June 22, 2024
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Did Hashem Change His Mind at Akedat Yitzchak?

It is a large theological (hashkafic) problem! Hashem initially seems to instruct Avraham Avinu to offer Yitzchak Avinu as a korban (sacrifice) and, subsequently, instructs Avraham (via a malach, angel) not to harm Yitzchak. However, a pillar of Torah belief is that Hashem’s commands are not subject to change, as we state in the “Yigdal” poem, “Lo yachalif haKeil velo yamir, dato leolamim—Hashem will never switch nor replace His laws.” How could Hashem have altered His command to Avraham, especially in such a short time?! Rashi and Radak address this vexing problem.

 

Rashi: Offer, Not Slaughter

Rashi (Bereishit 22:2 s.v. VeHaaleihu) astonishingly explains (citing Pesikta Zutra) that if we examine the command, we find that Hashem told Avraham to “offer Yitzchak up.” Hashem did not, though, order Avraham to slaughter his son. Thus, Hashem did not change His command—for as soon as Avraham placed Yitzchak on the altar and displayed his readiness to sacrifice him, Hashem intervened and said that Avraham had already fulfilled the command and may now release Yitzchak.

Rashi’s approach is astonishing, since it implies Avraham Avinu misunderstood Hashem’s command. This is shocking, since the Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:24) writes that one of the primary lessons of the Akedah is that a Navi must be certain of his prophecy. Avraham would not have done the Akedah if he had harbored even the slightest doubt regarding his prophecy.

This question might hinge on a question of profound importance regarding the Akedah: Was Avraham going to the Akedah hoping that he would not have to offer Yitzchak or knowing that he would not have to offer him? Rashi might adopt the latter possibility, as Avraham Avinu knew from the start that he was not required to kill Yitzchak. Accordingly, Avraham did not misinterpret Hashem’s command.

 

Rav Saadia Gaon Versus Rashi

By contrast, Rav Saadiah Gaon (Rasag; Bereishit 22:2) does not subscribe to Rashi’s approach, as he interprets, “veha’aleihu” as “slaughter him.” According to Rasag, Avraham Avinu expected to slaughter Yitzchak. This understanding, though, returns us to the problem of how Hashem changed his mind and ordered Avraham not to kill Yitzchak after ordering him to slay his son.

 

Radak: The Ram as a Substitute for Yitzchak

The Radak (22:2 s.v. VeHaaleihu) presents an incredible solution to this problem. He explains that since Avraham Avinu demonstrated his willingness to comply with the command fully, Hashem considered it as if Yitzchak Avinu was offered on the mizbeach. This approach fits the Gemara’s teaching (Kiddushin 40a) that when a Jew is fully resolved to perform a mitzvah but does not perform it, Hashem regards it as the equivalent of having completed the mitzvah.

Alternatively, the Radak reflects the Ramban’s (Vayikra 1:9) approach to korbanot. Theoretically, the Ramban explains, the individual offering a korban should sacrifice himself. Since this is impractical, we offer an animal korban as a substitute. Similarly, when Avraham offered the ram as a korban, it was as if he slaughtered him. The ram substituted for Yitzchak, and Hashem’s command to kill Yitzchak was fulfilled through the ram. The Torah’s explicit statement that the ram was offered, “tachat beno—in place of his son,” (22:13) supports this approach.

This idea fits beautifully with the Radak’s (ad. loc.) assertion that the Akedah initiated Har haMoriah—the site of the future Beit Hamikdash (as stated in Divrei Hayamim 2:3:1)—as the location for korbanot. The Akedah established the paradigm for korbanot, of an animal substituting for the individual offering the korban.

Indeed, the mishna (Tamid 4:1) states that the korban tamid (the daily sacrifice) would not have its four legs tied together or its front legs tied together and its back legs tied together. Rather, its foreleg and hind leg on each side would be bound together, which, the Gemara (Tamid 31b) explains, commemorates Akedat Yitzchak. This mishna perfectly fits Akedat Yitzchak constituting a paradigm for future korbanot.

