Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 8 November 2014 / 15 Heshvan 5775

Parshat Vayera

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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The end of Parshat Vayera chronicles one of the most profound and difficult chapters in Jewish history, the Akeida (Binding of Yitzchak), Avraham’s attempted sacrifice of his son Yitzchak.

Abarbanel’s explanation of the Akeida is based on the principle that at no time did G-d intend that Avraham should actually slaughter his son. Rather, in order for the Jewish nation to be rooted as a unique nation dedicated to serving G-d, Avraham, as the founder of that nation had to demonstrate the ability of man’s unique “super-intellect” to conquer the seemingly logical demands and passions of man’s physical existence. The nature of man’s relationship with G-d depends on the role of this unique intellect in his life. Avraham’s willingness to sacrifice a physical body in service to G-d demonstrated that he had overcome the demands of physical existence. Only then would his progeny, the future Jewish nation, deserve to be subject to G-d’s unique Divine Providence. Thus, the reason for G-d’s command was not to “enlighten G-d”, elevate Avraham, serve as a test for Yitzchak or serve as an example to other nations — but rather for the good of the entire Jewish nation that would eventually emerge.

The Hebrew word “nisa” (“testing”) also means “banner” and “lifting up”. Through his willingness to sacrifice his son, Avraham became, as it were, a lofty banner announcing the ultimate dedication to serving G-d. Even though the event was not witnessed publicly, the testimony of the Torah should be understood as a declaration of the ultimate service of G-d, worthy of universal reverence, awe and admiration.

Even though G-d at no time intended for Avraham to kill Yitzchak, but rather only to demonstrate his willingness to do so, it is clear that Avraham intended to go through with the sacrifice. He carefully concealed his preparations and did them himself in order to demonstrate his zeal to fulfill what he perceived as G-d’s command, and to avoid undue attention which might dissuade or delay him from accomplishing his goal.

Abarbanel makes it clear that even when he was bound upon the altar Yitzchak had no idea that his father intended to sacrifice him. Yitzchak believed that he was to be a “virtual sacrifice” to serve as a symbol and example for his own future progeny. Yitzchak only recognized Avraham’s true intention when he stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay him. At this point Yitzchak is helpless and unable to escape. This is what is referred to in one of penitential prayers that we recite on every fast day when we refer to a list of events where G-d has answered our forefathers throughout history. We say there that “G-d answered Yitzchak on the altar”. This is a clear reference to Yitzchak’s imploring G-d to save his life.

Even though G-d at no time intended that Avraham actually slaughter his son, he did intend that Avraham think that was the case. Even though it never happened, G-d considered it as if it had, since Avraham fully intended to do so. A careful reading of the Hebrew text at the beginning of the narrative indicates that G-d spoke in an ambiguous manner, directing Avraham to bring Yitzchak to the top of the mountain in the same way that offerings are normally placed on the altar. It does not explicitly say that he was to sacrifice Yitzchak. This is, however, how Avraham interpreted the command.

In summary, carrying out the will of G-d takes precedence over all else. Avraham’s actions teach us that no matter how horrifying, irrational or puzzling are G-d’s commands, we cannot question G-d’s motives. Our fear of G-d must be so strong that it would be inconceivable not to do His bidding. After demonstrating his willingness to carry out G-d’s command one might think that G-d would have bestowed on Avraham additional blessings besides those already promised. In fact, it was the Akeida which was the final prerequisite to allow those blessings to be fulfilled.

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