Monday, January 23, 2017

The Purpose of the Akeidah and Yitzchak's Role

This is the first in a series exploring different ideas in the Torah with  implications for Jewish History.

Binding over Sacrifice
       While studying the events of Akeidas Yitzchak,[1] the following questions can be discussed. First, this event is referred to throughout Chazal as Akeidas Yitzchak, “The Binding of Isaac.” While this is an important part of the story,[2] it was not the purpose if this nisayon. When Hashem commands Avraham to bring Yitzchak up as a sacrifice,[3] which he succeeds in doing, the fact that he bound Yitzchak up is just a detail, which while important, doesn’t seem to be a reason to call the event after it. As the main purpose was to consecrate Yitzchak as a sacrifice, perhaps a more fitting name would have been “Hakravas Yitzchak” “The Consecration of Yitzchak.”
The Exposure of Akeidas Yitzchak
       Secondly, Akeidas Yitzchak is discussed throughout Chazal as one of the most important events in Jewish History. Perhaps most importantly, we always mention it on Rosh Hashanah, while we are being judged, that the merit of Akeidas Yitzchak should allow the Jewish People to have a good year.[4] It is also commonly used as an example to the world, including the Jewish People how far Avraham was willing to go to serve Hashem. However, this doesn’t seem like an effective method. First, to advertise ourselves as a nation ready to sacrifice our children, particularly when we abhor human sacrifice, seems counterintuitive.[5] Furthermore, in a practical sense, the events of Bereishis, as they don’t teach us mitzvos or other laws, are told over in order to teach us life lessons. However, the story of the Akeidah is very difficult to relate to; in which case, what life lessons can we learn from it? The Akeidah does not seem to be a good example to use to represent our nation.     
        The Akeidah was a private matter. This idea is strengthened based on an explanation in Emek Davar on the words “Lech Lecha.”[6] In that instance, the phrase means that Avraham’s journey to Eretz Yisrael would be for his benefit; however, in other cases, this phrase means to keep the matter private. By the Akeidah, Hashem tells Avraham “Lech Lecha”,[7] meaning he shouldn’t tell anyone where’s he’s going or what he’s doing. It appears that the story of the Akeidah was not supposed to be publicized.
       This explanation is strengthened by the fact that Avraham went to perform the sacrifice alone with Yitzchak, leaving his two attendants at the bottom of the mountain;[8] also, while other nisyonos were extremely public affairs, by the Akeidah, Avraham did not tell anyone where he was going. That fact that it was written in the Torah doesn’t answer the question; the Torah records great acts of our ancestors, which certainly includes the Akeidah. Additionally, even though the story is known centuries later, consider the fact that no one living at that time ever heard the story!

