Avraham’s Crowning Achievement

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The Shulchan Aruch states (Orach Chaim 1:5): טוב לומר פ’ העקדה (It is good to read the passage of the Binding of Yitzchak, i.e. the Akeidah [each morning]). The Mishnah Berurah explains (O.C. 1:13) that it is not sufficient just to read it; rather, one must think about it deeply and recognize the wonders of Hashem. He adds that one who recites the Akeidah each day is guaranteed a place in the World to Come. How come reading the Akeidah produces such amazing results?

Many years before the Akeidah, Hashem gave Avraham a promise (Bereshit 15:4-5): וְהִנֵּה דְבַר־יְיָ אֵלָיו לֵאמֹר לֹא יִירָשְׁךָ זֶה כִּי־אִם אֲשֶׁר יֵצֵא מִמֵּעֶיךָ הוּא יִירָשֶׁךָ: וַיּוֹצֵא אֹתוֹ הַחוּצָה וַיֹּאמֶר הַבֶּט־נָא הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וּסְפֹר הַכּוֹכָבִים אִם־תּוּכַל לִסְפֹּר אֹתָם וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ כֹּה יִהְיֶה זַרְעֶךָ (And behold! The word of Hashem came to him saying, ‘He [i.e. Eliezer] will not inherit you, but rather he that shall come out from you, he shall inherit you.’ And He took him outside [from his nature-based way of thinking] and said, ‘Look now to the heavens and count the stars, if you can count them.’ And He said to him, ‘Thus shall be your offspring!’). And the Torah testifies about Avraham’s response (15:6): וְהֶאֱמִן בַּיְיָ (And he believed Hashem). No questions; just a simple and profound emunah in Hashem’s promise. Wonderful!

But then, in the very next verse, Hashem also promised him that he would inherit the land of Canaan (15:7). But what is Avraham’s response this time? He questioned Hashem and asked (15:8): בַּמָּה אֵדַע כִּי אִירָשֶׁנָּה (But how shall I know that I will inherit it?).

One minute, Avraham is soaring above the clouds with unwavering emunah; the next minute he doubts Hashem’s promise and needs a sign of confirmation. What happened in such a short space of time? It’s not too difficult to understand if we think about events in our own lives. There is a big difference in believing in Hashem’s promises as they pertain to our private lives and believing His promises in situations when we must interact with others.

This deficiency in emunah wasn’t a simple matter. It would result in tragic and far-reaching consequences (see 15:9-20). Basically, Avraham’s weakness in emunah led to exile in Egypt, and only after four generations would his descendants return to the land to inherit it. Avraham’s one little question became a fundamental turning point in all of Jewish history, not only because it led to the Egyptian exile but because it set the pattern for all future exiles. As R’ Nachman explains (Likutei Moharan 7:1): דַּע כִּי עִקַּר הַגָּלוּת אֵינוֹ אֶלָּא בִּשְׁבִיל חֶסְרוֹן אֱמוּנָה (Know that the essence of exile is only due to a deficiency of emunah). But this deficiency was not only in emunah; it expressed itself also as a deficiency in the power of prayer and the whole aspect of miracles, all of which led to a blemish to the land of Yisrael (see L.M. 7:1 and 9:5 for an explanation of these interconnected ideas). So whenever we find ourselves in exile (like now), it is fundamentally due to a lack of emunah, which manifests itself as a deficiency in prayer and a failure to really believe in miracles—all of which cause a blemish to the land of Yisrael.

But Hashem wasn’t finished with Avraham just because he fell. He provided him with one challenge after another, and through them all, Avraham continued growing (e.g. he witnessed the destruction of S’dom, Amora and their sister cities in spite of his attempts to intercede on their behalf, he fought a war to rescue Lot, he saw his wife Sarah abducted by Avimelech, and was told to listen to Sarah and exile Hagar and Yishmael from his home).

