30 Jan

Chapter 11: The Binding of Yitzhak

11.1 Lessons of Akedat Yitzhak

The episode that occurred on Mt. Moriya is called in the Jewish tradition Akedat Yitzhak, or The Binding of Isaac, and in the Christian (European) tradition, The Sacrifice of Isaac. The Christian approach focuses here on the intention of “bringing Isaac as a sacrifice” while the Jewish approach concentrates on what happened in reality—Isaac was bound but not sacrificed.

This incident is often interpreted as a glorification of Abraham’s greatness: God commanded him to sacrifice his son and he went to fulfill the order without having pity on his son. This analysis cannot be called erroneous but it definitely insufficient. It emphasizes Abraham’s obedience but first of all, obedience is not Abraham’s characteristic trait, and secondly, his obedience is not what is important in the Akeda story.

Looking through the prism of “forefathers in dynamics” in which the forefathers are seen as personalities going through an on-going dynamic process of development, the very question about the meaning of this episode must me formulated differently: How did Abraham advance during these events and a result of them? This approach sees the Akeda (binding) as a process of making contact and a correct interrelationship between Abraham’s hesed and Isaac’s gevura.

The Akeda is the last story in the Vayera portion. This section begins with an announcement to Abraham about the future birth of Isaac and ends with Abraham’s establishing a dialogue with Isaac. Thus the Vayera portion as a whole is deals with the conversion of “an Abraham only” system to “an Abraham+ his son Isaac” system which enables the future formation of the Jewish nation.

In Hebrew the word ben (son) is related to the verb boneh (to build). Through a son, a person’s future is built: his race, his endeavors, and even he himself only fully becomes himself after becoming conscious of his relationship with his son. Therefore, only after building a relationship with Isaac who epitomizes gevura, can Abraham finish the purification and formation of the hesed category.

11.2 Isaac or Ishmael?

(22) And He said: ‘Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.’

God emphasizes kah na (please take) i.e. God does not command but invites Abraham, otherwise it would not have been a test for Abraham.

The Midrash (Bereishit Raba 55:7) explains the following enumeration “Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac” not as God’s monologue but as a dialogue between God and Abraham. To God’s suggestion “take now thy son,” Abraham answers, “I have two sons: Isaac and Ishmael.” God specifies, “thine only son,” to which Abraham replies, “each one of them is an only son to his mother.” God specifies even more, “whom thou lovest,” Abraham: “I love both of them.” And only then does God say straight out, “Isaac.” God does not make His request immediately because Abraham needed to once more go through the steps of comprehending and accepting that his only successor is Isaac.

We remember that since Isaac’s birth there has been an ongoing dispute between Sarah and Abraham about which son is Abraham’s true son. On numerous occasions God shows Abraham that it is Isaac who is his real son: Ishmael is merely the son of a slave-woman who is also his descendent but not his “son.” A descendent inherits some characteristics of the father: he can even receive his father’s blessing, but he is not the continuator of his work. However, after Abraham seems to have accepted the interrelation between his children— all of a sudden the situation is reversed.

11.3 A Successor by choice. From a “Back to Back” Union to a “Face to Face” Union

During the Akeda, Abraham alters his attitude towards Isaac: at the beginning of the story he accepts Isaac as his successor only due to pressure from Above, but in the end Abraham has to recognize it himself, by his own choice. For this Abraham needs to be set free from the Divine decision that Isaac is the successor.

This type of spiritual mechanism the Kabbala calls nesira, translated literally as “sawing.” A classical example of this kind of sawing is the creation of Eve from Adam. Adam was dual—his male and female categories connected “back to back.” God severed a side (“a rib”) from him and used it to form a woman, after which Adam and Eve can reunite as two individual people, by their own choice, “face to face.”

While two people are connected “back to back,” by force, because they are related, they are incapable of seeing the other as a separate individual. For example, for a parent, a child is an integral part of them and therefore they cannot fully see him as a separate being. Therefore, a child cannot develop into an individual in his own right all the while he is associated with his parents—he can do so only after he gets married, “face to face” with another individual. In a similar fashion, for Adam to unite with Eve “face to face,” he first needed to sever the “back to back” connection, which is exactly what nesira (sawing) means.

Abraham was connected to the idea of Isaac as his successor with the “back to back” kind of unity. It was a forced upon succession, a decree without personal choice—God strictly instructed Abraham that no one besides Isaac is suited for this job. Clearly Abraham accepted this Divine command, but this compulsory union is imperfect while the continual development of a nation requires hesed and gevura to be united in a perfect bond. To attain this ideal unity, hesed must be shaped and constrained so that it will become proper and then this purified hesed can unite with gevura. But for a full-fledged bond between hesed and gevura to be formed, Abraham and Isaac need to build a relationship of two independent individuals. For this to happen, the “descended from Above” idea that Isaac is Abraham’s successor needs to be broken so that Abraham could come this realization on his own. This is precisely the idea behind Akedat Yitzhak. God purposely puts Abraham in a situation where everything seems set and it is clear who the successor is—and then everything again becomes unclear and vague.

