Rabbi Dov Zemel

Former Rosh Kollel in Atlanta 2002-2006
Currently Customer Service Manager at Vernet Technologies
and Rebbe at Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah

When It’s Appropriate to Question God

This week’s parsha concludes with one of the most dramatic episodes in the entire Torah, the Akeida. Avraham readily attempts to slaughter his beloved son Yitzchak. The Torah details Avraham’s great zealousness, informing us that Avraham awoke early and prepared his own donkey. At no point in this process does Avraham ask Hashem how he can be instructed to do such a heinous act.

Each year on Yom Kippur, and indeed, each morning during shacharit (following brachot), we remind Hashem of this wonderful display of devotion; Please Hashem, remember the tremendous devotion and obedience  displayed by Avraham. Please extend mercy to his children who fall short in their obedience to your Torah and have transgressed.

However, there is an exceedingly perplexing aspect to this episode. At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Hashem promised Avraham that he would be blessed with an additional son – this time from his wife Sarah. This son was to be the progenitor of the Chosen People. In this instance, Avraham’s response regarding Yishmael’s fate was much less passive and accepting. He asks why Yishmael could not assume that prestigious role: לו ישמעאל יחיה לפניך

Hashem denies Avraham’s request, although maintains that, due to Avraham’s request, Yishmael will also be the progenitor of a great nation, though he would not be the progenitor of the Chosen People. Why didn’t Avraham respond with at least as much protest when being told to slaughter Yitzchak, a far more detrimental fate?

Even more perplexing is the contrast between Avraham’s lengthy debate with Hashem on behalf of the people of Sodom and Avraham’s easy compliance to murder Yitzchak. Avraham seemingly displays great chutzpa in accusing Hashem of being unjust in his decision to destroy Sodom, stating: חלילה לך, השופט כל הארץ לא יעשה משפט?! “Heaven forbid… the Judge of the world wouldn’t act justly?!” How could the Source of justice eliminate a community only partially composed of pious individuals?

If Avraham is willing to fight for an evil community he believes may include only a few pious members, how much more so should he fight for an individual he knows to be one of the most pious individuals ever? Why would Avraham pray on behalf of strangers and not implore Hashem to spare his own flesh and blood?

In attempting to answer these questions, it’s instructive to review the reason Hashem provides for sharing with Avraham Sodom’s fate.

Oftentimes the Torah doesn’t explicitly present the reasoning behind Hashem’s actions. In this case, the Torah volunteers that Hashem reasoned that Avraham would become a great nation and the people in the land would be blessed due to him.

”כי ידעתיו למען אשר יצוה את בניו ואת ביתו אחריו ושמרו דרך ה’ לעשות צדקה ומשפט, למען הביא ה’ על אברהם את אשר דיבר עליו”.
“For I know about him (Avraham), in order for Avraham to instruct his children after him and guard the way of Hashem to implement righteousness and judgement, in order to generate for Avraham what was stated about him”.

The importance of including Avraham in this discussion has to do with the role his children are to play as those who embrace and proliferate righteousness and judgement, and the impact they are supposed to have on the other people in the land.

The role of Avraham’s children is not simply to follow the mitzvot. Hashem explains that they will need to actualize righteousness and justice. This can only be achieved once they possess the insight into what is righteous and what is just. Hashem wasn’t simply inviting Avraham into the discussion for Abraham’s entertainment or to receive Avraham’s input.

Hashem was providing Avraham an opportunity to increase and sharpen his understanding of true justice. The conclusions and insight Avraham would assimilate into his own thoughts and actions would be transmitted to his offspring who would continue along the same path.

So why didn’t Avraham utilize a seemingly similar opportunity to learn about true justice when Hashem instructed him to perform the seemingly unjust act of killing Yitzchak? Why in one instance does Avraham display such loyal obedience and in the other critical questioning?

This contradiction is not simply a question, but also the answer. The nature of our existence as being created in the image of Hashem, while at the same time being so far from Him demands this conflict. When we reflect upon who we are in relation to the Creator of the universe and the Omniscient One, we recognize that there is no way we can come close to grasping His understanding of justice. When Hashem tells us something is right or wrong, we have no right to question the verity of Hashem’s assertion.

On the other hand, we have a responsibility and purpose to act justly. This responsibility demands our studying and investigating those instances when Hashem’s behavior provides us insight to know how to act correctly. Assimilating that insight will allow us to act judiciously.

When Hashem instructs us to perform an action, we humbly know the act must be just and should be performed. It is also an opportunity to learn about justice -,נעשה ונשמע: We will act and we will listen.
Both activities are critical. We must obey Hashem’s instruction and listen to knowledge and wisdom offered with the instruction.

However, the prioritization of acting first and then studying is just as important. Questioning the appropriateness of the action before we perform it would imply skepticism. In contrast, performing the deed and then investigating, expresses the knowledge that Hashem is right, but we need to try and understand His justice.

When Hashem shared with Avraham his plan to destroy Sodom, Avraham was not instructed to act. His sole relationship to the fate of Sodom was to understand Hashem’s justice. However, when Avraham was provided the mitzvah to slaughter his son, he knew he first needed to act before trying to understand.

Throughout the ages, the Jewish people have been a model to the world on how to behave ethically and judiciously. We have done so by acting in accordance with the mitzvot, and learning the principles from those mitzvot how to act when no specific directive is provided.

May Hashem grant us the strength of character to, on the one hand lead the way and educate others, and on the other hand possess the humility to recognize the limit of our understanding and abilities.

Have a wonderful and meaningful Shabbat,
(Thank you Aba, Ima and Freddy for your invaluable input for this dvar Torah)