The Akeida–A Hero’s Journey
This essay presents Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Gellman’s exploration of the Mei HaShiloach’s teachings on the Akeida that appears in his book “The Fear, the Trembling, and the Fire.” There may be some embellishments but all the primary elements of the thesis are his.
Torah Reading for Second Day Rosh HaShana
Rosh HaShana 5778 / 2017
Sarah Yehudit Schneider
The Akeida is a tale of incomprehensible faith. As the story goes: The Holy One commands Avraham to build an altar and offer his son upon it (at least that is how Avraham interprets the calling). To fulfil that command Avraham must sacrifice everything—literally everything—that he holds dear:
- Beginning with the most obvious loss, i.e., his precious and beloved son, Yitzchak;
- living with the fact that he would be the cause of that death;
- living with the fact that his son would die with his last memory being his father slitting his throat;
- severing his lineage of posterity with Sarah;
- breaking Sara’s heart and risking her outrage;
- going against his most primal nature for, as the archetype of lovingkindness (chesed), this deed violated Avraham’s most visceral truths;
- living with the fact that his whole life mission was teaching the world about the Compassionate One who forbid human sacrifice, and then slaughtering his own son at this Compassionate One’s command which would belie his entire life’s work.
Only a person on the highest rung of faith could endure such a total ego death. There are those who argue that this whole test was perverse from beginning to end—from HaShem’s command to Avraham’s fulfillment of it. How could Avraham subscribe to a G-d that would demand such a twisted proof of loyalty? There is some substance to that objection, as we shall see.
…וְהָﭏהִים נִסָּה אֶת-אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר…וְלֶךְ-לְךָ…:
…And God tested Abraham, and said…go in to yourself…[Gen 22:1-2]
The Akeida began with a call for Avraham to embark on a second lekh lekha—to (literally) go in to himself, layer after layer, until he touched core.[i] This journey, as we shall see, took Avraham through the intrapsychic territory of the Tree of Knowledge into the recesses of the Tree of Life. Avraham blazed that trail and we (as his spiritual heirs) inherit both the mandate and the facility to do the same.
…וְהָﭏהִים נִסָּה אֶת-אַבְרָהָם…
…And God tested Abraham… [Gen 22:1]
Layer 1: Our story begins with the words: “And Elokim tested Avraham…” HaShem has different faces which are different channels of connection with creation. The Mei HaShiloach notes that Elokim is the name that refers to HaShem’s more constricted, harsh, fearful modality.[ii] Communications that come through that channel are dim compared to the lucid prophesies emanating from the face of Havaya[iii].
Avraham hears the call, and is (nearly) certain of its authenticity. Avraham accepts the mission and proceeds to obey.
… וְהָﭏהִים נִסָּה אֶת-אַבְרָהָם …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:
…Elokim tested Abraham, and said to him… Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you. [Gen 22:1-2]
Layer 2: Near-certainly is not enough to sustain an action that carries such devastating consequences. Besides the inherent fuzziness of prophesies emanating from Elokim, there were other compelling reasons for Avraham to doubt whether he heard the message correctly.
- Its command to sacrifice Yitzchak contradicts HaShem’s previous prophesy to Noach prohibiting murder for, despite its testament of faith as well as Yitzchak’s consent, Avraham would still be committing a homicide.
- It contradicts HaShem’s explicit promise that Yitzchak would be the inheritor of his (and Sarah’s) bloodline and spiritual lineage.
- Finally, as we only find out at the end, it is not really what HaShem wants. A command conveys its commanders will. Yet HaShem did not actually want this directive to occur. The deeper Avraham’s state of devekut, the more ambivalence he must have experienced. The more attuned he became to HaShem’s inner truth, the more he must have wondered whether he got the message correctly, for the dissonance between HaShem’s word and HaShem’s will could only have increased.
The Midrashim enumerate the doubts and resistance that Avraham faced each step of the way.[iv]
Layer 3: Given Avraham’s natural abhorrence of the task at hand, he could easily have rationalized that he got it all wrong…that HaShem could not possibly have spoken that command for it not only belies His values, but contradicts His previous directive, and it’s a premise of faith that HaShem does not renege on His word. The intrapsychic pressure on Avraham to choose this option—this (respectable) escape route—must have been enormous.
Yet, in choosing that option, Avraham (paradoxically) would have done the right thing (in not sacrificing Yitzchak) but he would have failed the test. He would have acted from Good and Evil consciousness instead of dropping down and drawing from his inner Tree of Life.[v]
The whole point of the test was for Avraham to sacrifice all ego attachments, even the most noble of them. His challenge was to withhold absolutely nothing from G-d. And if Avraham could succeed he would create a devekut—a core to core merger with the Divine—that would be the legacy of his lineage (and its foundation stone).
Avraham passed this test by trusting the wisdom and goodness of G-d despite the irrationality of it all, and despite appearances to the contrary. Avraham proceeded to fulfill the formidable command.
וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו מַלְאַךְ יְי מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם וַיֹּאמֶר…אַל-תִּשְׁלַח יָדְךָ אֶל-הַנַּעַר וְאַל-תַּעַשֹ לוֹ מְאוּמָה כִּי | עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי-יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים אַתָּה וְלֹא חָשַֹכְתָּ אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ מִמֶּנִּי:
And the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, …Lay not your hand upon the lad, nor do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing that you did not withheld your son, your only son from me.