11.4 Three potential successors

(2) And He said: ‘Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.’ (3) And Abraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son; and he cleaved the wood for the burnt-offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.

Abraham wakes up “early in the morning”—the time of hesed when God is ready to show additional mercy to the awakened world. Hoping for Divine hesed, Abraham starts his journey to find out who will eventually be his successor. Because the situation has once more become uncertain and could have any outcome, Abraham takes along two more youths in addition to Isaac. The Midrash claims they were Ishmael and Eliezer. (Note that the concept of “young men” also means “servant” and does not necessarily connote age, and could therefore refer to both Eliezer and Ishmael.)

11.5 A Three-day Journey—Abraham’s Conscious Decision

(4) On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.

The fact that Abraham walked for three days shows us that Abraham did not have to fulfill the Divine command while experiencing religious ecstasy, without having a chance to reflect about what he is about to do. Abraham had to walk for three days so that nothing would be left of religious ecstasy. During this time he had to recognize the crisis regarding the question of his successor. Only when Abraham judiciously and consciously confirms his readiness to fulfill God’s command is he able to see Mt. Moriya from afar. And this was an indication for him that the time had come to make a decision. When one understands just how severe a conflict is, one begins seeing the place where the conflict will be resolved.

11.6 Abraham selects Isaac

(5) And Abraham said unto his young men: ‘Abide ye here with the ass, and I and the lad will go yonder; and we will worship, and come back to you.’

Nothing held Abraham back from going along with his companions all the way to the top of the mountain. But when he sees “the place afar off” and feels that the time has come to make a decision, he makes an act of the utmost significance: He chooses Isaac and separates him from Ishmael and Eliezer. Earlier Isaac was forced upon Abraham as his successor. Now God opens the question of succession once more and Abraham, after pondering on the question for three days, makes his choice independently this time.

The act of separating Isaac of his own accord and understanding that he must go on with him alone and leave the others where they are is an extremely significant step in Abraham’s personal development. Only after this independent decision can Abraham and Isaac begin their dialogue. The Torah does not relate about any conversations Abraham had with Isaac while they were living in Beer Sheba. Apparently they did not have any conversations because Abraham was not ready to converse with Isaac. Only when Abraham designated Isaac of his own free will, did dialogue become possible.

By commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God separates Isaac from Abraham’s succession: he “saws” their connection. Now, when Abraham sets Isaac apart from the others through personal choice and not because of any other circumstances, he connects with him “face to face” instead of the previous “back to back” union. He comes to the realization that he has no other option besides Isaac. From this point on, Abraham walks with Isaac freely, consciously, and without coercion, although he does not know what is going to occur later. Abraham tells the youths they would “go yonder and we will worship, and come back to you” i.e. he hopes everything will end well. But in any case Ishmael and Eliezer cannot continue their trip with him.

11.7 “And they went both of them together”

(6) And Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife; and they went both of them together.

This is the first instance in which Abraham sees Isaac as “his son.” For this reason the Torah emphasizes that, “they went both of them together.” Previously they were distant from each other. In the beginning Abraham does everything himself: “saddled his ass,” “took the wood”—all are in the singular form. There is no dialogue with Isaac at this stage. Abraham was confused: he did not know who would be his successor and therefore did everything by himself. Now Abraham becomes close to Isaac—he hands the wood over to Isaac and leaves the donkey (as a symbol of materialism) at the bottom of the mountain. “Together” indicates that an authentic unity between Abraham and Isaac emerges; it arises because Abraham realized his choice.

11.8 Secondariness of Gevura in Relation to Hesed

(7) And Isaac spoke unto Abraham his father, and said: ‘My father.’ And he said: ‘Here am I, my son.

When Abraham and Isaac walk of their own accord, when they have united “face to face,” a dialogue is established between them, and this is the most significant moment in the Akeda episode. “My father” does not only connote that Isaac is addressing Abraham (the Torah would go out of its way to tell us this) but it means that Isaac now recognizes Abraham as his father.

Gevura, the category of Isaac, addresses hesed, the category of Abraham, and tells it that it accepts it as its “father” i.e. as its foundation. Gevura tells hesed that it does not render itself absolute, that it is secondary to hesed, only its derivation. The aim is not to realize justice, judgment, and law—they have no value in them of themselves. On the contrary: the aim is mercy and grace. Judgment and law are only supporting (although necessary) tools for a more comprehensive realization of hesed.