Purpose of Nisyonos
       Misconception of nisyonos. In order to understand the Akeidah, we must first discuss what are nisyonos and their purpose.[9] The word “nisayon” is commonly explained as a test given by Hashem to humans. While this makes sense contextually, it doesn’t make sense from a Torah outlook. As He is all-knowing, Hashem knows whether a person will succeed or fail a nisayon, in which case, it’s not much of a test! If it is a test, it can only be considered a test from a human perspective.
       Pre-nisyonos. Every person has the ability to reach high levels of spirituality, however, these levels are not given to us freely and cannot be reached all at once; the potential for that spirituality lies dormant inside a person waiting to become active. In order to facilitate this change, Hashem presents a person with a nisayon, meaning a challenge or opportunity, which will present the person with the ability to access this spirituality. Once the person attains this spiritual ability, they can make it part of their everyday life, relating to the world on a higher spiritual plane than before. If they don’t, the potential remains dormant. However, this opportunity will only be presented to someone with the ability to appreciate and access it; otherwise, there would be no purpose in it. Ultimately, Hashem’s goal is to grant someone spirituality, not to see them fail. Below, this process is presented in greater detail.
       The nisayon process.[10] Before presenting a person with a nisayon, Hashem gives a person the ability to access some of their latent spirituality. For a time, a person is influenced by a higher level of spirituality (with no effort involved on his part) and can act accordingly. After a time, Hashem removes that level and returns the person to his original status, and then presents the person with a challenge that someone on the higher level of spirituality would be able to overcome. If the spiritual effect has taken ahold of that person, he will be able to access that level on his own and overcome the nisayon. If he ‘passes’, he is permanently granted that level of spirituality.
       If he is unable to overcome the challenge, he does not lose anything; he simply stays at the level of spirituality he was at before Hashem gave him anything extra. He has not done anything wrong, he simply is not ready to operate on a higher level of spirituality at the present time. Sooner or later, Hashem will present him with the opportunity to try again.  
       The choice is yours. The idea of a nisayon is also that the person has a choice whether or not to take the spiritual opportunity presented before him. Therefore, only righteous people are given nisyonos since the possibility exists that they will choose the spiritual option, while wicked people, who will surely decline, are not given such opportunities.[11] Nisyonos are ultimately for the good of the person who receives them, making them more of an opportunity than a test.
       A waving flag. Nisyonos are not only used to showcase to a person his own potential. The Hebrew word for nisayon is spelled “ניסיון”, with the root being “נס”, meaning banner. Hashem uses the nisayon as an opportunity to broadcast to the world[12] the greatness of those who serve Him. Achieving a nisayon shows this person to be a true Eved Hashem, and Hashem wants the world to recognize this person for who he is and Who the person is making this sacrifice for.[13] In this manner, a nisayon acts as a waving flag for all to notice.   
The Nisyonos of Avraham Avinu
Documented Trials
       While every person who has ever existed has been presented with nisyonos, the only definitively stated documented account of a specific nisayon given to an individual is by the Akeidah. Chazal learn that Avraham was presented with a total of ten nisyonos. The fact that they are definitively documented in the Torah means that there is a reason for this number of, and these particular scenarios being used as nisyonos.
       Furthermore, the only accounts we have in the Torah of Hashem speaking to Avraham are in connection to his nisyonos. After the Akeidah, his final nisayon, we have no other record of them speaking. It appears the sole purpose of Hashem’s conversing with Avraham was in order to give him these nisyonos; meaning that Avraham’s nisyonos were vital to his relationship with Hashem. Let’s examine the purpose and pattern of the Nisyonos of Avraham.
Founder Responsibilities
       As the founder of the Jewish People, Avraham had a responsibility to put his descendants in the best possible scenario to succeed.[14] To that end, he was given different nisyonos that were designed to provide a boon for the nation in the future in different aspects. Each nisayon built upon the previous one, and they all led up to the Akeidah; without having overcome the previous nine, Avraham could not have achieved the level required to be presented with the nisayon of the Akeidah.[15] Upon passing all ten of the nisyonos presented to him, Avraham gave Bnei Yisrael blessings and protection forever throughout time and space.
       Nisayon achievements. According to the Ramban, the nisyonos of Avraham granted Bnei Yisrael the following merits: that Avraham would have multitudes of descendants, that they would inherit the whole of Eretz Yisrael, they would be protected from their enemies, they would receive the Hashgachah Pratis of Hashem, they would always (eventually) defeat their enemies and inhabit Eretz Yisrael.[16] These merits were achieved in stages; after each nisayon a different aspect was unlocked and promised to the Jewish People.
The Akeidah
       With each of the nisyonos providing a different piece of the puzzle, the Akeidah provided the most important parts. By achieving the Akeidah, Avraham had completed his life mission of establishing the spiritual existence for his descendants. The medrash goes so far as to say that if Avraham had not achieved the Akeidah, he would have lost the merit for the other nine nisyonos as well.[17] According to the Ramban, the Akeidah guaranteed that the Jewish People would never be destroyed or completely defeated, and that there would eventually be a final geulah.[18] The promise was so strong, that even the sins of his children would not cancel it out.
       Additionally, we mentioned earlier that nisayon comes from the word “נס”, meaning “banner”, since the nisyonos act as a banner to the world showing the greatness of this person. As the only time the Torah uses the word nisayon and explicitly tells us that Avraham was being tested,[19] it was the Akeidah that acts as the banner for Avraham to show his greatness more than any other nisayon.[20] Clearly, it is a very important event in our history.
The Lesson of the Akeidah
       But beyond this, the actual Akeidah is an important idea to which we can relate. Non-Jews have several mitzvos that require them to respect Hashem and His authority over the world. However, only Jews have the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem, to sanctify Hashem’s name in this world. The basic obligation is to act as an ethical role model and a committed observer of the Torah, however, it also includes being ready to die for Hashem.
       This exclusive commandment is a great honor for the Jewish People! The only people you can ask to make extreme sacrifices are those who you feel extremely close to, usually a close family member. You do not ask an acquaintance, or even a good friend to sacrifice something that big for you. By giving only us this mitzvah to be moser nefesh al Kiddush Hashem, Hashem is showing us that there is no one closer to Him than us. [21] This mitzvah is very important to understanding the relationship between us and Hashem, and it is first given to us by Akeidas Yitzchak.
Akeidas Yitzchak
       Until now, we have discussed Avraham’s role in the Akeidah and its effect on history, but what about the other person involved in this act? What was Yitzchak’s role in the Akeidah?

