A Response in the Whole Sense: Reflections on a New Plateau of Testing by Rabbi Isaac GottliebVolume 5 , Issue 1 (Sept, 1991 | Tishrei, 5752)
An old Jewish tradition prescribes the reading of Abraham's tenth and final trial on Mt. Moriah on the second day of Rosh Hashanna.
We cast our minds back to the familiar, dramatic story of how Abraham, the Father of the Jewish people, had bowed to the idealistic imperative from God to offer Isaac. It was the severest test that could have been devised for a father. We are overwhelmed by the fierce alacrity with which Abraham responds to the Divine command, regardless of the consequences to himself.
A question, inevitably, rises in the mind: Why did God need another trial to determine the dimensions of his devotion? Didn't Abraham poignantly demonstrate undeviating loyalty and endurance in the nine other instances?
Rashi supplies the answer. ?Withstand for my sake this test so that the people will not say, `the first trials did not have in them reality.'? Translated, the only true measure to show that your character did not lose its resolution of being a y'rai elokim, God‑fearer, will be your readiness to exercise the supreme challenge. More to the point, God will not be satisfied with less than your willingness to surrender your son, Isaac.
The Torah reports that God directed Abraham, Kach na, et bincho, yekhidko, asher ohavto, ?Take now thy son, thy only son, the one you love.?
We are left to ponder seriously. Why mention each detail in the command? Indeed, the greatest of our Biblical commentators, Rashi, informs us, ?And also to endear upon him the commandment and to give him a reward for each word.? I see in this meaningful verse much more. Notice well the specificity of this particular call. It provides much in the way of useful perspective and valuable insight into Jewish life.
Ultimately, as for the deeper meaning of it all, let us analyze each term. The word, bincho, thy son, clearly indicates a biological phenomenon. The term, yekhidko, they only son, is strikingly evident of the psychological effect; the word ohavto, the one you love, conveys the spiritual relationship between father and son.
The Torah asserts that Isaac was the son of Abraham. The rabbis in the Midrash, are quick to note a connection between b'no, his son, and bain, son. On the sentence, vayoled bain, ?he begot a son,? Rashi explains, ?For from him the world would be built.? (Gen. 5:28) To Abraham, on an intellectual and conscious level, Isaac represented the perpetuation of a generational and parental bond. He saw in Isaac a realization of history's destiny. We read: Avrohom holid es Yitzchock, Abraham begot Isaac. The birth of Isaac speaks of the affirmation of forging the unbreakable and seamless genetical relationship and biological continuity beyond Abraham. Isaac is part of the constitutive cement on which the whole binyan or structure rests. He, surely, faced an inescapable conclusion with far reaching implications. The promise, ?Thou shalt be a great nation,? will now be thwarted.
In sum, he resigned himself to an irreparable biological loss. More than this, the task becomes even greater. On the phrase, ?For in Isaac shall seed be called to thee,? the Midrash offers an incisive comment. ?For in Yishmoel, the seed shall not be called to thee.? To be called the son of Abraham, for that Yishmoel is not worthy.
The immortal Rabbi S.R. Hirsch significantly remarked, ?It is Isaac to whom the whole meaning of your life is attached.? To put it another way, he cannot be your spiritual heir. From this comment, we deduce that Abraham had one son, in the spiritual sense.
It is painful to speculate on his anxiety. From a psychological viewpoint, the call to yield Isaac must have been overpowering. What an emotional impact on the psyche of the father, the giving up of his spiritual successor. Abraham sees in this offering a void to remain unfulfilled. But he possessed the inner power, emotional strength and stability to adjust to this shattering, breaking and crushing challenge. He is able to stand up to the supreme trial by putting it into searing perspective. Only more so.
The test is broadened when God said: ?Whom thou livest, even Isaac.? Here the famed commentator, the Malbim, is very helpful. He points out that Abraham's profound love and strong passion for Isaac was of a spiritual nature. In his illuminating words: V'nafso k'shuro b'nafsho, ?there existed a genuine intertwining of souls.?
The statement of the sainted Orach Chayim can be profitably applied. He believes that the love and attachment that a parent feels for his child is on the deepest level.
In short, it suggests an utterly spiritual surrender and submission to God's will. In summary, this nisoyon, this test, in substance and significance, transcends the other tests. Simply stated, it is a new plateau and magnitude of testing.
Rabbi Isaac Gottlieb is the spiritual leader of Ohel Torah Synagogue, Riverdale, New York.