The article below is from Rabbi Riskin’s book Bereishit: Confronting Life, Love and Family, part of his Torah Lights series of commentaries on the weekly parsha, published by Maggid and available for purchase here.
Parshat Vayera: Abraham’s Silence
Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin is the Founder and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone
And it came to pass…that God did test Abraham and said to him, Abraham, and he said, Here I am! And He said, Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I shall show you. (Genesis 22:1–2)
When God presents Abraham with the most difficult and tragic command to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, Abraham rises early the next morning, loads his donkey, calls his servants and immediately starts the journey – without a word of protest. We find no indication that Abraham considered the possibility of remonstrating with the divine, asking for a reconsideration of the injunction, a reasonable reaction given that the Almighty had just guaranteed him: ‘Through Isaac shall your seed be called.’ Could God have changed His mind?
What makes this question even more poignant is that Abraham does stand up to God when he wants to. In one of the most memo rable exchanges in the Torah, the imminent destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah brings out all of Abraham’s oratorical skills as he pleads for the lives of the wicked inhabitants. ‘Will the judge of the world not act justly, will the Almighty destroy the innocent together with the wicked?’ he provocatively asks. And if there are at least ten innocent residents, ought the country not be spared? If Abraham was willing to defend the wicked Sodomites from a mass death, couldn’t he have done at least as much for his righteous, beloved and divinely promised son?
There are a number of directions to take in explaining Abraham’s silence, and I’d like to suggest three.
First of all, there is a commentary suggested by Rabbi Joseph Ibn Kaspi reminding us of the historical context of the world in which Abraham lived. True, the Torah was given for all time, but it was also given within a certain contextual and historical frame. Abraham lived at a time when the pagan world demonstrated allegiance to the idol Molokh by ritually sacrificing children. Therefore, embedded within the mind of the patriarch was the terrible possibility that such a command may well reach him from his God. In a world of idolatry where children were often sacrificed to Molokh, Abraham may well have understood and even expected that he too could be commanded to do the same – and so he does not even attempt to argue. From this perspective, the com- mand of the Akeda, and its subsequent cancellation, irrevocably makes child sacrifice unacceptable to the Jewish religion. From this perspective, the real test of Abraham comes with the second divine command emanating from the mouth of the angel, ‘Abraham, Abraham…Do not send forth your hand against the lad and don’t do anything against him…’ [Gen. 22:12]. When the patriarch agreed not to sacrifice his son to his God, he demonstrated his break from the world of bloodthirsty idols and his true acceptance of the God of justice and compassion.
This interpretation has special poignancy when modern Israelis witness the chairman of the Palestinian Authority using young children to sacrifice themselves in the front lines of battle – urging them and pay- ing them to throw stones at Israeli citizens while shielding gun-toting Palestinians behind them to become suicidal homicide bombers. The imams promise them eternal bliss in Paradise. Clearly, such cynical use, or rather misuse, of precious children is absolutely biblically forbidden, as the final word of God at the conclusion of the Akeda story demonstrates.
Yet another offshoot of this interpretation is the all too common syndrome of overly ambitious, hyper-successful parents – worst case scenario in pursuit of fame and fortune, best case scenario hoping to save the world (this includes committed rabbis) – who sacrifice their children for God. In the case of a rabbi or educator, the student or congregation often come first, even at the Shabbat table. The Almighty is ultimately teaching Abraham that he dare not sacrifice his son, not even for Him!
Secondly, I’ve written in the past of two types of prayer – national prayer on behalf of the world and personal prayer on behalf of oneself or one’s family – based on two distinct ways in which Moses beseeches the Almighty. When it comes to a prayer on behalf of the entire nation of Israel – a prayer for forgiveness following the sin of the Golden Calf – Moses pleads for forty days and forty nights, beseeching, remonstrating and even demanding that the Almighty not forsake His covenantal people. However, when his own sister Miriam is sick, he utters only five words: ‘O God please heal her.’ After all, God’s promise guaranteed the nation’s eternity, but not necessarily the health of Miriam, Moses’ own sister.
What’s true for Moses applies equally to Abraham. When it comes to the destruction of an entire society, a possibility that innocents will die along with the masses, Abraham pleads with all his rhetorical gifts to alter the horror of the edict. But when it comes to Isaac, his own son, he can allow himself only the minimum of words and gestures. For a people he will plead, but for himself – and Isaac is really an extension of himself – he must remain silent.
And finally, perhaps, Abraham does not argue because he is in a different relationship with God than he was when he remonstrated on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, a more distant relationship which does not permit the camaraderie of questioning a divine order.
Fear of God (yirat haShem) and love of God (ahavat haShem) are the two fundamental attitudes one takes toward the Almighty. The first emanates from a sense of distance from God and the second from a sense of closeness to God. Maimonides looks upon the fear of God as emanating from the existential realization of one’s own smallness in the face of the Infinite, inspired by the magnificent wonders of the cosmic universe. The one who fears God is overwhelmed by the mysterium tremendum of divine powers, and is filled with feelings of profound reverence and awe before the majesty of divine creation (yirat ha-romemut). In contrast, love of God, teaches Maimonides, emanates from the desire to cleave to God as a lover, who yearns to remove any separation from himself and his beloved, whose thoughts are totally involved with her at every moment and in every situation. In commenting on the verse, ‘Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy,’ Nahmanides insists that the individual who serves God from love is on a higher spiritual level than the one who serves Him from fear, which is why our Sages have ruled that a positive commandment (love of God) pushes aside and overrides a negative commandment (fear of God). Nevertheless, both relation- ships are necessary and complement each other.