The Akeidah Wasn’t About Yitzchak      
       The act of the Akeidah as a nisayon was designed specifically for Avraham. While Yitzchak’s participation in the Akeidah also resulted in merit for the future nation, in terms of the act itself, he was irrelevant.[22] Each of our Avos represented a different trait of Hashem. Yitzchak, represented the character trait of Din, Justice, so he had no qualms about being sacrificed for the sake of Hashem. If Hashem needed him to die, being that He is the ultimate judge, obviously it was the right thing to do. So the Akeidah wasn’t a nisayon for him like it was for Avraham, who represented kindness.[23] So why was Yitzchak selected to take part in the Akeidah? Why wasn’t a different candidate taken who would have related to the nisayon?
       Wish granted. The medrash describes a conversation that took place between Yitzchak and Yishmael, arguing who Hashem loved more. They went back and forth until Yishmael said that since he had volunteered to be circumcised when he could have refused, it outweighed Yitzchak’s forced circumcision, even though Yitzchak’s was done at the proper time (when he was eight days old). Since Yitzchak had no choice in the matter he couldn’t receive the same amount of credit. Sensing Yishmael had a good argument, Yitzchak declared that he was greater since Yishmael only gave up a few drops of blood, but if Hashem would ask him to spill all his blood, Yitzchak was ready and willing.[24] 
       Based on this, we can understand why Yitzchak was included in the Akeidah. The nisayon of the Akeidah was going to take place regardless of this conversation; however, the reason why Yitzchak was included was because he asked to be!
The Lasting Effect of Akeidas Yitzchak and Yitzchak’s Role
       We can now return to our original questions, specifically: 1) Why do we refer to the Akeidah as Akeidas Yitzchak, the Binding of Yitzchak? This was just a small detail within the larger event. Furthermore, the actual nisayon was not about Avraham binding Yitzchak, it was about bringing Yitzchak as a korban. 2) While the story of the Akeidah had far-reaching effects that pertain to us nowadays, it is also used to a certain degree to represent the Jewish People. This doesn’t seem like the best story to use, because of several factors that make it non-relatable, including human sacrifice! We also brought evidence from the Emek Davar that the actual story of the Akeidah was supposed to be a private affair; no one at that time heard the story. Even though it is written in the Torah, perhaps we aren’t meant to publicize the actual story, maybe we are just supposed to take the lessons from it and leave the rest alone?
Yitzchak’s Impact on the Nisayon of the Akeidah
       Mesiras Nefesh. The purpose of the Akeidah was to teach future generations of Bnei Yisrael about the mitzvah of dying for the sake of Hashem, a mitzvah given only to Jews because of our unique parent-child relationship with Hashem.[25] Even though Avraham was the one making the sacrifice, Yitzchak was the one actually fulfilling this mitzvah. Furthermore, the reason Yitzchak asked to be tied up was in order to prevent Avraham from having any obstacles in sacrificing him. Once he was bound, Yitzchak had no more opportunities to prevent himself from being killed. Therefore, the fact that Yitzchak was bound is the ultimate display of mesiras nefesh al Kiddush Hashem, making it an integral part of the Akeidah. In addition to this, the fact that Yitzchak volunteered for his role in the Akeidah makes it fitting to call the entire episode after him.[26]
Our Relationship to Akeidas Yitzchak
       The answer to the second question flows from the above answer, and enlightens us to Avraham’s role in the Akeidah. But first, we must understand that separate from any other ideas, it is important for us to learn about the trials of the great people of our nation. They act as banners both to the Jewish People as well as the rest of the world of the greatness of our ancestors.[27] It’s even more important for us to learn about the nisyonos of Avraham and the circumstances under which they were achieved, since each nisayon granted us an additional blessing from Hashem for physical and spiritual goodness.[28] This is especially true of the Akeidah since it was the most essential of all Avraham’s nisyonos.
       Meaningful death. Even nowadays, the concept of dying for a cause is still well-understood and admired. And for a parent, it’s even harder to sacrifice your child for a cause than it is to sacrifice yourself. This was the nisayon Hashem presented Avraham with. Avraham was ready to live and die for Hashem, we see that from previous nisyonos, the question was if Avraham was prepared to make an even bigger sacrifice; was he prepared to sacrifice his son for Hashem’s ‘cause’?
       Relevant details. The fact that the story of the Akeidah was not publicized at the time is because it was a nisayon that would only ever apply to the children of Avraham. Only the Jewish People are obligated to be moser nefesh, and over history, we have been asked to do that many times, including parents sacrificing their children. The first instance of this was by the Akeidah. Avraham went with Yitzchak alone, leaving Yishmael and Eliezer at the bottom of the mountain, because they had no connection to what was going to take place. In contrast, other people were directly involved in a number of other nisyonos, such as Lot by the nisayon of Sarah kidnapped by Paroh, and Yishmael himself was circumcised by the nisayon of Bris Milah. Those events were relevant to others and could therefore involve them.
       Based on this, the Akeidah becomes an excellent event to represent the Jewish People, as it shows how far we are willing to go for the ‘cause’ of Hashem. Furthermore, it is a story only relevant for us, and therefore, was kept strictly within the family of Avraham. 
Accepting the Will of Hashem
       Another possible answer to first question is as follows. Yitzchak asked to be bound in order that he should be executed without resisting, showing his utter acceptance of the will of Hashem.[29] Additionally, it is important to us that the Akeidah, and the other nisyonos as well, be something we can relate to. We can relate to the role of Yitzchak in the Akeidah story more than the role of Avraham. We can relate to being compliant, to accepting the will of Hashem, more than being the person who clearly knows the will of Hashem and executes it.[30] By highlighting Yitzchak’s role, we place our focus on this aspect.[31]

