The Akeidah: Faith And Trust


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 5:52 p.m.
Torah: Genesis 18:1-22:24
Haftarah: II Kings 4:1-37
Havdalah: 6:51 p.m.

Editor’s Note: 5774 will be a special treat for online readers of “Sabbath Week.” The Jewish Week is thrilled to bring our weekly Torah commentary together with artist Archie Rand’s “Chapter Paintings:” one accompanies, illustrates and illuminates every Torah portion. The art will be available first on the Jewish Week’s homepage slide carousel, and then on our Arts page carousel… that is, until the next week, when the next portion, painting and dvar Torah take their turn. Read more about the artist and his work here.

A central motif of Judaism and certainly in the Rosh HaShanah liturgy is the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, which according to tradition took place on Rosh HaShanah.

The successful passing of this almost superhuman ordeal by Abraham resulted in God’s promise of the everlasting survival of the Jewish people, and the event to which we refer when we entreat the Almighty in times of our own tribulations.

Abraham at the time of the Akeidah was 137 years old, and had gone through many tests to prove to God and the world around him that he was a most devoted and loyal servant to the Almighty. Why was it necessary for Hashem to put his most faithful servant through such a trying test? Was there something in Abraham that was lacking which required him to go through this in order to perfect his virtually flawless character traits? The statement by God’s angel, after he calls to Abraham to desist from completing his son’s sacrifice, hints of a previous deficiency: “for now I know (yadati) that you are a God-fearing man” [Gen. 22:12]. Did God not know that Abraham feared and revered Him after being thrown into a burning furnace by King Nimrod and all the other trials?

Let us attempt to answer these questions by going back to last week’s parsha, Lech Lecha. Abraham tells God that he is despairing because he is childless. Abraham is taken outdoors and shown the heavens and told that his offspring will be as numerous as the stars. The narrative continues, “And he had faith in Hashem and attributed to him righteousness” [Gen. 15:6]. Hashem tells Abraham that He will give him the Land of Canaan as an inheritance. Abraham responds with the fateful words: “How will I know (bameh aida) that I will inherit it?” [Gen. 15:8]. What? Abraham, the supreme man of faith, dares to question the Almighty’s promise!

The commentators struggle with this question and are divided into two camps. The first camp defends Abraham and says that he didn’t doubt Hashem’s word but wanted to know by what merits his descendants would receive the inheritance, or he feared that they would sin and would lose this legacy.

But there is a second camp that roundly condemns Abraham for questioning the Lord’s promise. “How will I know…” is answered almost immediately [Gen. 15:13] by “You will assuredly know (yodoa tayda) that your offspring will be strangers in a strange land and will be enslaved and oppressed for 400 years.” The Talmud [Nedarim 32A] says Abraham was punished by the Egyptian exile and slavery.

I would like to offer an alternative perspective. Abraham was the consummate man of faith — emunah permeated his soul. But with those fateful words, “How will I know (aida) that I will inherit it?” he displayed a lack of trust (bitachon) in Divine Providence. When Hashem heard those words, He said, if we may presume, “this wonderful man, whom I have chosen to be the father of my Chosen People, needs one more test, but only after he comes to develop the bitachon in Me, as well as in his own offspring whom he fears will sin and cause their own disinheritance.”

Sixty-two years go by, and bitachon is now as much a part of Father Abraham as is his emunah in Hashem. The three-day journey with Isaac to the Akeidah moves along without hesitation. Abraham has total trust in God that the final outcome will be for the good. As he lifts the razor-sharp knife to his son’s outstretched neck he never loses that trust and, of course, he is stopped at the last moment by the angel’s words.

The connecting strand to this interpretation manifests itself in the verb “la’daat,” to know. Abraham questions the Almighty “bameh aydah,” which results in the foretelling of the Egyptian exile, “yodoa tayda,” and he is finally absolved after the Akeidah when the angel proclaims, “Ata Yadati…,” “for now I know that you are a God-fearing man.”

The Akeidah was a manifestation of the principle of Mida K’neged Mida (measure for measure). There were three parties who demonstrated an important characteristic at the Akeidah: Abraham, who needed to develop trust in God,

demonstrated it to an unparalleled degree. Isaac (representing Abraham’s descendants who Abraham earlier doubted would merit the inheritance of the land) was shown to be worthy of his father’s trust as well as demonstrating his own trust in the Almighty, when he unflinchingly offered himself in sacrifice. And finally, God, who had previously promised Abraham that only through Isaac would He fulfill His covenant, came through and fulfilled that promise.

A ram whose horns were caught in the thicket near this holy place was offered up in sacrifice in lieu of Isaac. The Midrash tells us of the destiny of its two horns. The left one became the shofar that was sounded on Mount Sinai. The right one even greater than the left, is the shofar to be sounded at the ingathering of the exiles in Messianic times. May that come speedily and in our days.

Fred Ehrman is an investment adviser in New York. He has held leadership positions in various Jewish organizations, and is in his fourth cycle of Daf Yomi, the daily-page study of the Talmud.