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Jewish World Review
Nov. 14, 2003
/19 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764
Making sense of a father's ultimate test
By Rabbi Hillel Goldberg
The twenty-second chapter of Genesis, "the binding of Isaac," which is read publicly this Sabbath, is printed in the daily prayer book after the introductory morning blessings. I would venture to say that not one in 50 people who come to the synagogue each morning recite this. Rightly or wrongly, parts of the introductory service are dispensed with by many daily shul-goers. Certainly, the schedule of the morning prayers in many synagogues does not allow time for the recitation of all of the introductory parts of the service.
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I like to get to the synagogue about a half hour early to recite "the binding of Isaac" and the passages about the Temple sacrifices that follow. In particular, I like to concentrate on Genesis 22, probably the most difficult passage in all of Scripture. A father is asked by G-d to kill his son! I like to read the verses very slowly, absorbing and looking for solecisms, links, meanings and questions that only a very deliberate reading would reveal. I shun commentaries; I want the special holiness and force of the High Holidays to heighten my insight. I force myself to probe and scrutinize as much as I am able.
Each year, I wish to read the passage as if for the first time, not letting previous understandings, whether my own or those of others, filter the absorption of the pure, powerful words.
Over the years, I have developed four separate insights into this dramatic and ramified passage. One concerns free will; I published this as "Foreknowledge and Free Will" in Tradition (Winter, 2000). Another concerns the impossibility of total communication of personal experience the ultimate impenetrability of the human being. A third concerns the centrality of Isaac to martyrdom in Jewish history. The fourth one follows.
According to the sages' classification of the Abrahamic passages in Genesis, Abraham underwent 10 trials or tests (Ethics of the Fathers 5:3). Rashi, the foremost commentator, and Nachmanides do not agree on the exact listing, but all agree that the tenth trial was recorded in the last chapter in this week's Torah portion, "the binding of Isaac." Perhaps this is because the opening verse of Genesis 22 calls this a trial or test. "And it happened after these things that G-d tested Abraham and said to him, 'Abraham,' and he replied, 'Here I am'" (22:1).
What, precisely, was Abraham's test, in its fullest sense? Without knowing this, "the binding of Isaac" has no meaning for us besides inspiration. If the only message here is that Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son, then the passage says little to us. G-d will not issue another command to bring a child to the altar, to bind him on it, and then to slaughter and burn. Abraham's experience was unique (not to mention the explicit prohibitions against murder and child sacrifice in other parts of the Torah).
So how does the passage speak to us? If the point is to inspire us with Abraham's perfect faith, well and good, but is that all? Is there another lesson that does speak to our lives? By identifying precisely when Abraham's trial began, we access that lesson.
As one reads the opening verses of the chapter, they do not immediately convey any sense of trial. In the case of Isaac, the reader is many verses into the story before one is told that Isaac realizes what his trek to Mount Moriah is for. Even in the case of Abraham, the opening verse, in which G-d does nothing more than summon Abraham, gives no clue.
The first half of the next verse tells Abraham to take his son to the land of Moriah; only in the second half of the verse is it revealed to Abraham to "bring him up there as an offering upon one of the mountains which I shall tell you."
A famous rabbinic commentary on the first half of the verse is this: G-d to Abraham: "Please take your son" (Abraham to G-d: I have two sons, which one?) "your only one" (Abraham: this one, Ishmael, is an only son to his mother Hagar, and that one, Isaac, is an only one to his mother Sarah) "whom you love" (Abraham: I love them both!) "Isaac." Even under this dialogue, all that Abraham knows is that he is to take Isaac. For what? No reason is yet given.
This problem here is this: The entire Scriptural passage, "the binding of Isaac," is regarded as conveying Abraham's test. But no test seems to begin until after two conversations between G-d and Abraham. The passage opens, "G-d tested Abraham," yet no test follows, just G-d's address to Abraham (to which Abraham replies "Here I am"), and then G-d's gradual identification of the son whom Abraham is to "take." Only retrospectively, only after learning of G-d's ultimate command to kill Isaac, could one read any tension or test back into these preliminary conversations. When they happen, they do not seem to constitute any test. Why, then, is the entire passage, including these two conversations, called a test?
I would answer: Whenever G-d speaks to a human being (". . . and He said, 'Abraham'"), even if G-d articulates nothing but the person's own name, it is a test. Nay, a supreme test.
By itself, the Divine address to humanity elevates human existence. Even if that address has no content except the person's name, the person is transformed. The sheer breakthrough G-d's communication with man changes him forever. Life under the gaze of G-d is life under the scrutiny of ethics and morality and spirituality, of challenge and pressure to live up to the holiness that G-d's presence entails. Abraham's test began with G-d's address to him, for under the gaze of G-d a person cannot kill or harm or cheat. Without G-d, there is only rapaciousness and cruelty. Without G-d, there is only Stalin's "the death of one person is a tragedy, the death of of one million people is a statistic."
The last chapter of this week's Torah portion, "the binding of Isaac," speaks to every Jew and, for that matter, to every person who accepts Hebrew Scripture. We are all tested each day; G-d addresses each one of us in our own say, continually. Not to mention, each command in the Torah is a direct address to each Jew.
No address or command from G-d is to be routine; each reveals us standing on the edge over the abyss the sheer inhumanity that is our lot if we do not hear the address of G-d. Each word of G-d, even if only or perhaps especially our own name, is a challenge by G-d to rise to a greater spiritual height.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Hillel Goldberg is executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News. To comment, please click here.
© 2003, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg