Thursday, November 17, 2005

The ‘Aqeida: I Still Don't Get It

Warning from my Brother:
"your phraseology is very strong
too strong for the faint of heart perhaps"

תתן אמת ליעקב, חסד לאברהם
אשר נשבעת לאבותינו מימי קדם

You give truth to Ya‘aqov, kindness to Avraham;
as you swore to our ancestors in ancient days.

Trey-‘Asar, Mikha 7:20

Avraham Avinu failed the test.

I came to that conclusion in high school.
I haven't been able to shake myself out of it since.

Avraham is supposed to be the epitome of hhesed — of 'lovingkindess' as fancy old translations have it. He is given that title in the Qabbala, as a representative of the Sphere of Hhesed, placed in opposition to Gevura. Kindness before Strength. Mercy before Justice. And it's not like they made this up out of nothing but the fumes of coffee! After all, this is Avraham's legacy to us, that we are (in theory, at least) a people of mercy and kindness.
And we've seen Avraham Avinu act in that role already in the Torah — he opens his home to strangers, exerting himself in the hottest part of the day even though he is ninety-nine years old (and according to tradition had just been circumcised three days earlier); he agonizes over having to kick out Hagar and Yishma‘eil; and he argues God all the way down to the bargain sum of ten righteous people for whom Sedom and its sibling-cities of evil would be saved from righteous and just punishment. He just won't shut up. He just won't take 'no' for an answer, and keeps on going, lowering the number over and over again, needling and nagging the Omnipotent in order to save an entire society built around oppression for the sake of a few possibly good people among them.

Shall the Judge of all the Earth not do true Justice?
Shall the epitome of Kindness
not bring Kindness into the world?

But he doesn't!
That's what I just don't understand...

Avraham fought with the Supreme Judge, accused God of perpetuating the oppression of Sedom by bringing a miscarriage of justice against those of its inhabitants who were undeserving of punishment.

He defended murderers and rapists
from righteous payback for their crimes,
but did nothing to save his
own innocent son from death???

He just does what God told him. He doesn't argue. He doesn't look for loopholes (after all, technically all God told him to do was to "raise him up", not slaughter him). He just goes with it, early in the morning. Zerizin maqdimin lemitzvot. And he would have gone through with it! He tied him up, put him on the altar, had the wood and the fire ready. Avraham lifted up the knife to kill his own son, the only heir to the berit, who he loves, Yitzhhaq — and God stopped him at the last moment.

He's supposed to be the symbol of lovingkindness. But he was ready to slaughter his own son in cold blood. What love is that? What kindness is that? He loves the evildoers of Sedom and the horny king of Gerar, but he doesn't love the son and heir he waited all those long years to have?

The prophet Mikha says:
You give truth to Ya‘aqov, kindness to Avraham;
as you swore to our ancestors in ancient days.

Why would God give someone something that they already embody?

No matter what people say, Ya‘aqov Avinu was not the epitome of Truth. He lied to his old blind father. He used reproductive subterfuge to impoverish his [admittedly bigger of a liar] uncle. He lied to his brother. He was a trickster, not a man of truth. But as any old trickster will tell you, you can't live off charm and wits forever. Eventually the truth must assert itself. And so in his descendents, God fills in the truth that Ya‘aqov was missing.

Avraham was a great man of hhesed. He fought for justice and mercy. But when it really mattered, he just followed orders.


Blogger Lab Rab said...


Have you ever heard the Kotzker Rebbe's pshat on the Akeidah? He flips everything around. The test wasn't to see whether Avraham would sacrifice Yitzchak; that many people in his generation would have done. Rather, the test was whether, after preparing the wood, and binding Yitzchak, and raising the knife - could Avraham muster the self-discipline to STOP when commanded?

He bases this on Rashi D"H al tishlach, in which Avraham pleads to at least be allowed to nick his son and draw a bit of blood.

I thought that you would like the Kotzker pshat, because the point of the test is to see whether Avraham would act humanely, restraining religious passion to perform what is proper and good / God's will. Although, according to Rashi, he initially hesitates, he eventually does pass this test.

I have much more to say, but let's hear from others first.

11/17/2005 12:35 AM  
Blogger Lipman said...

LabRab, thanks a lot. I've been looking for this for about 12 years (not very intensely, I must confess), when I learned that "a chassidic" explanation says he failed the test because he was ready to kill his son. There's an important difference: What LepRep beshem da Kotzker says is much less radical, and Avrohm did pass the test. What I understood is what Stegue d'Indche proposes as well.

