July 20, 2024
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While it might seem that for Avraham the nisayon (test) of Akeidat Yitzchak was solely the challenge of slaughtering his most beloved, dear and long awaited son as a sacrifice, however, there is much more beneath the surface that defines and portrays what this nisayon actually consisted of.

Rav Elyah Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu 2, p. 190-191) focuses on two primary aspects—which share a similar commonality—that were part and parcel of this nisayon:

  1. For years, Avraham exerted much time and effort to spread, teach and preach emunah in Hashem. He converted so many people to go in the ways of Hashem. He taught them about the importance of the middah(attribute) of chesed, kindness. He fought against the corrupted belief of human sacrifice. But now, he is to bring his own son Yitzchak as a sacrifice! This is blatantly antithetical to everything Avraham was preaching and influencing others about for all these years. Thus, Avraham realized that by following through on this nisayon, he would in effect be potentially throwing away all those years of hard work. This was clearly a challenging nisayon, one that was difficult for the mind to comprehend.

With this understanding of the nisayon, Rav Elyah Lopian (Lev Eliyahu, Lech Lecha) explains a puzzling question. According to Rashi, the nisayon of “Ur Kasdim” is one of the ten nisyonot of Avraham. That nisayon consisted of an ultimatum imposed on Avraham: to forfeit his faith, or be thrown in a fire. Avraham held firm to his faith and was miraculously saved. This surely seems like a difficult test! Yet, surprisingly, the Torah does not seem to make any explicit mention of it (but rather hints to it—see 15:7), while on the other hand, the Torah goes to tremendous lengths, portraying and delineating the nisayon of Akeidat Yitzchak in vivid and great detail. Why such a contrast? Why isn’t the nisayon of Ur Kasdim also treated the same way?

Based on the above, Rav Lopian explains that there is a significant difference between the two nisyonot. The nisayon of Ur Kasdim was a test that did not challenge the intellect. It intellectually made sense that he shouldn’t give up the true belief in God for the sake of living. Avraham understood that it was appropriate and right to give up his life for the sake of God. However, the nisayon of Akeidat Yitzchak was incomprehensible—it made no sense to him.

Here, he spent years preaching about emunah in Hashem, bringing people closer to Him, reinforcing the trait of kindness, and fighting against the abhorrent belief of human sacrifice. And now Hashem himself is telling him to do an act which clashes and goes contrary to all of that! After working so hard for Hashem’s sake, now Hashem is asking him to do something that would potentially erase all of it. Anyone in Avraham’s place might have easily wondered, how can it be that this is really what Hashem wants?

  1. Rav Dessler focuses on another part of the nisayon of Akeidat Yitzchak which also boggles the intellect, perhaps far more than the latter. Earlier in Avraham’s life, Hashem had already promised Avraham that he will merit to have many descendants—“Gaze, now, toward the Heavens, and count the stars if you are able to count them!.”.. “so shall your offspring be!” (15:5), and that they will ultimately emanate from his son Yitzchak—“Through Yitzchak will offspring be considered yours” (21:12). Hence, Hashem now telling Avraham to offer Yitzchak as a sacrifice was essentially posing an incredibly glaring and full-fledged contradiction between Hashem’s earlier promise and Hashem’s current wishes for Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchak! Thus, from the human angle, the understanding and reasoning for this perplexing nisayon was beyond inexplicable. It was something that theoretically could have racked anyone’s brain, including Avraham’s, which ultimately could have led him to ponder, question and beseech Hashem for the meaning of this all-too-obvious enigma.

In short, this nisayon of Akeidat Yitzchak—on two accounts—was extremely incomprehensible. Yet, will Avraham pass this test? Would he faithfully accept and perform this nisayon without wondering about it, doubting it and questioning Hashem? Of course, Avraham followed Hashem’s wishes, with pure faith, without even infinitesimally pondering and trying to understand what Hashem’s calculations were, and without asking Hashem for an explanation.