Then one day after Yitzchak had grown up, Hashem decided the time was ripe for Avraham’s big test (Bereshit 22:2): וַיֹּאמֶר קַח־נָא אֶת־בִּנְךָ אֶת־יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר־אָהַבְתָּ אֶת־יִצְחָק וְלֶךְ־לְךָ אֶל־אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם לְעֹלָה עַל אַחַד הֶהָרִים אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ (And He said, ‘Please take your son, your unique son, whom you love—Yitzchak—and go, for yourself, to the Land of Moriah and bring him up there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains about which I will tell you’). Let’s try to put this into perspective. Avraham dedicated his entire life to teach against idolatry (which included child sacrifice as an integral part of its worship system) and to reveal the light of the Holy One, blessed be He. He and Sarah brought out a lot of people from under the bondage of idolatry and taught them freedom in the light of the Creator of the world. And now, that very same Creator was telling him to do the one thing that he taught others was most abhorrent to the Creator! Not only did this go against everything Avraham thought he understood about G-d, but if he went ahead with this, he would be throwing away what he thought was his life’s mission. Those whom he taught would call him a hypocrite and turn against him—and against G-d. And to add even greater confusion to Avraham’s sense of logic, Hashem Himself had already told Avraham that His promises would be fulfilled only through this very son that he was now being told to sacrifice (Bereshit 17:19-21)!

But Avraham didn’t ask, “How are You going to fulfill Your promises if I sacrifice my son?” He didn’t ask, “What will become of the people that I have led to You? Do you want them to return to their pagan roots?” He didn’t say, “But this will be a disgrace to Your holy name throughout all the world!” He didn’t question Hashem at all; he didn’t utter a single word (as he had done before). Avraham had learned to accept paradoxes. He had come to learn that no amount of creative thinking on his part, no matter the greatness of his intellect, would ever compare to the infinite Supernal Wisdom. He understood that there was no point in trying to think up a rational explanation for how Hashem would ‘pull this off’—in fact, he knew that it is impossible to figure out how Hashem is going to do anything. So what did he do instead? He just got up early in the morning and began the preparations needed for carrying out Hashem’s command as expeditiously as possible. Action was needed here, not trying to figure out the mind of G-d. And so, in his conduct here, Avraham fixed the blemish in his emunah that he had earlier when Hashem told him that he would inherit the land. There, he couldn’t figure out how it could possibly come to pass. After all, how could a single man or even a nation descended from him who would become Torah scholars and sages ever possibly conquer the warrior nations of Canaan? Here, he dismissed relying on so-called ‘rational’ thinking. Instead, he had come to believe in miracles without limitation.

How does one achieve this level? It seems so completely beyond anything we could ever hope to achieve. Simply put, he had learned to nullify himself completely to the oneness of his Maker. R’ Nachman explains how this is accomplished (Likutei Moharan 52): וְאִי אֶפְשָׁר לָבוֹא לִידֵי בִּטּוּל כִּי־אִם עַל־יְדֵי הִתְבּוֹדְדוּת כִּי עַל־יְדֵי שֶׁמִּתְבּוֹדֵד וּמְפָרֵשׁ שִׂיחָתוֹ בֵּינוֹ לְבֵין קוֹנוֹ עַל־יְדֵי־זֶה הוּא זוֹכֶה לְבַטֵּל כָּל הַתַּאֲווֹת וְהַמִּדּוֹת רָעוֹת עַד שֶׁזּוֹכֶה לְבַטֵּל כָּל גַּשְׁמִיּוּתוֹ וּלְהִכָּלֵל בְּשָׁרְשׁוֹ (It is impossible to come to self-nullification [bitul] without hitbodedut [pouring out one’s heart to Hashem in prayer while secluding oneself away from the distractions of the physical world] because by being secluded and speaking at length with his Maker, one can merit to nullify one’s physical desires and bad character traits until he merits to nullify his physicality and to be encompassed in his Source). This is what Avraham had done over the years to such an extent that he had rectified his lack of emunah completely. He didn’t need explanations or even possibilities about how or what Hashem was going to do. On the contrary, thinking about such things would demonstrate a blemish in the very emunah he was working on perfecting! All he had in his mind was that Hashem promised and Hashem would fulfill. As he said to those who accompanied him (Bereshit 22:5): שְׁבוּ־לָכֶם פֹּה עִם־הַחֲמוֹר וַאֲנִי וְהַנַּעַר נֵלְכָה עַד־כֹּה וְנִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה וְנָשׁוּבָה אֲלֵיכֶם (Sit yourselves here with the donkey, and I and the youth will walk there, and we will worship, and we will return to you).