I'm not into theology, but I think this radical understanding is at least legitimate, maybe even the right one. BTW, this is basically what I said here, only I was reluctant to include the ekeide into it.

11/17/2005 5:50 AM  
Blogger Litvshe said...

Kirkegaard had the same question in "Fear and Trembling". There is some discussion of this in the later commentators (Netziv, R' Kook). I think the basis of this is that this was the true act of submission. It's no big deal to go with your natural impetus. Which in Avraham's case was to do chesed and argue for the saving of lives when possible. But, when Hashem came to him directly and said...go do this, he was able to bury that natural urge and do His bidding. It's something we're asked to do every day, though not on that scale.

11/17/2005 7:46 AM  
Blogger Zeh Sefer Toldot Adam said...

Hi Steg,

Elie Wiesel wrote the only interpretation of the Akeidah that I have ever found to reasonably explain this intriguing story in his book "Messengers of G-d".

I can't do it justice... but it is really so good you should definitely read it. It is predicated on Avraham recognising the fundamental injustice of killing his son and pointing that fact out to G-d. Like much of his other work, it is based on midrashic sources.

Submission just doesn't work for me.

11/17/2005 9:04 AM  
Blogger Mar Gavriel said...


I'm not into theology, but I think...

That line is copyrighted by me (©2005), and must be used with attribution. :-)


I like your peshotim on the עקדה.

11/17/2005 10:32 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


Wow, that's great! I never heard of that before; all i knew was that Ahhad Ha‘am also claimed that Avraham failed the test.

11/17/2005 11:57 AM  
Blogger AMSHINOVER said...

It’s always been my contention that the reason for this test was because AA was a man of chesed. And G-d wanted to see if AA was a man of G-d, not chesed for the sake of chesed but chesed for the sake of G-d. the only way to test that was to place him in the extreme situation. The test was also for yitz could the man of din give of himself truly , thereby proving his din was for the sake of G-d alone. HE wanted opposite traits from the opposing avos; so that the 2 could reach equilibriums individually and after they both reach a happy medium yakov (bechor sh’beavos or emes) can be born. AAs meeda of chesed/ love bore yishmael (9 kavem of zenus, a perverse form of chesed belongs to him) Yitz bore Esau (father to amelek and haman murder is a perverse form of yitz’s din) Yakov hena metasee shlama (yakov progeny is without blemish

11/17/2005 5:24 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


Very interesting... so you're saying the test played on their strength to see how it worked, whether it was God-based or not?

So what do you think about Ya‘aqov's lack of emet in various situations?

11/17/2005 6:06 PM  
Blogger AMSHINOVER said...

Ya‘aqov's lack of emet in various situations proves that his emes was for the sake of Hashem

11/18/2005 1:12 PM  
Blogger Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Steg: According to the Rashbam, it wasn't a test at all, rather a punishment for the treaty with King Avimelech. The punishment was that he HAD to do it...this is also different from being a bystander to the destruction of S'dom.

11/20/2005 10:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

An idea that I heard, but so long ago that I cannot remember who said it:

Avraham and Ya'alov were required to serve Hashem with middot which were the antithesis of their natural middot.

Avraham, who has an overwhelming desire to do chessed - his final test requires him to be cruel.

Ya'akov, whose essential middah is emet - he is required to lie (over and over again).

(this is pretty much what litvshe wrote).

There is the added burden of publicly doing something which is the opposite of everything one stands for, inviting ridicule, undoing of one's life work, etc.

Bottom line, the concept of retzono is brought into focus through the akeidah, since every other logical reason points in the opposite direction, leaving only "pure" ratzon Hashem.

Just my 2c

11/21/2005 11:33 AM  
Anonymous Josh said...

Anonymous, that is essentially what I learned about this from Rabbi Gottlieb. He has a shiur on it I believe at (He may mention some sources, I don't remember.)

11/21/2005 12:51 PM  
Blogger thanbo said...

A Reform correspondent likes to say that Avraham failed the test, and adduces as evidence, that before the Aqeida, God spoke to Avraham directly, but afterwards, God never speaks to him again, only an angel - so he may not have failed, but he didn't get an A either.

As for Yaakov and emes, his lying on the surface, revealed deeper truths. E.g., the subterfuge over the bracha, forced Yaakov to see that Esav was not fit to carry the tradition (this from RSR Hirsch). The subterfuge over the teraphim discourages idolatry. Etc.

