In this week’s Torah portion, we read about God’s tenth and last trial of Avraham, the binding of Yitzchak. Avraham is commanded to sacrifice his son, his beloved son Yitzchak. Avraham does not complain. He does not negotiate with God, as he had on other occasions. It seems that Avraham senses that this is something that he must do.
What was the purpose of the test? Numerous scholars over countless generations, Jewish and non-Jewish alike have studied this text and attempted to penetrate the lesson of the passage. Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, in his book “The Fear and Trembling”, labels the act a “leap of faith,” a term which has entered the lexicon of virtually all contemporary religious thinkers. But it is interesting that in Jewish sources, Avraham is not described as one who excelled in faith per se, as much as he is described as the one who loved God. The Zohar states that Avraham is said to have loved God because he loved righteousness; this was Avraham’s love of God in which he excelled over all of his contemporaries. Based on this, we should label Avraham’s action as a “leap of love” rather than a “leap of faith”. His love of God allowed Avraham to respond willingly when called upon to sacrifice his own son.
If he could do it so willingly, what then was the test, what then was the challenge? Midrashic and Kabbalistic sources describe Avraham as the individual who excelled at the trait of kindness; he was a giving person. Avraham, in his understanding of monotheism, knew that God has no needs, God is all-powerful, there was nothing that he could give God and do for God. Avraham tried to impress upon his pagan neighbours that God does not need their sacrifices, does not need anything. All that man can do is to try to be like God. Therefore, just as God had created the world through incredible kindness and love, kindness was Avraham’s credo. Now, God was calling upon Avraham to go against the very basis of his life’s mission.
Viktor Frankel, in his classic work “Man’s Search for Meaning”, describes the need for meaning as one of the most profound needs within the hierarchy of human existence. What God was asking of Avraham was not merely to sacrifice his son Isaac, but to sacrifice his own life’s meaning. God asked Avraham to perform the act that is the very antithesis of kindness, to kill his son. With one blow of the sword Avraham would be conceding to all his pagan neighbours that his mission had come to an end, and that instead of inspiring them to embrace his world-view, he was throwing in the towel and accepting their twisted rites and rituals. His life’s meaning would perish along with Isaac.
Only when we understand that the greatness of Avraham was his kindness, are we able to appreciate the significance of this test. The first step toward religious development is taking one’s capabilities, one’s natural gifts, and utilizing them for a divine mission. What God wanted Avraham to gain from this challenge was the appreciation that man can go beyond his natural tendencies and skills. Therefore, God calls upon Avraham to perform an act that is antithetical ‘ the complete opposite ‘ of his natural instinct.
Avraham’s tenth test, therefore, is to relate to God in a manner in which he was unaccustomed, to excel in a type of worship that was contrary to his instinct. Greatness, then, is not merely using your skills in the service of God, but developing new skills for the service of God. This test was not for God’s benefit, the All-Knowing One knew Avraham’s potential. This test was for the benefit of Avraham, to elevate him to a level that he could not previously have imagined.