Avraham Avinu received two promises from God—of land, and of children who are to become a great nation. After promises and prayers, Avraham and Sarah, at last, have a child. And then, “After these things, God tested Avraham.” Avraham is called upon by God with the same words of the initial command of “Lech-lecha” wherein he sacrificed his past for the promise of future nationhood. This time, however, God commands Avraham to sacrifice his entire future—his beloved son, Yitzchak, without any promise or explanation!
The Midrash Tanchuma presents three possible answers as to why God tests the righteous:
Said Rabbi Yonah: flax, the more you pound it, the more it improves… Said Rabbi Yehudah bar Shalom:-a potter does not tap on a weak vessel or jar, lest it break. On what does he tap? On a strong vessel…
Said Rabbi Elazar: this can be compared to a farmer who has two cows, one strong and one weak. On which one does he place the yoke? Is it not on the one that is strong?
The opinions of Rabbi Yonah and Rabbi Yehudah explain a “test/challenge” as an opportunity for man to strengthen or demonstrate his latent virtues, whereas Rabbi Elazar provides a third metaphor—a farmer placing a yoke on a cow to plow his field. In order to achieve the desired result, he chooses the animal most suited for the task. God has lessons to teach humanity and entrusts this task to the most suited role models. The nature of the lesson of the Akeidah (the binding of Yitzchak) has been debated through the centuries but throughout the parsha a common theme prevails: one must be prepared to sacrifice everything—his past and his future, for his love and fear of God.
This lesson may be highlighted through the harsh terminology employed by the Rashbam who explains the word “nissa” (tested/challenged) through the juxtaposition of narratives. Witnessing Avraham’s remarkable success through the help of God, Avimelech requests an oath from Avraham to allow for his descendants to live in the southwestern region of the land. Avraham concedes to the oath and thereby names the region, “Be’er Shava,” the well of the oath. Immediately following this narrative, we are told that “God tested Avraham.”
The Rashbam explains that this test came as a punishment for Avraham for not demonstrating proper values: Avraham thought that the time had come to witness the fulfillment of the promises and covenants of land and children. After all, Yitzchak was promised as his progeny, and he was successful in the land, even seen as a future “landlord.” But God chose Avraham to demonstrate sacrifice, not complacency; God wanted to teach through Avraham and his descendants that the Land of Israel should not be taken for granted and easily negotiated for promises of peace. If so, one may have to pay the heavy price of child sacrifice, for the future of our children is also in the hands of God.
Following his willingness to sacrifice Yitzchak for fear of God, an angel reaffirmed the Divine promises of land and children through an unconditional oath, a “shevuah.” The Torah emphasizes that he returned to Be’er Shava, alluding to his change of heart and redefinition of the oath for which the area was named. Avraham returned to redefine the shevuah—not as the oath with Avimelech, but with an oath of God from Har HoMoriah reverberating in his consciousness.
Avraham will have a land and countless children. But they will not happen suddenly or easily, or without human effort. The Divine promises will demand commitment and sacrifice from Avraham and his descendants, to persevere with faith even in the most difficult of times. God’s promises and covenant challenge us to plow His field and write history together!
Rabbanit Shani Taragin is educational director of World Mizrachi and the director of the Mizrachi-TVA Lapidot Educators’ Program. She is a member of Mizrachi’s Speakers Bureau (www.mizrachi.org/speakers).