The word “test” causes a visceral reaction in us. Are we prepared? Will we pass or fail? How well will we do? So we can expect to have a visceral reaction to this morning’s Torah portion which begins, “And after these things, God tested Abraham…”
Are there any words in the Torah which have been studied, argued, defended, attacked, explicated, justified and agonized over more than those of Chapter 22 of the book of Genesis? The God that Abraham has worshipped and loved for decades, and who finally fulfilled his and Sarah’s desire for a son now tells Abraham to take that son to Mt. Moriah for a sacrificial offering. And without hesitation, Abraham complies. Is this a statement of Abraham’s faith or of his zealotry? When does enough become too much? Did Abraham pass God’s test, or did he fail it?
“And it came to pass, after these things…” What things? A Midrash says that God was bragging to Satan about his faithful Abraham. “Why shouldn’t he be faithful”, said Satan, “You have given him land and position and sons. Test him, and see if his faith holds.” “And after these things, God tested Abraham”. Another Midrash suggests that it was a conversation between Ishmael and Isaac that spurred the test. Ishmael says that, at the time of their circumcisions, Isaac was an infant, and could not choose to partake in the mitzvah, but Ishmael, being thirteen years old, was able to submit willingly. Isaac replies, “You are talking about one organ, one foreskin. If God wanted my whole body, I would gladly offer it.” “And after these things, God tested Abraham.” When dealing with God, perhaps it is best to be careful with one’s words.
Although we are told at the outset that God is testing Abraham, isn’t Isaac also being tested? By the time he asks his father where the lamb for the sacrifice is and receives Abraham’s cryptic reply, we can assume that he might suspect that he is the sacrifice, and yet he gives no complaint or struggle, neither on the way to the mountain, nor as Abraham builds the altar and binds Isaac to it. Abraham, too, seems unnaturally calm. The Zohar, a medieval mystical text, suggests that as Abraham built the altar, he had a vision of Jacob, Isaac’s son, and knew that, somehow, Isaac would live to fulfill God’s promise of a line of descendants. And the commentator Malbim reasons that Abraham was so closely spiritually connected to God that he sensed that this command, to sacrifice his son, was not truly God’s desire.
The denouement comes; Abraham’s hand is stopped at the last possible moment by the urgent voice of an angel. Isaac is released from the altar and a ram with its horns caught in a thicket becomes the sacrifice instead. God reiterates His blessing upon Abraham and his descendants and the whole thing is over. Or is it?
Everyone walks away from the binding of Isaac, but they each walk in different directions. Abraham goes back to his servants and on to Beersheva. We are not told what happens to Isaac, but it is clear that he did not go to Beersheva with his father and the others. One midrashic tradition has it that Abraham sent him to the school of Shem and Eber to study Torah. In any case, this episode is the last time that the Bible in which Abraham and Isaac exchange words. At the outset of the next chapter, we are informed of Sarah’s death, and Abraham must go to from Beersheva to Hebron, a considerable distance, which would seem to indicate that she and Abraham had not been living in the same place. And even though Abraham lives for some years longer, remarries and has several more children, the Bible records no further evidence that God and Abraham ever spoke to each other again. And every year, when we read this portion on Rosh Hashanah, I ask myself, “What can we gain from this story? What can it teach us about dealing with God and with humans? When we are facing a choice between what we want and what God is calling us to do, how can the story of the binding of Isaac give us any clarity?
I gained some guidance thinking, not about people, but in the way some gifted people train some very gifted animals – guide dogs for the blind. The dogs, of course, are taught to guide blind people to walk without human assistance to give them greater mobility and independence. They are taught to avoid obstacles and they are taught to follow the commands given them by their trainer and by the guide dog user. But they are also taught something that it is remarkable an animal can understand. They are taught intelligent disobedience. They are taught that, if they have been given a command to do something unsafe because their blind person could not see the danger, that they are to refuse to follow that command.
How might it have been if Abraham had responded to God in the language of intelligent disobedience? How would this story have worked out if he had said, “God, I know that You have given me everything that I have. I know that I owe everything to You. I know that parents sometimes see their children die and somehow survive it, but do not ask me to sacrifice my beloved Isaac by my own hand, even for Your sake. That is too much. It will cause irreparable harm to him, to me, to my wife and to my relationship with You.” What kind of a model would we have then? Would it be better to follow God’s perceived will to our own destruction, or to speak up and give the story a different ending?
There is no better or worse in this case. Each of us must act according to our own nature, in our own time and in our own culture. There are some tests that are neither passed nor failed. Some tests simply take the measure of who and what we are. Abraham was a man of perfect faith, and his decision to follow God’s will with a whole heart brought him whatever consequences it did. If I were faced with such a situation, I would want to take all my knowledge, my experience, my faith and my questions together and, if necessary, use intelligent disobedience.