The Midrash (Tanchuma 22) describes the challenges Avraham and Yitzchok
faced as they journeyed towards Har Ha-moriah, upon which Avraham had been
instructed to slaughter Yitzchok:
Satan encountered Avraham as he was going, appearing as an old man. “Where
are you going?” he asked.
“To pray,” he told him.
“To pray? Does one going to pray need fire and a knife in his hands, and
firewood on his shoulders?”
“Perhaps we will stay there for a day or two. Thus, we will be able to
slaughter an animal, roast its meat, and eat it.”
“Old man,” Satan said, “do you not think I was there when He told you to
take your only son and slaughter him? Now, should an old man like you, who
was finally blessed with a son at the age of one-hundred, kill him? It’s
like someone who throws away what he has, and then goes asking others to
help him! Do you think you will have yet another son? You heard some
spirit tell you something, and you’re ready to slaughter your child?”
“It was not some spirit,” Avraham responded. “It was the Holy One, Blessed
is He. I have no interest in your words.”
Satan next showed up appearing as a young lad, and began walking next to
Yitzchok. “Where are you going?” he asked.
“To study Torah,” Yitzchok said.
“Alive... or dead?”
“Have you ever heard of a person studying after he’s dead?” Yitzchok said.
“Shameful one, son of the shameful—do you know how many days your mother
fasted that she should have a child? And now that old man has lost his
mind, and wants to slaughter you?”
“Don’t listen to him,” Avraham told Yitzchok, “he’s just trying to
distract us and tire us out.”
Satan then appeared as a huge river. Avraham entered the waters. First
they reached his knees. Then they were up to his neck. Avraham picked his
eyes up to the heavens, saying, “Master of the Universe, You chose me and
You revealed Yourself to me... You told me to bring Yitzchok as a
sacrifice, and I did not argue. Right now, I am on my way, but the waters
will drown me. If I drown, who will do Your command?”
Said the Almighty, “I promise you will do my command, and make My name
known among people.” Hashem roared at the river, and it dried out...
Clearly the three guises of the Satan are meant to represent three
difficulties Avraham had to undergo in order to fulfill the word of G-d.
Avraham’s experience as he makes his way to what he thought was the
slaughtering of his son serve as an example of absolute obedience and
unwavering faith in God despite the enormous difficulties and challenges
involved. The details of his journey are meant to shed light on
the “nisayon” (test) experience and provide us with guidance for
confronting our own “nisyonos.”
First he appears as an old man trying to dissuade Avraham from following
through. This encounter symbolizes the direct approach nisayon—the most
obvious attempt at preventing a mitzvah from happening. The arguments,
while somewhat logical, are easily recognized and easily refuted. “You
never heard it from Hashem... It’s not really a mitzvah...” To be sure,
it’s much easier for us to pick out the fallacy in his overtures than it
was for Avraham in the heat of an emotional, confusing and traumatic
experience. Satan’s head-on approach is not always obvious, often
difficult to spot, and can be subtle and carry countless nuances. But
ultimately, if we are willing to approach the nisayon with clarity and
conviction, we should (with Hashem’s help) be able to identify the voice
of dissention that does it’s best to turn mitzvos into sins, and sins into
Failing to stop Avraham, Satan turns to Yitzchok. Remember, this is
Avraham’s nisayon, not Yitzchok’s. Whatever attempts are being made to
dissuade Yitzchok are in truth indirect plays on Avraham. The second, more
subtle nisayon, is when the voice of dissention speaks not to us, but to
(and subsequently from) those dear to us. Their dissuasion is more
difficult to counteract. They mean well, and we don’t want to hurt them.
To put up a fight against an apparent enemy is one thing, but now we’re
being forced to defend against friendly fire. We fret over their approval,
worry about hurting them, and are easily dissuaded from following through
with what we started because of some simple (or complex) interaction with
others whose opinion means much to us.
Sometimes life graces us with the good fortune of seeing their seemingly
forceful objections disappear even more suddenly than they came, in a
flash of nonchalance, as if they never really meant to object in the first
place, and we feel foolish for having considered changing course to
satisfy what was ultimately no more than a weakly conceived and quickly
abandoned opposition. Other times it’s only in hindsight that we realize
that “doing our own thing” when we felt it was right wasn’t hurting
anyone; they might have even respected us more.
The final guise is the river. When all else fails, bog them down with
details. We’ve overcome our own doubts and shortcomings. We’ve thrown
social caution to the winds by ignoring what we felt were real issues that
others had. But there’s still the fine print; what some have called, “the
objective difficulties that block a person’s path.” At times, life throws
up what seem to be insurmountable logistical obstacles—a raging river. The
way across seems anything but apparent. We’re ready to throw up our arms
in defeat and say, “Oh well, you can’t say I didn’t try!” It’s the most
difficult nisayon of all, because of its subtlety. After all, there’s only
so much we can do, and we really did try, and it obviously just wasn’t
meant to be. It’s not for nothing they say “the devil’s in the details.”
Avraham, we can surmise, was tempted to say likewise; it was undoable, not
meant to be. He had no idea how he would traverse the raging waters. But
he knew that if he meant to reach Har Ha-moriyah, he had better find a
way. He jumped in, went as far as he humanly could, and then cried out to
Hashem; only then did the river dry up.