Layer 4: Hashem (via angelic emissary) stayed Avraham’s hand. Rambam defines angel as the means by which a force exerts itself at a distance.[vi] There are all kinds of angels—spiritual, mental, emotional and physical. One way to think of them is as vibes—energetic influences that are invisible but yet still sensible (meaning subject to inner perception). Some angels carry influence from one person to another, or from HaShem to creation or even from a person to him or herself. In kabbala our good and bad inclinations (yetzer tov and yetzer hara) are called angels—the good angel and the bad angel.[vii] When a desire triggers an impulse which then motivates an action, that impulse is an angel—it is the means by which a force (in this case, the desire) exerts itself at a distance (i.e. through an action that impacts the world).
For example, when Yehuda set out to shear his sheep and was waylaid by Tamar who posed as a woman-of-hire, the Midrash explains that HaShem caused the angel of lust to steer Yehuda into the cave.[viii] He was overtaken by an irresistible desire to be with that veiled woman, yet the lust that drove him is called an angel. It was the means by which Hashem’s will for them “to conceive kings” (i.e. the messianic lineage) was fulfilled.[ix]
Similarly here. When Avraham proved his willingness to withhold nothing from G-d—to endure a total ego death—he touched core. He accessed the level of soul, called Yechida, that is hewn from the pure simple oneness of Divinity and maintains constant contact with It. At that point there welled up from within Avraham the certainty of NO!…I cannot proceed…I will not proceed…My chelek Elokai forbids me to proceed. The “angel of HaShem” stayed his hand…for at the level of Yechida Avraham’s will, and HaShem’s will are merged. That perfectly selfless (yet audacious) No!, is what HaShem was waiting for. Avraham transcended Tree of Knowledge consciousness and entered the rarified environs of the Tree of Life. With Avraham’s “Yes (at stage 3) and No! (at stage 4)” he fulfilled his life mission of forging the Jewish soul.
As Avraham’s consciousness deepened, so his understanding of HaShem’s intentions similarly deepened…and corrected…until he knew with bone-felt certainty that HaShem was wanting the very opposite of what He had seemed to request. That newfound conviction erupting from his core is the angel that stayed Avraham’s hand. Yet, at this point, Avraham still did not understand how HaShem’s will cohered with His word. Hashem explains:
“When I told you take your son I didn’t say to slaughter him, only to raise him up onto the altar. You have raised him up, now take him down.”
HaShem, apparently, never expected Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchak. The test was for Avraham to discover that fact from inside himself, without being told and without being swayed by self-consideration.[x]
All this gets reactivated on Rosh Hashana for the shofar’s power originates (at least in part) from the ram that was offered in Yitzchak’s stead.[xi] The gematria of Rosh HaShana and the opening phrase of Avraham’s test: “And Elokim tested Abraham…” are the same because these two events are deeply linked.[xii]
Avraham’s test was epic. Yet on a mini scale we all struggle with this tension between surrender and assertion in so many areas of life. May the shofar open our heart, bones, cells and spaces to whatever is Your will for us, HaShem, and may we receive that calling undistorted by narcissistic needs and ego defenses so that we come to prefer the most the spiritually productive option in each moment and embrace it with a whole heart.
[i] Zohar 1:78a.
[ii] Mordecai Joseph Leiner of Izbica, Mei HaShiloach, part I, parashat vayera: “V’HaElokim nisa”; part II, parashat vayera: “Ikar hanesayon.”
[iii] Havaya is the way to indicate the four letter unutterable name of HaShem (called, Tetragrammaton) without actually spelling it (with all the complications that would bring.)
[iv] BR 56:5, 15; YS 1:98, 99; BR 56; Tiferet Tsion on BR 56:5; Midrash HaGadol 22:1.
[v] Before eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Chava were in “true and false” consciousness. After eating from the Tree of Knowledge, they descended into “good and evil” consciousness which is “true and false” distorted by narcissistic needs and ego defenses. Good is what the ego can acknowledge as good, and evil is what the ego cannot bear.
[vi] Rambam, Guide to the Perplexed, II:6-7
[vii] ספר עץ חיים – שער נ פרק ג (טוב ויצה”ר שניהן הם מלאכים בחי’ חו”ג של חלק אותה הנפש העולה מזה כי יצר)
[viii] Gen. 38.
[ix] “R’ Yoḥanan said, Yehuda sought to pass by Tamar. The Kadosh Barukh Hu dispatched the angel of lust to trap him. The angel said to Yehuda, ‘Where are you going? From where will kings arise? From where will great men arise?’ Yehuda then detoured to her by the road. He was coerced, against his good sense.” (Bereishit Rabbah 85:8)
[x] R. Eliyahu Dessler, in Michtav M’Eliyahu (vol 2, p. 194-199) explains that had the world been at a different level of consciousness—a messianic level of consciousness—then such a deed would have had a whole different meaning (and power), It would have initiated the era called “Resurrection of the Dead.” The idea is that Yitzchak would have immediately resurrected into his light-body and that would have brought creation into its world-to-come where everyone dies for an instant and then resurrects into his or her eternal [light] bodies. That’s another way of understanding the initial command as not something twisted and perverse.
[xi] GR 56:9.
[xii] They are both 861. R. YYYY Safrin, Zohar Chai 2:280b.