The Real Test of Binding Isaac: Abraham's Struggle with Loyalty | Aleph Beta

Abraham's Struggle with Loyalty

The Real Test Of The Binding Of Isaac

Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

The Binding of Isaac (in Hebrew, the Akeidah) is one of the most difficult stories in the entire Bible. Why does God ask Abraham to bind his son as an offering? How can Abraham even entertain the idea of killing Isaac? The Torah says that God is testing Abraham, but is this kind of blind loyalty really what God wants from us?

In this video, Rabbi Fohrman picks apart a brief dialogue that takes place between Abraham and Isaac as they ascend the mountain. This deeper look into the words exchanged by father and son – and the silences between them – points us to the crux of Abraham’s test and how he withstands it. You may well have been misunderstanding the binding of Isaac all of this time: It's about far more than Abraham’s obedience to God.

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Vayeira: Abraham's Struggle With Loyalty
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Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Vayeira.

Last week I introduced you to these Atbash patterns which I think are very fascinating and today I want to show you one of them in Parshat Vayeira that I think has very dramatic consequences - consequences for understanding a very, very difficult story: the story of the Binding of Isaac, the akeidah.

When normally we think of the Binding of Isaac, we think of that as a kind of test of faith. I want to argue that it's more than that. It's not just the story of how faithful Avraham is to God. It's about something else too; the Atbash pattern suggests exactly what that is.

Understanding the Binding of Isaac

Come with me to Bereishit chaf-bet, chapter 22. The easiest way to see the pattern, begin to pick it up, is to look at the end of verse 6. 'Vayelchu shneihem yachdav,' Avraham and Yitzhak, walking together up to the mountain.

It turns out that that phrase, 'vayelchu shneihem yachdav,' appears another time just a couple of verses later, in verse 8, 'vayelchu shneihem yachdav.' Avraham and Isaac walk together.

Okay, interesting. Is there anything else about this story that has that sort of mirror-image quality? Let's look right before the first 'vayelchu shneihem yachdav' and see if we find anything there that mirrors something that comes right after the second 'vayelchu shneihem yachdav.' That's what you would look for in an Atbash pattern.

Look at the beginning of verse 6: 'Vayikach Avraham et-atzei ha-olah vayasem al-Yitzhak bno.' Avraham took the wood for the offering and put it on top of Yitzhak. Now, just a very practical question, if you were carrying branches on your back, what would have to be done to the branches in order for you to be able to transport them on your back? You have to rope them all together. Yitzhak is carrying roped-up wood on his back up the mountain. Roped-up wood on top of Yitzhak.

Now look at the bottom of the story. So Avraham builds an altar 'v'ya'aroch et ha etzim' and he arranges the wood, 'v'ya'akod et Yitzhak bno' and he ties up Yitzhak, 'vayasem otoh al-ha-mizbeach mi-maal l'etzim' and he puts him on top of the wood. Fascinating -- tied-up Yitzhak on top of wood, mirroring tied-up wood on top of Isaac. What we are seeing is like the beginning of this chiasm, ABBA, leading you to ask, well, what's in the middle?

What happens in the middle is a conversation -- a conversation between Yitzhak and Avraham. It’s a conversation which you might think is kind of trivial, until you realize it's the only conversation we know of in the entire Torah between Avraham and Yitzhak. It must be a pretty important conversation. This conversation is the center of the chiasm. Do you know what that means? The implications are that the center of gravity around which this whole story revolves, is this conversation. Something happens here that this story is all about. What happens here?

The Story of Abraham and Isaac

Verse 7: 'Vayomer Yitzhak el-Avraham aviv, vayomer avi.' If you listen carefully to these words, you will find a redundancy. Listen to them one more time: And Yitzhak said to Avraham his father, and he said, my father. Did you hear that? There is an extra 'And he said.' Why do you need the second 'And he said'? Also, why does the text have to tell you that Avraham is his father?

So my Rosh Yeshiva, Yaakov Weinberg—z"l—says there are two different conversations here, it's just that the first one got interrupted. 'Vayomer Yitzhak el Avraham aviv'…and Yitzhak said to Avraham, his father…and then you're waiting to hear what it is that he said, but then Yitzhak stopped and he said something else. And the something else that he said was 'My father.'

Now, if you are Avraham and you hear those words, what would you want to do? 'My father.' Those are the two words that you just don't want to hear right now…because what are you going up to the mountain to do? You are going up to the mountain because God told you you have to give back your son, you have to kill your son and offer him up to God at the top of the mountain! It's inconceivable, but this is what God said that He wants. What's the one obligation that a father has towards his son? The one obligation is protection, and here you are, going to kill your son!? So if you are Abraham, how do you do this? You try to avoid thinking about it, you think about anything you can think about, you want to distract, you are talking about the weather, you are talking about this, you are talking about that, but the one thing you don't want to think about is the father-son relationship. But the Torah goes out of its way to tell you it's there.