This nisayon might even go deeper than this: Right before Avraham was about to slaughter Yitzchak, “An angel of Hashem called to him from heaven … and said, ‘Do not stretch out your hand against the lad nor do anything to him” (22: 11-12). No slaughtering Yitzchak—that’s not what Hashem wants. The midrash records that Avraham then started to wonder, saying to Hashem, “The words [that You tell me] are nothing but perplexing words! Yesterday you said ‘since through Yitzchak will offspring be considered yours,’ then you retracted and said, ‘Please take your son [… Yitzchak … and bring him up there as an offering’], and now You say to me, Do not stretch out your hand against the lad.’ How can this be!?” (Bereishit Rabbah, 56:8). And further on, the midrash brings that Avraham also said that even though he had an argument to counter Hashem’s wishes of bringing Yitzchak as a sacrifice, he did not retort back to Hashem (56:10). Says the Shelah Hakadosh (Shnei Luchot Habrit, Vayera), we see from the latter midrash that even though Avraham could have gotten out of the nisayon of Akeidat Yitzchak by questioning Hashem, he nevertheless refrained.

One could ask: firstly, if Avraham could have—justifiably—found a way out of this overwhelmingly difficult nisayon, why didn’t he? If there’s a valid loophole, why not take it? Secondly, even if for some reason Avraham preferred to nevertheless follow through on Hashem’s wishes, why not, at the very least, ask Hashem for the explanation for all this from the beginning? What’s the big deal if Avraham would just try to understand, to wonder and ask when the nisayon arose if he anyways did later after he was told not to slaughter Yitzchak!?

On the latter question, Rav Dessler (and see also Chiddushei Halev to 22:12) explains that the reason why Avraham did not simply ask before the nisayon was because Avraham was concerned that doing so would in effect compromise and lower his faith in Hashem. Based on this, we could suggest that even though Avraham could have easily found a just and valid way out of performing Akeidat Yitzchak, he still didn’t pursue that route because it could have involved wondering about Hashem’s ways and questioning Hashem, and refraining from that was perhaps—to a very large extent—the whole purpose of this nisayon! This can add a huge dimension to the difficulty of this nisayon, for even though Avraham could have rightfully gotten out of it by questioning, he withstood doing so, showing his firm faith in Hashem.

Avraham’s degree of faith is incredible; how can we understand Avraham’s awe-inspiring level of emunah in Hashem? Rav Yerucham Levovitz makes an important point about emunah, applying it to Avraham’s emunah in Hashem:

A person might be going through a very difficult and challenging time in his life. Life seems dark—Hashem’s providence and guiding “Hand” in his life may not seem so apparent. This person might begin to entertain doubts about Hashem’s hashgacha in his life, he might question where Hashem is. But he has no answer and sees no explanation for what he is going through. But then, he finds a solution, a way to put his mind and heart at ease … emunah! He pulls out his faith in Hashem, to combat and overcome the doubts and questions that may pervade and trouble his mind. Essentially, this person’s emunah came after all the questions and troubling doubts. Emunah came as the “answer.”

However, according to Rav Yerucham it seems that is not the ideal emunah. Rav Yerucham seems to explain that for the “man of faith,” the ideal goal of emunah isn’t just a means for the purpose of answering and dealing with those troubling questions of faith in times of distress.

Rather, to truly have emunah means to have emunah for its own sake, and that a person’s emunah is at the forefront of his mind; to approach life and see the world around him through a lens of emunah. Thus, those “hard” questions and troubling doubts of faith don’t bother such a person, for there’s no room in the faithfull character of a person for whom faith permeates through his essence to be bothered by them in the first place.

When Hashem asked Avraham to offer Yitzchak as a sacrifice, surely Avraham had a question as to how this could fit with Hashem’s previous promise regarding his future descendants. However, the question(s) remained intellectual and surface level. But they didn’t trouble him at all! They didn’t enter his emotions, he wasn’t bothered by them whatsoever, for they made no difference to him (see Daas Torah, parshat Shelach, Maamarim section). Hence, it seems that Avraham’s emunah wasn’t simply a tool to deal with difficult times; his ingrained, embedded, and deep-seated emunah—developed for its own sake—long preceded them, and as a result did not allow the potential anguish borne from such questions to enter his emotional state.


Binyamin is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchanan and of Wurzweiler School of Social Work.

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