Everything was at stake. From Avraham’s love for his son to his reputation as a man of God — it was all on the line. At the tail end of his career, the first person to discover Hashem was summoned to the ultimate religious trial. Would this courageous pioneer forfeit everything he had accomplished — both personally and professionally — to obey an incomprehensible divine command? Could he pull the trigger and sacrifice his own son, acting upon an instruction delivered by a God he believed in, but had never actually seen. Everything was at stake, atop that windswept mountain during the binding of Isaac.
Though his internal conscience could not decipher this unusual command, Avraham willingly submitted. During his three-day trip to the mountain, he struggled to reconcile this puzzling demand with his own moral instinct. Unable to understand this frightful request, Avraham suspended his own moral conscience in favor of the divine will. In doing so, he passed the basic test of religion and carved out a template for our own religious experiences.
Synchronicity and Submission
As Hashem is compassionate and desires human prosperity, His will is synchronous with human interest. Studying His word and obeying His will improves both our personal lives and the overall human condition. Religion isn’t meant to stifle or suppress human experience, but to empower and enhance it. There is no clash between the divine will and the human heart. It may not be immediately obvious, but every divine instruction improves the human experience. Hashem isn’t arbitrary and doesn’t issue vacant or purposeless commands. As we mature religiously, we discover deeper understandings of this overlap between religion and human benefit. There is no conflict between the human heart and the divine temple. Hashem created each and they coincide.
However, everyone —at some point — arrives at that mountain and experiences an Akeidah moment, in which they cannot decipher the mystery of the divine will. At some point, we all face the “Avraham” challenge: Can we suspend human reason, silently obey the divine mystery and submit to the will of a higher being? Avraham programmed that ability within every Jew, and we have been faithfully perpetuating his legacy ever since. As much as we endeavor to reconcile religion with human interest, we always fall short. At that stage, when we are riddled by Hashem’s indecipherable will, our obedience and submission kick in to ensure durable religious commitment — even absent of human understanding. Faith is partly reason, and partly trust.
Humans and Robots
Yet, for all his submission to divine instructions, Avraham isn’t portrayed as a hollowed out and unemotional automaton. In theory, the most efficient way for him to kill his son would be to take his emotions out of the equation, numb his feelings, objectify his son and act dispassionately. By muffling his emotions, Avraham could dispense this terrifying act against which his conscience rails.
Yet, Avraham is portrayed as a loving father, not an indifferent robot or a crazed fanatic. The Torah’s description of the Akeidah contains 10 terms which derive from the word “av,” denoting “a father,” or from the term “ben,” denoting “a son.” These terms are completely redundant, as we are well aware that Yitzchak is Avraham’s son. The recurring references to a father and son underscore that neither father nor son abdicated their affection for one another, even as they proceeded toward the unimaginable. They retained their humanity and deepened their relationship, even though they chose to prioritize the will of Hashem over human instinct.
Likewise, the midrash reports that until the very last minute, Avraham prayed to Hashem to rescind the harsh decree. Even though Avraham knew that fulfillment of this command would reshape religious history, he still desperately pleaded for a way out. To do any less would have rendered him a monster. He realizes that — in the end — if the decree isn’t repealed, he would have no choice but to obey Hashem’s instructions. However, he continued to pray for a reversal — hoping that he could avoid this fearsome challenge. There is absolutely no contradiction between his readiness to execute divine will and his praying to avoid that test. Bending his will to Hashem’s will wasn’t meant to eviscerate his natural human feelings for his beloved son.
Finally, the midrash describes the actual moment in which the sacrifice “almost “ occurred. Isaac was tightly bound, as his father raised the knife to perform the sacrifice. Tears flowed down the father’s cheeks as he recognized this to be his final goodbye to his son. Even though Avraham’s heart was overjoyed at obeying the divine command, he still sobbed at the thought of killing his son.
Hashem fashioned our hearts into multi-chambered organs, because He expects us to simultaneously sense multiple, and often clashing emotions. On that day, Avraham’s heart was suffused with both joy and sadness. He submitted his decision to divine authority, but preserved his humanity and his conscience. Hashem expected no less. He desired a kind and sympathetic father standing upon a mountain, rather than a cold mannequin emptied of the noble impulses which Hashem Himself implanted. Avraham’s heroism consisted not only in his submission to Hashem, but also in his preservation of his humanity.
Hashem delivered two “guidance systems,” by which we live our lives. One is a religious system, a list of commandments — a roster of 613 do’s and don’ts distilled within the Torah. Additionally, He vested us with common sense and moral intuition; a sense of right and wrong which provide a navigational compass. In the rare cases in which these systems appear to clash, faith demands submitting the human heart to divine code. However, these Akeidah-like cases are very rare.
More often, the divine law and the pure human heart complement each other. Even if a decision isn’t directly legislated by the Torah, it should still be inspected based upon moral conscience. When we listen to our inner virtue, we are listening to a divine whisper — even if it isn’t a divinely articulated commandment.
Thankfully, our world is benefiting from a religious surge — as Torah study and halacha observance are each on the rise. We have access to more Torah knowledge and greater familiarity with the first system of Hashem’s law than in the past. Sometimes though, the emphasis upon halacha mutes our inner voice of human conscience and morality. Many of life’s decisions lie outside the purview of halacha, but must still be shaped by common sense and moral intuition. These moral instincts were planted by Hashem, and we should listen to their murmur. Hashem speaks to us through His Torah, but He quietly whispers to us through our conscience. Religion moves in stereo.
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a masters degree in English literature from the City University of New York.