 

Support for the
Ram-for-Yitzchak Approach

Rashi (22:13 s.v. Tachat Beno) cites a midrash that powerfully expresses the Radak’s idea. The midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 56:9) states: “During each aspect of the offering, Avraham would pray and state, ‘May this be as if it is performed on my son—as if my son is slaughtered, as if his blood is thrown (on the altar), as if his skin is flayed, and as if he was placed on the fire and rendered into ash.’”

Rashi (22:14, citing Bereishit Rabbah ad. loc.) also states that Hashem sees Yitzchak’s piled-up ashes every year and is motivated to forgive Bnei Yisrael. The idea of “Yitzchak’s ashes” makes sense only if one subscribes to the notion that Hashem considered things as if Yitzchak was burned at the Akedah.

In addition, Rashi (to 22:12) cites an astonishing midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 56:7) that states that when Avraham was ordered not to slaughter Yitzchak, initially, he responded, “If so, I have come here for naught. I will wound him and extract a bit of blood.” Avraham was, subsequently, instructed not even to wound Yitzchak.

Why would Avraham Avinu insist on wounding his son if Hashem did not command to do so?! An answer might be that Avraham was struggling with our question. Avraham thought that the order could not be reversed since he was commanded to slaughter Yitzchak. At first, Avraham felt that the resolution to this problem would be to wound Yitzchak, which Hashem would regard as the equivalent of killing him.

Avraham Avinu’s quandary of fulfilling Hashem’s command to slaughter was resolved when he, suddenly, discovered the ram with its horns stuck in the thicket. Rashbam (22:13) explains that Avraham realized that the “coincidence” demonstrated that “the angel is an authentic messenger of Hashem, Who has prepared for me this ram to substitute for my son, and, therefore, it is caught in the thicket so that I can take it and offer it as a korban.”

 

Ramifications for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

Hashem leniently implementing His command to slaughter Yitzchak has great ramifications for our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We ask Hashem in Selichot (based on the mishna on Taanit 15a), “The One Who answered Avraham at Har haMoriah, He will answer us.” Similarly, we say, “The One Who answered Yitzchak when he was bound on the altar, He will answer us.” This indicates that Avraham and Yitzchak were praying before discovering the ram at the Akedah.

What were they praying for? For Hashem to change His command? That cannot be because it is impossible. Rather, it seems they were davening that Hashem leniently implement His command. During Selichot, we cite this as a precedent for Hashem to interpret His decrees for us and all Jewish people leniently.

Chazal strongly prefers using a ram’s horn for shofar blowing, even though the horns of many other animals are also suitable for the mitzvah (Rosh Hashanah 26a). The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 16a) explains that we use a ram’s horn to remind Hashem of Akedat Yitzchak. We marshal a ram’s horn to symbolize a lenient interpretation of a divine decree. Using a ram’s horn, we plead to Hashem to similarly leniently interpret His decrees. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (cited in Hararei Kedem 1:7) amasses considerable evidence that tekiat shofar (shofar blowing) constitutes a form of tefillah. It is appropriate for us to present our wordless prayer using a ram’s horn in our pleas for mercy on our day of judgment.

 

Conclusion

Akedat Yitzchak is not only to be studied, but also to be relived. The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 16a) states that if we properly execute the Musaf of Rosh Hashanah, Hashem regards it, “as if we were bound before Him.” Hopefully, we will achieve this intensity in our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers, after which Hashem will respond as mercifully as He did to Avraham and Yitzchak at the Akedah.


Rabbi Jachter serves as the rav of Congregation Shaarei Orah, rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County, and a get administrator with the Beth Din of Elizabeth. Rabbi Jachter’s 16 books, including a new one on sefer Devarim, may be purchased at Amazon and Judaica House.

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