Shemos 14, 21)
In fact, Avraham Avinu experienced a kerias Yam Suf of his own on the way to the Akeida. The Medrash Tanchuma (Vayera 22) tells us that although Har HaMoriah was not very far from Avraham Avinu it took three days to arrive there because the Satan interfered with Avraham at every turn. Initially the Satan came to Avraham dressed as an old man who argued with Avraham, “Is an elderly man such as yourself going to forsake a son that was given to him at the age of one hundred years old?” Avraham responded “I will not listen to you!”
Next, the Satan appeared as a young man who commiserated with Yitzchak and said, “Poor thing, son of an unfortunate woman, how many fasts did your mother have to fast until you were born? And the old man has lost his mind and is going to slaughter you.” Yitzchak refused to disobey God or Avraham.
Finally, the Satan became a large river that stood between Avraham, Yitzchak and Har HaMoriah. Avraham immediately went down into the water and it reached his thighs. He said to his young men: “Follow me.” They followed him. When he reached the middle of the river, the water was up to his neck. At that moment, Avraham gazed up at the heavens. He said to Him: “Master of the Universe, You chose me, You guided (exalted) me and You appeared to me. You said to me, “I am one and You are One; through you My name will become known in My world; and offer your son Yitzchak to Me as an olah.” I did not delay; I am fulfilling Your command; and, now, I have encountered life-threatening waters. If I or Yitzchak, my son, drown, who will fulfill Your word? Who will represent Your name? Hashem said to him, “On your life, I swear that My name will be represented in the world by you!” Immediately, Hashem rebuked the source of water, the river dried up and they stood on dry land.
What is the inner meaning of the connection between Akeidas Yitzchak and Kerias Yam Suf?
Just as Avraham Avinu changed his nature from chesed to din in order to serve God so too did the water change its nature in order to allow Avraham and Yitzchak access to Har HaMoriah. At Yetzias Mitzrayim, as Klal Yisrael journeyed to receive the Torah at Har Sinai, the water would once again change its nature and split allowing Klal Yisrael access to Har Sinai. The sea splitting sent a profound message to Klal Yisrael. Just as I, the water, split to allow you passage so too will you, Klal Yisrael, need to fundamentally change your nature in the service of God. A failure to do so indicates that it is not God that we are in service of but ourselves.
Binding Chesed and Gevurah
With this in mind we can now return to the story of Akeidas Yitzchak and answer the questions we asked above.
Only at this final test does the Torah use the נִסָּ֖ה, tested. This is the true nisyaon because it challenged Avraham's very essence. Yitzchak represents the middas hadin. For Yitzchak the Akeida was a natural expression of his service to God. As Yitzchak said to Yishamel, if God would ask me to sacrifice myself I would not hold back. If Avraham would not have passed the nisayon of the Akeida it would have told us something about every previous test. It would have told us that while Avraham's actions took tremendous acts of courage they were not actually done in the service of God. Avraham had proven his willingness to serve Hashem with love. He was even willing to give up his own life as a service of love. Only when Avraham transitions from chesed to gevurah do we truly see that he is the consummate servant of God.
Throughout history thousands of Jews have given their lives for God. It is a service we cannot begin to comprehend. And yes they did so even without a prophecy that gave them clear instructions. It is true that Avraham Avinu never actually sacrificed Yiztchak. In truth that was never the point. Avraham Avinu was never actually told to kill Yitzchak (see Rashi 22:2 bring him up). The question at stake was, would Avraham Avinu serve God in a way that went against everything he believed in. Thus we find that Avraham Avinu did not argue with God to save Yitzchak's life. He had the winning argument in his pocket but he chose not to play the card because he understood the task at hand. A lifetime spent fighting human sacrifice would go out the window with this one act but that meant nothing to Avraham. He existed to serve God and for no other reason. If this is what God wanted, Avraham stood ready to serve. He saddled his own donkey. He cut his own wood. Perhaps there would be wood closer to the Akeida but Avraham could not wait to do everything he could to serve Hashem,
This is why the Torah emphasizes several times that Avraham and Yitzchak went together. Avraham adopted Yitzchak's middah of gevura in order to fulfill this mission. In this vein we can understand the strange dialogue that occurred between Avraham and Yitzchak. Why then does he call out to Avraham, "my father"? Why does Avraham respond by saying, הִנֶּ֣נִּי בְנִ֑י, here I am, my son? Yitzchak understood that for Avraham to successfully pass this test he was going to have to totally sublimate his middah of chesed. In the midst of their journey Yitzchak calls Avraham his father and Avraham responds by calling Yitzchak his son. In doing so Yitzchak awakened the love that Avraham felt for Yitzchak. Avraham responded by calling Yitzchak his son. The goal of the Akeida was not for Avraham to ignore the love that he had for Yitzchak. True gevura meant feeling all of the love that Avraham felt for Yitzchak and nonetheless doing what God had asked him to do. In this way Avraham and the middah of chessed were truly bound to Yitzchak and the middah of gevrua. Even before Yitzchak was placed upon the altar, Avraham bound Yitzchak. As we said, the test was not to kill Yitzchak but to bind Avraham's midda of chesed to Yitzchak's midda of gevura. Despite the fact that there were other activities performed at the Akeida (he built, he arranged and he placed), the binding of Yitzchak and Avraham together captured the essence of the nisayon. Thus it would be known as "Akeidas Yitzchak" for all time.