       It is because of these reasons that Akeidas Yitzchak takes such a central role in the Tefillos on Rosh Hashanah.[32] At our time of judgement, we ask Hashem to remember that show of faith from Avraham, who was ready to give up everything, and the willingness of Yitzchak, who accepted his role in the world, and declare that as their descendants, we have the will (and the obligation) to continue their tradition. There is no better way to represent the Jewish People than this story.
       Still, the story of the Akeidah can be a delicate episode for those new to Judaism. For those who do not understand the ‘cause’ of Hashem, it seems insane for Avraham to consider killing his son.[33] Perhaps the Akeidah can be used to explain the ramifications of being an eved Hashem. When discussing the role of a Jew, it is not simply about the service of Hashem, it’s about changing the world and accepting the responsibility to improve it. It’s about recognizing a cause that is real and right and ultimately leads to a close relationship with the Creator.

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[1] Found in Bereishis Chapter 22
[2] The act of binding is described in 22:9. Bereishis Rabba 56:8 explains the importance of this act. Yitzchak suggested he be bound in order that he not accidentally cause Avraham to give him a blemish which would have disqualified him from being a sacrifice.
[3] Bereishis 22:2
[4] See Tanchuma Vayeira 23 for a discussion of how this began
[5] Facing the criticism for this seemingly hypocritical act was part of the nisayon of Avraham
[6] Bereishis 12:1
[7] 22:2
[8] 22:5
[9] Unless otherwise noted, this section on nisyonos is based on the Ramban on Bereishis 22:1
[10] Based on Michtav M’Eliyahu II p.34
[11] It follows that if a wicked person is given a nisayon, then the potential for spirituality exists within him. If he is able to pass it, we hope the spark of goodness lit from this nisayon will be brought out and developed further.
[12] Including the celestial one
[13] Bereishis Rabba 55:1; Kli Yakar Bereishis 22:12
[14] Ramban Bereishis 12:6
[15] Emek Davar Bereishis 22:1
[16] Bereishis 12:6; 13:17; 15:1,6,18; 17:1; 22:16
[17] Bereishis Rabba 55:1-3
[18] Bereishis 22:16
[19] See Bereishis 22:1
[20] Emek Davar 22:1
[21] Ibid 22:17
[22] Ibid 22:1. He further explains that by participating in the Akeidah, Yitzchak established a connection between Korbanos and their ability to provide parnassah for Bnei Yisrael. This is a common theme found in the Emek Davar. See Bereishis 2:5 for more.
[23] Emes L’Yaakov Bereishis 27:12
[24] Bereishis Rabba 55:4
[25] Emek Davar Bereishis 22:17. While the non-Jews have a relationship with Hashem, it is nowhere near the same degree.
[26] Bereishis Rabba 55:4. Yitzchak did not help determine that the nisayon of the Akeidah would take place, but he did make sure he would be involved. And whether or not Yitzchak was supposed to be involved, the fact that he volunteered without knowledge of his role is a credit to him.
[27] Kli Yakar Bereishis 22:12
[28] Ramban 12:6
[29] This is even without mentioning the Emek Davar in 22:17
[30] Avraham was a Navi; he knew exactly what Hashem wanted from him because Hashem told him! We can’t know exactly what we’re supposed to do; instead, we follow the Torah and do our best to understand our roles.
[31] This answer can also be used to answer the second question
[32] See Yalkut Shimoni 101 on the Torah on the phrase “Avraham Avraham” for more on this
[33] See ibid on the phrase “Vayaa’kod es Yitzchak” for more