Not only did he believe Hashem’s earlier promise that everything would be fulfilled through Yitzchak in the face of Hashem’s current command to sacrifice Yitzchak, he went about fulfilling that command with joy. How do we know that he went about this task from a heart filled with joy? We know because, at the very last possible moment (when he had picked up the knife to slay Yitzchak), he received another prophecy not to sacrifice his son. How does this answer our question? It is as we learn from the Rambam (Hilchot Yesodei ha-Torah 7:4): כָּל הַנְּבִיאִים אֵין מִתְנַבְּאִין בְּכָל עֵת שֶׁיִּרְצוּ אֶלָּא מְכַוְּנִים דַּעְתָּם וְיוֹשְׁבִים שְׂמֵחִים וְטוֹבֵי לֵב וּמִתְבּוֹדְדִים שֶׁאֵין הַנְּבוּאָה שׁוֹרָה לֹא מִתּוֹךְ עַצְבוּת וְלֹא מִתּוֹךְ עַצְלוּת אֶלָּא מִתּוֹךְ שִׂמְחָה (The prophets [except Moshe Rabbeinu] do not receive prophecy whenever they want, rather they focus their daat [spiritual awareness], sit happily in a joyous mood and do hitbodedut, because prophecy doesn’t rest upon someone in sadness or laziness [i.e. depression] but only in simchah). If Avraham’s state of mind is difficult for you to comprehend, don’t be surprised. It’s extremely difficult for all of us to understand.

But simchah wasn’t the only ingredient in repairing his blemish in emunah. The other critical ingredient was silence. As we already pointed out, when told to do the logically impossible, Avraham remained silent. Why was silence such a lofty response? Because it is written (Sefer Ha-Midot, Emunah 25): אֱמוּנָה בָּא עַל־יְדֵי שְׁתִיקָה (Emunah comes by way of silence). This is also what Shimon ben Rabban Gamliel testified (Pirkei Avot 1:17): כָּל יָמַי גָּדַלְתִּי בֵין הַחֲכָמִים וְלֹא מָצָאתִי לַגּוּף טוֹב אֶלָּא שְׁתִיקָה, וְלֹא הַמִּדְרָשׁ הוּא הָעִקָּר אֶלָּא הַמַּעֲשֶׂה וְכָל הַמַּרְבֶּה דְבָרִים מֵבִיא חֵטְא (All my days I grew up among the Sages, and I never found anything better for a person than silence; study is not the essence, but rather action, and all who increase words bring about sin). We also see this in Aaron’s response after Moshe explained to him the higher meaning behind the death of his two sons Nadav and Avihu (Vayikra 10:3): וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן (And Aaron was silent). It is also what we see prophesied for the future when all the nations of the world will finally recognize that Hashem never abandoned the Jews nor did he ever forsake Yerushalayim as His holy city (Zecharyah 2:17): הַס כׇּל־בָּשָׂר מִפְּנֵי יְהֹוָה (Be silent all flesh before Hashem). This silence is an indication of teshuvah and the beginnings of emunah.

So what’s the point in all of this? We should read the Akeidah every morning for many reasons, not least of which is to be encouraged daily never to give up on ourselves. If we fall from emunah from time to time, just get up and keep going. Since Hashem didn’t give up on Avraham, He won’t give up on us. We are, after all, his children.

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