Toward the end of this week’s Torah portion, we read the dramatic story of
Akeidat Yitzhak (the Binding of Isaac). It is a story with a message that became
one of the central stories accompanying the Jewish nation throughout its
thousands of years of existence. It is a story of ultra-human
G-d commands Avraham Avinu to slaughter his son Yitzhak. No
less! The story may sound enraging. For a father to slaughter his son is the
greatest cruelty imaginable; especially when it is a son born to Avraham and
Sarah in their old age, after decades of waiting.
But we must read the
story to its end and discover that indeed G-d did not want Avraham to slaughter
Yitzhak. And at the last moment, after the knife was already brandished in the
air, G-d instructed Avraham to stop and avoid this appalling deed. G-d, as
opposed to other gods that people believed in in the past, is not interested in
any way in human sacrifices. G-d, who is the source of endless good, perfection
and grace, expresses clear-cut objection to the heinous and cruel act of killing
Why, if so, does G-d initially instruct Avraham to slaughter
Yitzhak? The Torah provides us with the answer to this in the verse which opens
the story: “And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham.”
(Genesis 22, 1) It was a test and nothing more.
But now another question
perturbs us: Why did G-d test Avraham? Does G-d not know ahead of time what
Avraham’s reaction will be to His instruction? Is there anything which G-d does
not know in advance? This question is not only asked about the story of Akeidat
Yitzhak. G-d tests us as well in different ways. We are occasionally confronted
with various unforeseen and undesired events and we ask ourselves: Why is G-d
doing this to us? And the answer is: It is a test. G-d is testing us to see if
we will react correctly; if we will maintain calm even when things do not turn
out as we would like; if we will stand on our moral principles even when reality
makes this difficult for us.
And again we ask: Why does G-d test us? He
undoubtedly knows ahead of time how we are going to react.
Many of our
sages dealt with this question, and we will look at the answer of the Ramban
(Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, of the great Spanish sages of the 13th century) who
wrote: The Tester, blessed be He, will command to take the thing from potential
to the actual, so he will have a reward for a good deed, not only a good-heart
reward... and so all the tests in the Torah are for the good of the one being
tested. (Ramban on the Torah, Genesis 22, 1) What good comes to man when he
takes his deeds from “potential” to “actual”? Nowadays, it is very common for
people to exercise for enjoyment – working out, lifting weights, running great
distances, etc... If we look at this, we discover something which makes us
wonder. The harder the man works, the greater his abilities become. It would be
reasonable to think that the greater the effort, the weaker the man would,
become since he is “wasting” his strengths. The explanation for this phenomenon
is that man’s muscles are made in such a way that if man exercises and uses
them, they become stronger and able to deal with greater effort.
like his body, so are man’s emotional strengths. Man sometimes feels like there
are things he cannot do. Someone makes us angry and we think to ourselves, “I
cannot be silent about something like this.” But the truth is that if we succeed
in this test and overcome our natural tendency to react, the next time something
like this happens, it will be easier for us to restrain ourselves.
more a man acts in a desirable way, the easier it is for him to do
Now we understand why G-d tested Avraham and why He tests people.
After Avraham succeeded in this test, his emotional powers are strengthened and
he becomes a better person.
When we succeed in a test we encounter, our
personality is strengthened and the better parts of us overcome our negative
tendencies. Because of the test, we take our abilities from the potential to the
actual and strengthen them. Thus, G-d “exercises” our personalities, our inner
emotional strengths, and we become better people who can make the world a better
place for all those who live in it.
The writer is rabbi of the Western
Wall and Holy Sites.