'Vayomer Yitzhak el-Avraham aviv' reminds us who Avraham is. Avraham is his father, and Yitzhak said to Avraham, his father, and he said one word: 'My father.' And if you are Yitzhak's father and you hear those words from your son, what do you want to do now? You want to run away, run down the mountain; you want to have nothing to do with this, forget it, I am out of here! And if you don't run away physically, you run away emotionally. You want to talk about anything than what Yitzhak wants to talk about. What is going to happen in this conversation? This is the conversation where Yitzhak finds out the truth. What's the question that comes next?

'Vayomer, hinei ha-esh v'ha-etzim.' Yitzhak says, here is the wood, here is the fire—'v'ayeh ha-seh l-olah'—where is the lamb for the offering? What do you mean, where is the lamb for the offering? In Hebrew there are two words for 'Where?' One is 'eifo'; the other is 'ayeh.' Eifo is always just a general request for location.

'Ayeh' is never a request for location. 'Ayeh' never means 'where are you'; it means 'where have you gone, why aren't you here?' 'Ayeh ha-seh l-olah' doesn't mean, 'dad, where is the lamb for the offering, did we leave it by the woodshed or is it over there by the house?' No, it means 'where did the lamb go?' That's a different question entirely. That question is, 'Am I the lamb?' This is the conversation where Isaac finds out - and this, I believe, is exactly what Rashi means to tell us when Rashi talks about the two 'vayelchu shneihem yachdav's. Rashi says, the same way that they walked together before this conversation, they walked together after this conversation. Because if you think about it, what could introduce the greatest dissonance in the relationship between father and son?

Why Does Abraham Bind and Offer His Son Isaac?

I had a dream last night and God came to me and said I am supposed to kill you. That would be the greatest problem that you could possibly imagine in a relationship, right? I mean this is what Avraham and Yitzhak have to contend with. But, the same unity of mind and heart which united father and son before this conversation exists after this conversation as well, and that's the greatness of Avraham and Yitzhak here.

Now look carefully at what happens in this conversation. How does Avraham answer his son? 'Vayomer Avraham,' and Avraham says, 'Elohim yireh-lo ha-seh l-olah bni.' God will show for Himself a lamb for the offering my son. And the question is, what exactly does that mean? It actually depends on where you put the comma - and Rashi points this out as well. The phrase could be understood in one of two ways: Either it could mean, ‘God will show for Himself a lamb for the offering, comma, my son.’ But what if you put no comma in? ‘God will show for Himself a lamb for the offering my son.’ Then maybe my son is the offering, maybe my son is the lamb. Why is Avraham being ambiguous?

Maybe the answer is: Avraham doesn't know what's going to be at the top of this mountain. It doesn't make any sense. God promised that there would be a great nation coming through you, but he is also telling me to come and I am supposed to offer up my son at the top of the mountain? None of this makes any sense. What's going to happen at the top of the mountain? I don't know. But I know one thing, I know that God has a job and I have a job. God is going to figure out what is going to happen on top of the mountain. I don't know what the lamb is. Maybe the lamb is you - that’s up to God. But there’s something that’s up to me... what’s up to me?

What's up to me happens right in the middle of this conversation. There are five 'vayomer's in this conversation. This conversation is the center of the Akeidah, and if there are five 'vayomer's, there's a middle one. The middle 'vayomer' - 'and he said,' is what Avraham said to Yitzhak, after Yitzhak said, 'My father.' What did Avraham say? 'Vayomer hineini bni'... 'here I am, my son.' That's the center of the Akedah. Right when I want to run away most, I am here for you. Ask your question. I know who you are - you are my son and I am your father. Now, ask your question.

The Meaning of Abraham and Isaac's Story

Avraham's greatness was that he didn't run away, not physically and not emotionally. What's going to happen on the top of the mountain?  I have no idea. I am your father and I am here for you. Isn't it fascinating that the Akedah begins with 'hineini'? 'Hineini' to God. God calls out and says, 'Avraham, Avraham' and Avraham answers 'hineini'... 'here I am.' And at the end of the story, the angel calls out and Avraham answers 'hineini.' It's one thing to say 'here I am' to God and 'here I am' to the angel. It's another thing to say 'here I am' to Yitzhak.

Avraham's greatness is that he balances all of this. You see, I could turn off to Yitzhak and say, I have nothing to do with him, my allegiance is to God. Or I could just say, God, I have nothing to do with You, this is crazy, my allegiance is to Yitzhak. Avraham's greatness is, he is going to be here for both of them. It's a contradiction, it makes no sense, it doesn't matter. I have allegiance towards both. At the top of the mountain God's going to have to figure it out. Until then, I am here, not just for God, I am here for my son too -- and that's the greatness of Avraham. Avraham has fealty to every important relationship, even when these two worlds collide. It doesn't make any sense, that's God's problem, He will have to figure it out. I am here for both.

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