11/21/2005 2:29 PM  
Blogger MC Aryeh said...

I maintain that Avraham did protest the sacrificing of Yitzchak (by refusing to believe at first that it was in fact Yitzchak HaShem wanted him to sacrifice), but ultimately the word of HaShem took precedence....

11/22/2005 1:47 AM  
Anonymous AB said...

I don't remember who originally said this (my Israeli cousin mentioned it to me), but evidence that Avraham failed the akeida is that the malach tells him, "Now I know that you are a God-fearing man," which is not necessarily an indication that Avharam passed the test. Avraham got his berachah only after he sacrificed the ram. Implication: fear of God only takes you so far - to pass the test, Avraham should have put his chessed before his fear of God and refused to sacrifice his son.

11/22/2005 4:54 PM  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Oy va voy, Steg, I’m with you on this one: I think Avraham Avinu failed the test by not protesting Hashem’s request for him to sacrifice his son—and I think Hashem also failed by ordering him to do so. I don’t see anything positive whatsoever about going against one’s inclination to do chesed, to do the right thing. And why would the Judge of all the earth ask one to do such a thing?

This one was all over the Jewish blogosphere just around the time of the Yamim Noraim. I should know, because I’m the one who started it. You might want to check out this post
Included in the comments are URLs leading to posts picking up on the discussion on other blogs.
You might also want to check out Dilbert’s later continuation of the discussion, his Tuesday, November 01, 2005 post,"Torah based ethics/morality as a force in Halacha," at

11/23/2005 8:06 AM  
Blogger chuck said...

oh come on avraham failed the test?
is that why on rosh hashana, of selections in the torah, all we could come up with is avraham failed test?
gimme a break
he passed and he passed with flying colors
let me explain
who determines morality us? our ancestors? the rav of the shtetel?
what is the defining point when determining what is a moral act?

The answer of course is G-d.
We know that Hashem does bikkur cholem , levayas hameis, hachnasos kallah etc. He created the world to have the ability to bestow chessed. “G-d looked into the torah and created the world” Torah values reflect G-d’s values, and ultimately our morality are based on Him and His Torah
So it boils down to the fact that Hashem determines what is moral , what is good and what is defined as chessed
So…if avraham is going to emulate his creator and do chessed, so whatever G-d says IS chessed
And if one fine day, hashem says ‘sacrifice your son’, then this must be chessed
Just because us puny diminutive humans don’t always understand his ways…too bad
And yes, he passes the test awesomely, he reins in his instinctive kindness to to as hashem says!!
Like the passuk say “ki atuh y’dati ki yarei elokim athoh”
I thought you’re a nice guy NOW I know you’re G-d fearing it has very little to do with nice, it has to do with doing as hashem commands
Any questions?....good
(my apologies to harav steg for exploiting his blogspace

11/24/2005 12:11 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


if God's will is what defines hhesed, morality, good, etc., and Avraham Avinu should have just jumped and done what God told him to do when it comes to sacrificing Yitzhhaq... what about destroying Sedom, where Avraham argued God down from nothing to 50 to 10? What about Moshe Rabeinu saving Beney Yisra’eil from God's wrath multiple times through the Wilderness?
We're meant to argue with God. Why do you think our name is Yisra’eil...?

— [just] steg

11/24/2005 3:00 PM  
Blogger chuck said...

wait a minute, you cant compare
at the akeda hashem says nu 'please do this'
a direct request, surely avraham knew there was something to this request
at sodom hashem these are evil people and im gonna destroy this evil 'haktzakusa' im gonna look first and then clean it up
so of course avraham says um hashem if ya find some good guys will you cut them slack?
and hashem says sure
moshe rabainu says the same you cant just wipe them out you forgive them and i'll fix them baddies with shevet lavi

the akeda is not a justice/fix the world situation, it's commandment from hashem 'do this please'
sorry but there's no arguing with a direct personal request

11/25/2005 10:45 AM  
Blogger Zeh Sefer Toldot Adam said...


what is the value of chesed for the sake of G-d?
Isn't that just obedience for the sake of obedience; and it might as well have been any act, as much as it was chesed?

Isn't the point of morality that we come to realise that the thing is good in itself, rather than we only do it coz G-d wants us to do it?

11/28/2005 7:38 PM  
Blogger Litvshe said...


That was Kirkegaard

11/30/2005 12:35 PM  

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