Fear of God is critical in the fabric of human existence. Those who love – either God or another human being – may sometimes rationalize away their own lapses and indiscretions with the sense that the beloved will understand, that those in love ‘need not say they are sorry.’ The very closeness of the relationship can breed a ‘taking for granted’ attitude. Fear of God brooks no exceptions, doesn’t allow anyone to take any advantage. Fear of God keeps us on our toes. It keeps us brutally honest, constantly spurring us on to remain steady and steadfast despite the narrowness – the abyss on either side – of life’s very narrow bridge. Abraham was the great example of worshipping God from love.
He left the comfort of his homeland, birthplace and family and entered unknown territory in order to be with God – much as a lover following his beloved. The Talmudic sages suggest that he arrived at the God idea as a result of his own intellectual understanding – and for the great philosopher Maimonides, knowledge and love are synonymous. Abraham establishes altar after altar in the name of his beloved God, of whose ethical teachings and powers of creativity he never ceases to speak – and attempt to persuade others to accept. He is close to God and he understands God – even to the extent of his realization that the Judge of all the world will never perpetrate an injustice, will consider it an anathema to destroy the righteous with the wicked. Hence, he argues with the divine on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah.
He then sojourns to the land of Gerar where Avimelekh is king. Afraid that Sarah’s beauty will endanger his life, Abraham instructs Sarah to say she is his sister. The king takes her into his harem, but then in a dream Avimelekh learns that he has overstepped his bounds, that Sarah is actually Abraham’s wife. Explanations follow, and when Abra- ham is asked why he lied he explains, ‘Surely the fear of God is not in this place….’ Abraham believed that since the ‘Gerareans’ had no fear of God, they would be likely to murder him if he were indeed the husband of the beautiful Sarah. After all, the very first question they asked him – a stranger in town – was not whether he needed hospitality, but was about his wife!
In the end, Avimelekh makes Abraham a wealthy man. ‘Behold my land is before you, dwell where it pleases you.’ Abraham receives sheep, cattle, male and female slaves, even a gift of a thousand pieces of silver. Sarah is restored to Abraham. But the last words we read before the account of the Akeda is that Abraham lives in the land of the Philistines for many days. Indeed, the very introduction to the Akeda story begins: ‘After these things…’ – the last thing being Abraham in Gerar.
What was he doing there? Hadn’t he just declared that ‘surely the fear of God is not in this place…?’ And nevertheless, he remained behind! What happened to his own fear of God? Was it affected? Could it possibly not have been affected? Each of us is affected by his/her environment. Should the first patriarch have lived for many days in a place absent of the fear of God? Abraham will have to be tested to determine if indeed he is still worthy of becoming the father of the Jewish people. As the events of the Akeda unfold, and Abraham lifts the slaughtering knife, what are the words of the angel of God? ‘Do not harm the boy…For now I know that you fear God….’
A circle has just been completed, an event that began with Gerar and ends with Moriah. Abraham has proved that he still fears God despite his residence in Gerar. The entire incident of the Akeda bespeaks Abraham’s fear of God, his unquestioning acceptance of a divine com- mand he could not possibly understand. His experience in Gerar had apparently caused him to work overtime on his ‘fear of God’ – and perhaps neglect a bit of his ‘love of God.’
From this perspective, entirely new light is shed on the manner in which the Sefat Emet interprets the verse that describes Abraham’s approach to Moriah: ‘And he saw the place [makom] from a distance.’ We must understand this to mean that Abraham saw God (makom is after all also taken by the Midrash as a synonym for God, who is every place) from a distance, an expression of fear of God, yirat ha-shem. Had Abraham perceived God from up close, he would have realized – argues the Sefat Emet – that the God of ethical monotheism could never possibly have wished for a human sacrifice!
Perhaps the basis for this fascinating insight of the Sefat Emet is the Talmudic interpretation of the prophet Jeremiah’s denunciation of child sacrifice, ‘which I (God) did not command, which I did not speak, and which did not approach my heart’ [ Jer. 19:5]:
‘Which I did not command’ refers to the son of Mesha the King of Moab…; ‘Which I did not speak’ refers to Jephthah; ‘Which did not approach my heart’ refers to Isaac, the son of Abraham…’ (Ta’anit 4a)
And this is very much in line with Rashi, who suggests that Abraham actually misunderstood the meaning of the command of the Almighty: ‘I God, never said for you to slaughter [Isaac] but only for you to lift him up’ – to dedicate him to Me in life and not in death! In other words, an Abraham steeped in the emotion of fear of God, as important as such an emotion may be, is too far away to have perceived the real intention of the divine. And certainly one who feels far removed from God is hardly going to be brazen enough to conduct intimate conversations with God, to dare to argue against a divine command!
And if the first commandment to go to Israel, with which Abraham initiates his election, expresses the first patriarch’s love of God, this final commandment of the Akeda expresses his fear of God. Only an individual who combines both religious dynamics can be the father of the children of Israel.
Especially in light of this last interpretation, there remains yet one agonizing question: why was the divine command ambiguous, leaving room for Abraham’s seemingly ‘misguided’ interpretation? I believe that our Torah understands only too well that the future history of our people will be fraught with tragedies of exile and persecution, a holocaust war against the Jews and liberation wars to acquire the Jewish State. All of these required and requires parents to see their children burnt on the stake, to accompany their children to the idf base…There is profound historic necessity for the fact that this last trial of Abraham pictures him as willing to silently take his only beloved son to be sacrificed on the altar of God, if he understood that such was the divine command. Given the paradoxical and ambiguous nature of the tear-drenched history of our people, Abraham and Isaac also had to serve as supreme models of those ready to give up life and future for the sanctification of the divine name.