Isaac admits that all of his traits originate from Abraham and therefore he subjects himself to his father’s aspirations. This rectification of gevura is the paramount idea in the Akedat Yitzhak story.

The category of hesed is full-fledged, sense-bearing, and target-oriented. If you could make everyone happy, that would be wonderful. However, at some point it becomes apparent that making everyone happy is simply impossible if other sefirot-categories are missing. Yet hesed remains the main framework. The situation with gevura is completely different: Gevura is the desire for everything to be just and correct. If gevura decides that justice and law are the essence, the world will collapse. It is a great mistake to make one’s goal the attainment of justice. Further still, Kabbala teaches that evil comes into the world from the “absolutization” of the gevura category. Tearing away gevura from hesed is the source of evil because evil roots itself in the world when law, judgment, and order is applied too strictly. Everything that exists in this world is imperfect and, therefore, when the category of judgment is applied too strictly, the universe turns out to be guilty and accused, and therefore collapses. Hence, gevura cannot think of itself as a self-contained category, but only as secondary.

Upon seeing that Isaac-gevura accepts its subordination, Abraham-hesed says to him: “Here am I, my son” (the second “here I am” in this episode.) And these words are addressed not only to Isaac, but to God as well. Abraham recognizes Isaac as his son (previously only the Torah called Isaac Abraham’s son while Abraham referred to Ishmael when he said “my son” and not to Isaac). Hesed accepts that it too is not absolute and that gevura is essential for its existence. This is precisely the meaning of establishing contact, uniting “face to face”: when each side understands that the other is indispensible and when there is a desire to lead a dialogue with them. Each of life’s ideals taken separately presents only one side, while a complete realization requires the unification of ideals.

11.9 “G-d will provide”

(7)And he said: ‘Behold the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ (8)And Abraham said: ‘G-d will provide Himself the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So they went both of them together.

Isaac, as the epitome of the gevura category, wants everything to be right. Therefore when he sees wood and fire he asks about the lamb. In response he wants to hear how he can correct this incorrect situation. Hesed answers him: God will provide. By responding in this way, Abraham means to say to Isaac that from a logical point of view there is no answer to this valid question. By saying “God will provide” Abraham wants to convey to Isaac the idea that gevura should not try to be so right. In life, things often turn out unexpectedly and illogically because life is much more complex than any correctness and it does not fit into a formal scheme. It thus follows that the aim of Abraham’s words is not to calm Isaac but to alter his world view.

From this moment on Isaac walks together with Abraham. His gevura stopped being so rigid. He is ready to accept a world that appears to be illogical and imperfect.

“God will provide”: The Midrash connects the word ro’e (will provide) with yir’a (awe), from which the name Mt. Moriya gets its name. “God will provide” i.e. will find a way out of the contradiction. In a situation when hesed and gevura contradict each other, we need to try to find a way for both of them to be realized. But because we cannot unite them of our own accord, we hope for Divine aid—“that God will provide” by finding a way to unite both of these contradictory categories. For this reason Isaac and Abraham bond on their way to Mt. Moriya.

Mt. Moriya is “the mountain of provision” and “the mountain of awe.” The union of hesed and gevura is possible only if awe before the Almighty is present and at the same time if this union is “provided” by Him.

Integration of seemingly incompatible categories is possible only within the framework of solving the Divine problem that God “provided” for us. Only during the solution process you truly understand that you need the other person and that he completes you—just like you complete him. Then the union between hesed and gevura occurs not through compromise, not through diminishing one category on account of the other, but through recognition that both categories are essential for the Divine task.

The phrase “so they went both of them together” is repeated twice in this section. The first time Isaac and Abraham walked together in a physical sense: they separated themselves from Ishmael and Eliezer, and traveled with the comprehension that only they comprise the Jewish nation. Now they walk together in a spiritual sense with an understanding that they complete each other and can attain perfection only through an authentic unity.

11.10 Akeda–The Binding of Isaac

(9) And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built the altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood.

“Akeda” translated as “binding” is what needs to be done to gevura, the category of judgment. Gevura needs to be bound, dependent, and subservient to hesed—but it need not be eliminated. It would be a mistake to do away with gevura altogether.

11.11 Abraham responds to the Divine Calling

(10) And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. (11) And the angel of HaShem called unto him out of heaven, and said: ‘Abraham, Abraham.’ And he said: ‘Here am I.’

God calls on Abraham at the beginning of the Akeda: “Abraham” and he responds: “Behold, here am I.” Now God calls Abraham again (this time on a completely different level) and receives the same answer again. This is the third hineni in the Akeda story. In order to reach this new level in his interaction with God, Abraham had to answer “here am I” when addressed by Isaac. To advance in our interaction with God we need to advance in our interaction with other people.

