Cries from Heaven: Avraham Succeeded at the Akeidah!
The binding of Yitzchak is one of the most perplexing theological episodes of the entire Torah. For some, its messages are vexing, for others, inspiring, and for most, a mixture of both. Jew and non-Jew alike opined and contemplated this most incredible story.
While the rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash also struggled with the Akeidah, the traditional point of view, as supported by the text, enshrines this incredible episode as a test of devotion, one in which Avraham succeeded. The Torah clearly tells us this. I never understood those who ask if Avraham succeeded, or, those who suggest, Heaven forbid, that he failed.
"ויקרא מלאך ה' מן השמים ויאמר אברהם אברהם ויאמר הנני. ויאמר אל תשלך ידך אל הנער ואל תעש לו מאומה כי עתה ידעתי כי ירא אלקים אתה ולא חשכת את בנך את יחידך ממני... ויקרא מלאך ה' אל אברהם שנית מן השמים. ויאמר בי נשבעתי נאם ה' כי יען אשר עשית את הדבר הזה ולא חשכת את בנך את יחידך. כי ברך אברכך והרבה ארבה את זרעך ככוכבי השמים וכחול אשר על שפת הים וירש זרעך את שער אויביו. והתברכו בזרעך כל גיי הארץ עקב אשר שמעת בקולי." (בראשית כ"ב:י"א-י"ב, ט"ו-י"ח)
“An Angel of HASHEM called to him from heaven, and said, “Avraham! Avraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am’ And he said, ‘Do not send forth your hand at the lad nor do anything to him for now I know that you are God-fearing, and you, have not withheld your son, your only one, from Me...The angel of HASHEM called to Avraham a second time from heaven. And he said, ‘By myself I swear – the word of HASHEM – that because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only one, that I shall surely bless you and surely increase your offspring like the stars of the heavens and like the sand on the seashore; and your offspring shall inherit the gate of its enemy. And all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your offspring, because you have listened to My voice.” (Bereshis 22:11-12, 15-18).
Modern sensibility can challenge the concept of Divine devotion, but the Torah explicitly mention multiple times that Avraham succeeded, passed the test (it was a test see verse 1) and received an abundance of blessing as a consequence of his passing this test.
These verses, which confirm the fact that Avraham passed this incredible test with flying colors, also pose some textual questions. First, why is the angel’s location identified? Why do we need to know that the angel who called off the test and informed Avraham that he passed is in heaven? Second, Yitzchak is not only identified as Avraham’s son, but his ‘only son.’ Rashi (verse 1) citing the famous Midrash, explains why the first verse introducing the ‘test’ was seemingly redundant, i.e. “Take your son, your only son, the one whom you love…Yitzchak”… When Hashem said take your son, suggests the Midrash, Avraham protested that he had two sons. Avraham responded to “Your only son” by claiming that they are both unique to their mothers. He then stated that he loved both his sons. Only when Yitzchak is named did Avraham truly understand which son was to go with him. Rashi also notes that the redundancy was to give Avraham some time to understand what he was being asked, not to jump in too quickly to such a shocking reality.
Third, the same term “Hineini” which is always identified with obedience and reverence is used both to initiate and end the trial.
Addressing these questions in reverse order, we learn great lessons pointing to Avraham’s success in this ultimate test. Avraham’s faith was perfect both before and after this impossible examination of allegiance. Rabbeinu Nissim (Drashos, #6) writes that if Avraham resisted the impossible test of the Akeidah, he would not have been punished. No one can be expected to pass such a test. The whole test, according to Rabbeinu Nissim was to see if Avraham could resist the urge to protest, which is recorded in the parsha prior to the destruction of S’dom. Avraham passed this final incredible trial because he did not resist, claims the Ra”N. This obviously counters those who claim that Avraham failed because he should have protested.
Immediately after the Akeidah, Yitzchak is identified unambiguously as Avraham’s unique son. Remember that Yitzchak was tested as well. While I’m not addressing the need for the test (that is outside the purview of what I’m writing here), clearly Avraham is promised great offspring through Yitzchak. This does elevate Yitzchak to a unique state.
I found most perplexing the need for the Torah to identify the angels as calling from heaven. Aside from the two references in the Akeidah narrative (verses 11 and 15) the only other time in Tanach that we find an angel calls out from heaven emerges from the chapter prior to the Akeidah.
"וישמע אלקים את קול הנער ויקרא מלאך אלקים אל הגר מן השמים ויאמר לה מה לך הגר אל תיראי כי שמע אלקים אל קול הנער באשר הוא שם" (בראשית כ"א:י"ז)
“God heard the voice of the youth, and an angel of God called to Hagar from the heavens and said to her, ‘What troubles you Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the youth as he is, there.” (Bereshis 21:17).
The Divine appellation regarding Hagar and Yishmael, Elokim, is identified with God’s attribute of justice. When the angel calls to Avraham not to harm his son, he is identified as an angel of God, using the attribute of mercy. When the test began, God was identified as Elokim.
Regarding the communication with Hagar, the angel attributed the reason for the communication because of the entreaties of Yishmael (not Hagar). Regarding the call to Avraham, the reason was “now I know you are God fearing.”
Midrash Y’fei Toar (338) claims that the angel called Avraham twice because he needed to get his attention immediately. The Midrash describes almost a panic in heaven to get Avraham’s attention. The angels were clearly in heaven observing this incredible site. It was so critical to alert Avraham, there was no time to travel down and tell him. They needed to scream it from their location.
What then was the emergency regarding Hagar? Maybe we are to learn that once Hashem heard Yishmael’s prayers and decided to heal Yishmael, there was a need for immediacy to inform his mother that Yishmael would survive. The Midrash relates that Sarah died of a broken heart when she was informed (by Satan) that her son survived but almost died. Other midrashim discusses the debates among the tribes how to inform Yaakov that his son Yosef was still alive and had been elevated to viceroy of Egypt. Perhaps God teaches us to care so much for each person that removing the doubt in hear heart about her son’s survival was as critical as telling Avraham, knife in hand, not to slaughter his son.
All three references of angels calling to humans from heaven are included in the Torah reading of both days of Rosh Hashanah, our day of judgment. Perhaps this is meant to teach us that at these important moments, especially the tests of Avraham, angels could not intervene. They needed to distance themselves. Their supernatural abilities could give an advantage to mortals. It makes sense that they needed to ‘leave the building’ when these difficult tests were taking place. These tests were also great opportunities to be alone with God, which is itself a great blessing. The angels were also distant when two great nations would receive blessings, the offspring of Yitzchak and that of his half-brother Yishmael.
Struggling with the theology of the Akeidah is understandable. Our sages grappled with it too. But in my opinion, that does not give license to claim with certainty that Avraham failed for he should have challenged the Divine over such a cruel and perplexing command. While Avraham is identified as a paradigm of kindness to others, he is equally as renowned for his unswerving faith. Let us not forget that these are not contradictory traits. As a matter of fact, we must try to emulate both!
On Rosh Hashanah man is described as being judged individually, standing kivnei maron, on a single-file line, where no one can avoid being seen. The Akeidah is viewed as the paradigmatic test of man. Avraham’s success in this impossible test is invoked every year when each of us is tested. We remind our Creator what His creations – although not most of us – are capable of and can potentially achieve, a Rosh Hashanah message both for man and His Creator.
Some argue that Avraham should have argued with God when asked to sacrifice his son. After all he argued for the evil people of S'dom. Why not his own son? Some even argue that this impacted Avraham's success in passing the test of the Akeidah. This comes to defend AVraham's passing the test of the Akeidah, as if such a defense is even needed.