Up until this point Avraham was the great lover of God. Nine tests had proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that Avraham would give up everything in his life because of the love that he felt for God. Now Hashem knows that Avraham is a God fearing man as well. Chana gave up seven children to God. Avraham never sacrificed one. But that wasn't the message she sent to Avraham. The message she sent was, you Avraham only had to "bind" one son to the altar. You only had to bind your love to the altar of din once. I did it seven times. Her focus was not on the actual death of her children but on the strength it toook to overcome the natural love of a mother. As she kisses her last child goodbye, she thinks of her self as the granddaughter of Avraham Avinu and rather than save her child she sends her last son to his death.
The location of this amazing achievement would become the place where we brought our own sacrifices. The story would become a part of our liturgy and be recited daily. Not because Yitzchak died but because Avraham gave up everything he stood for and every natural feeling he ever felt in his service of God. Every sacrifice Avraham brought was built on the akeida. They were no longer sacrifices of love but of fear. Atonement would be given to his children and grandchildren because they are a nation that is prepared to give up their entire being in the service of God. Despite the aveira we commit, our essence is rooted in Avraham Avinu. Our DNA is designed to sacrifice our very essence if that is what is required.
Ultimately Avraham is not satisfied with God's knowledge of his internal shift. If a sacrifice is not actually made then a change has not actually taken place. Our world is not one of theory but of action. As we said, the goal was not to kill Yitzchak. God had prepared for the true sacrifice since the beginning of time. The ayil in the thicket was created in the dawn of time. It's horn would herald our forgiveness and ultimately our salvation. All because one man served God.
Akeidas Yitzchak Brings Redemption
Our story concludes with Hashem blessing Avraham.
True, Hashem had already blessed Avraham but this bracha had one additional nuance. The Ramban (22:16 Because you performed this deed) explains that although he was already promised that his offspring would be like the stars (15:5) and the dust (13:16), Hashem now swore that they would inherit their enemies. Thus even if they sinned they would never be destroyed and would eventually be redeemed.
The final test of Akeidas Yitzchak assures our ultimate redemption. Thus we find that Yitzchak Avinu is identified with techias hameisim. The letters of the name Yitzchak ca be rearranged to spell keitz chai, the end of life.
Pirkei drebbe Eliezer (chapter 30) quotes Rav Yehuda who said, 'When the sword reached his throat, his soul ascended and Yitzchak died. When He made his voice heard from between the keruvim saying "Do not raise a hand to the boy," (Yitzchak's) soul returned to his body, Yitzchak arose and stood on his feet. Yitzchak knew that this is how the dead would be resurrected in the future, and he said, "Blessed are You who resurrects the dead".
Both the Avudraham and the Maharal (Gevuras Hashem chapter 44) explain that Yitzchak corresponds to the second bracha of shemone esrei which is the bracha of techias hameisim.
The Gemara in Taanis (16a) explains that on fast days they would place ashes on the forehead of each and every person to remind God of the ashes of Yitzchak Avinu. Ostensibly the Gemara is indicating that Yitzchak was sacrificed ad burnt on the mizbeach. This is in accordance with the Medrash HaGadol (22:19) that explains why the passuk only said that "And Abraham returned to the youths." Where was Yitzchak? R. Eleazar ben Pedat said even though Yitzchak did not die, the passuk indicates that it as if he died and his ashes were sprinkled over the altar. The Medrash offers another interpretation that God brought Yitzchak into the Garden of Eden and he dwelt there for three years.
In Parshas Chayei Sarah (24:62) the passuk says, “V’Yitzchok Bah-and Yitzchok came.” Meaning that Yitzchok was returning with a wife for Avraham. The Gematria of the words “V’Yitzchok Bah” equals the words “M’Gan Eden” (from Gan Eden).
Additionally when Yitzchok came to meet Rivka for the first time he came from a place called Baer Lachi Roi which equals in gematria “Gan Eden L’tzadikim.”
When Yaakov brought food to Yitzchak in the episode where he tricked Yitzchak into giving him the bracha the passuk says, "Behold, the fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field, which the Lord has blessed!" (Bereishis 27:27) Rashi explains that Yitzchak was commenting that Yaakov smelled like Gan Eden. How did Yitzchak know what Gan Eden smelled like? He lived there for a period of time after Gan Eden and was resurrected.
The Shibolei HaLeket (page 9) says, "When Yitzchak Avinu was bound upon the altar and turned into ashes, and his ashes were cast upon Mount Moriah, the Holy One, blessed be He, immediately brought dew upon him and restored him to life. Therefore David said: "Like the dew of Chermon descending upon the mountains of Zion" (Tehilim 133:3) – like dew with which He restored Yitzchak Avinu to life.
Akeidas Yitzchak is a microcosm of yemos hamashiach. Yitzchak experienced a techias hameisim. The Ramban says that the akeida assures our ultimate redemption. As we said at the outset, the sin of Adam HaRishon was that he served himself and not God. Redemption comes in the merit of Avraham who rectified the sin of Adam HaRishon who truly served God. This is why the story concludes with Avraham returning to Beer Sheva (Bereishis 22:19). The goal of the Akeida was not to die but to live. Avraham the paradigmatic man of chesed would now live with both chesed and gevrua. He returned to Beer Sheva a new man with a new perspective.
In our lives we often face the challenge of the Akeida. We spend our lives serving God but what happens when we are asked to do something that is out of our comfort zone? As long as our talents are being used we are passionate in our Judaism. But do we serve God when we are not in the mood? Would we serve God if it meant going against everything we believe in? When it challenges every fiber of our being? These are the Akeida moments in our lives. Avraham Avinu instilled in us the capacity to truly serve God. It is up to us to access those talents. In the merit of these moments may we be zocheh to experience the redemption that Yitzchak did at the Akeida.