11.12 A Binding, but not a Sacrifice

(12) And he said: ‘Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him;’

When Abraham binds Isaac, God lets Abraham know that it is sufficient just to bind, that the sacrifice is canceled, and that there is no need to eradicate gevura. Thus, Abraham’s binding of Isaac is not only a physical act or one that prepares him for bringing a sacrifice, but a form of dialogue, a way of making contact and interacting. And although Abraham clearly loved Isaac very much, a covert idea could have sneaked in that gevura should be eliminated for the sake of lofty perfection, so that the world would be left with only hesed. And perhaps for this reason (although following a Divine command) Abraham places Isaac on an altar, takes a knife and spreads his hand over him—and at this moment God stops Abraham because Abraham is not able to stop himself of his own accord. Moreover, “lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him” (22:12) means do not do gevura any harm.

Through the process of the Akedat Yitzhak both Abraham and Isaac go through an experience of personal development. Isaac agrees to be bound, and this means that gevura is prepared to limit itself and this is Isaac’s advancement. Hesed, on the other hand, stops itself before the bound gevura.

It should be noted that in Kabbalistic instructions for the attainment of the proper intentions during prayer (kavanot) it is written that when a person reads the Akedat Yitzhak in the morning prayers, he should think about the binding of the category of din—the prosecutors of Israel. We should not pray for their eradication but we ask God to prevent them from having the freedom to act.

11.13 God will provide

(12)…for now I know that thou art a God-fearing man, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me.’ (13) And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt-offering in the stead of his son. (14) And Abraham called the name of that place Adonai-jireh; as it is said to this day: ‘In the mount where HaShem is seen.’

“Behind him a ram”—not only in the sense of the physical location in relation to Abraham, but also in time: it was “prepared from the start.”

It seems Abraham has reached the pinnacle: first he saw the place from afar and then climbed the mountain. But it turns out that it is possible to go even further: “Abraham lifted up his eyes” (this is undoubtedly a continuation of verse 4: “On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off”). And when Abraham reaches this even higher level, it turns out that the seemingly hopeless situation has a solution—and then the ram appears.

Abraham names this place “God will provide,” using the same words he earlier said to Isaac. Understanding that “God will provide” is an expression of hope for synthesis, despite the fact that the contradictions remain for things which seem incompatible to humans can be united in Divine light. By calling the place God Will Provide, Abraham wants to convey his newly acquired understanding to the entire world.

It is on Mt. Moriya, on the Temple Mount, that the Jewish Temple must stand. This idea emphasizes the recognition that God will find solutions to problems which seem unsolvable to us. He will offer us solutions through a mutually reinforcing relationship with those who internally strive to reach the same goals, but whose external character is extremely different from ours.

11.14 Blessing to the Nations

(15) And the angel of HaShem called unto Abraham a second time out of heaven, (16) and said: ‘By Myself have I sworn, saith HaShem, because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, (17) that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; (18) and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast hearkened to My voice.’

The acquired recognition, expressed through naming of the mountain “God will provide” caused an increase in reward. For the second time an angel of God tells Abraham about the blessing all of humanity will receive through him: “And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” is an allusion to a verse at the beginning of the Lekh Lekha portion: “ in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). But here the attainment is secured: the nations of the world will be blessed through Abraham’s descendents because of his achievement, i.e. not only because he realized hesed, but because he understood the necessity of combining hesed and gevura. Because without the integration of hesed with gevura there will be nothing with which the nations of the world could be blessed. For Abraham the repetition of the universal blessing is a sign that although the following path lies through Isaac i.e. nationalism—universality will not be lost.

11.15 Beginning of Jacob’s birth

“Because thou hast hearkened to my voice”: the Hebrew word ekev (because) comes from the same root as the name Yaakov (Jacob). This indicates that because of the Akedat Yitzhak story and the unity of Abraham’s hesed and Isaac’s gevurah, Jacob, who will later add the tiferet category, can be born. Later the Torah will say about Jacob: Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents” (Genesis 25:27). “Tents” are in the plural to connote the tents of both Abraham and Isaac.

11.16 Abraham’s Return

(19) So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beer-sheba.

“So Abraham returned”—the verb is in the singular form because although physically both of them returned, mentally only Abraham returned. Isaac, who had attained the level of self-sacrifice, remained at this summit for the rest of his life. Everything he will do afterwards—eat, drink, farm, live with his wife—will be life from the perspective of Mt. Moriya. Isaac is a live person because sanctity according to Judaism is living life to its fullest. Nevertheless, he could not return to the other youths. Thus, on a metaphysical level, “the sacrifice of Isaac” did take place, although in reality it could not have happened under any circumstances because then it would have lost its meaning; since the meaning of the Akeda was to touch Heaven—to bring the Divine light down upon the earth.

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