Sacrifice of Isaac

by Rabbi Herczeg

``And it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham and said to him, `Abraham,' and he replied, `Here I am.' '' -- Genesis 22:1.
The Hebrew word Scripture uses for ``things,'' XXdevarimVV, also means ``words.'' The foremost of Biblical commentators, Rashi, cites two midrashim which see this word as alluding to a dialogue which took place before the test.

``There are those among our Rabbis who say this means, `after the words' of the Satan, who was accusing Abraham. `Out of the entire banquet that Abraham made when Isaac was weaned,' he told God, `he did not offer to You even one bull or one ram.' God said to him, `Did he make that banquet for any reason at all other than for his son? If I were to tell him to sacrifice his son to me, he would not refuse.' But there are those among our Rabbis who say that this means, `after the words' of Ishmael, who would boast to Isaac that he underwent circumcision at the age of thirteen, and did not object, whereas Isaac was only eight days old when he was circumcised and could have no say in the matter. `Are you trying to intimidate me by boasting of what you did with one organ?' said Isaac. `If the Holy One, Blessed is He, were to tell me to sacrifice myself for Him, I would not refuse.' ''

The first interpretation says that the dialogue to which the verse alludes involved an accusation by Satan against Abraham. Abraham was not sufficiently appreciative of God, he claimed. God responded by putting Abraham to the test, asking him to give up that which was most precious to him for His sake.

But according to the second interpretation, the verse alludes to a dialogue between Isaac and Ishmael. Ishmael implies that Isaac is less devoted to God than he, and Isaac argues that this is not so. According to this, why is Abraham put to the test? Why should Isaac's claim lead to such awesome consequences for his father? Moreover, why does Scripture say only that ``God tested Abraham''? Wasn't Isaac put to a test, as well?

There are two words for ``testing'' in the Hebrew of the Bible. Both appear in Psalms 26:2, ``Try me, Lord, and put me to the test.'' Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim, in his comments to that verse, explains the difference between the two words. The first, from the Hebrew root XXbet, chet, nun,VV denotes testing to see if something or someone is maintaining expected standards, much like tests administered to students in school. The second, from the root XXnun, samach, hei,VV denotes experimenting, pushing an entity beyond its present limits to see how much it can bear. A person who undergoes a test of this sort might succeed or fail, but one thing is certain -- he emerges changed. He might come out shattered, or he might rise to new heights, but he will not be the same as he was before. It is this word for testing which Scripture uses with reference to Abraham.

``He who is righteous walks in perfect faith; fortunate are his children who follow him'' (Proverbs 20:7). Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin writes of one of the lessons of this verse. A righteous person must work hard at developing noble character traits and constructive habits. But his children who follow him are fortunate, in that these qualities become natural to them. They can attain them with far less effort than their parent, who paved the way for them.

According to tradition, the Binding of Isaac was the tenth and last of Abraham's trials. Self-sacrifice was the theme of a number of these trials. Among them are 1) Abraham's persecution at the hands of Nimrod, who wished to execute him for worshiping none but the One God, 2) God's command that he leave his birthplace for an unknown land, 3) God's command that he circumcise himself at the age of ninety-nine.

Isaac responded to Ishmael's boast by saying, ``If the Holy One, Blessed is He, were to tell me to sacrifice myself for Him, I would not refuse.'' Isaac's response came naturally, and was said with utter sincerity. It was clear that self-sacrifice for the sake of God was second nature to him. The agonizing decisions Abraham had to make in the past had become the natural and eternal legacy of his offspring. The earlier trials were successful. It was time to push Abraham to greater heights. ``And it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham.''

Rabbi Herczeg resides in Jerusalem, and is the author of the new Artscroll translation of Rashi's commentary to the Pentateuch.

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