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Akeidat Yitzchak – Punishment or Test?

  • Rav Yoel Bin-Nun
In memory of Rabbi Jack Sable z”l and
Ambassador Yehuda Avner z”l
By Debbi and David Sable
Dedicated in memory of Elyakim ben Michael z”l
whose yahrtzeit is 19 Cheshvan
By Family Rueff
In memory of Rav Michael Bloom - "Mike" 
on his first yahrzeit. יהי זכרו ברוך
Akiva and Shanen Werber and family
The Rashbam deviates from all of the accepted interpretations of the Akeida. This may have been in opposition to the idealization of the Akeida at a time when persecution of Jews and of Judaism was rampant and when the authors of the piyyutim tended to interpret the Akeida as if, God forbid, it had actually taken place.[1] This position of the paytanim was in sharp contrast to what is stated in the gemara (Ta'anit 4a) about the verse in Yirmeyahu (19:5): "To burn their sons in the fire for burnt-offerings to Ba'al; which I commanded not, nor spoke it" – "This is Yitzchak the son of Avraham."
The Rashbam understands the Akeida as a punishment for sin, and he even spells out the sin, as well as the logic of the punishment.
All the other commentaries read the story of the Akeida as an independent unit, without relating to what came before it. In contrast, the Rashbam connects the story of the Akeida to the sections that precede it, and thus offers a persuasive explanation of the opening words: "And it came to pass after these things" (Bereishit 22:1). The Rashbam comments about the Akeida as follows: 
"And it came to pass after these things" (Bereishit 22:1) – Wherever it says "after these things," there is a connection to the preceding section. "After these things" (Bereishit 15:1) – after Avraham killed the kings, God said to him: Fear not, Avraham, the nations. "And it came to pass after these things" (Bereishit 22:2) – after Yitzchak was born, "Avraham was told, saying…and Betuel begat Rivka" (Bereishit 22:23)… Here too, after the things that Avraham entered into a covenant with Avimelekh, with him and with his son and with his son's son, and he gave him seven sheep. And the Holy One, blessed be He, was angry with him about this, for the land of the Pelishtim is included in the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael… Therefore, "and God nisa Avraham" (Bereishit 22:1) – He vexed him and caused him distress, as it is written:… "And because they vexed [nasotam] the Lord" (Shemot 17:7); Masa and MerivaThat is to say, you acted arrogantly with the son that I gave you, entering into a covenant between you and their descendants. Go now and offer him as a burnt-offering and see whether your covenants helped!…  (Rashbam, Bereishit 22:1)
This is a sharp and far-reaching interpretation, which seems to outright contradict what is stated at the end of the story: "For now I know that you are a God-fearing man" (Bereishit 22:12). If the Akeida is a punishment, how does Avraham's fear of God become known from it? The verses at the end of the story fit with the opinion of most of the commentators, who view the Akeida as a test, and it would seem that the Rashbam's position should be rejected because of this contradiction. On the other hand, a parallel and precise reading of the story of Avimelekh (chapter 20) and the story of the Akeida points to a strong connection between the plain meaning of the verses in the two stories, the key phrases, and the relationship between the oaths and the fear of God. In this Rashbam was undoubtedly correct.
When Avraham went down to Gerar, he was afraid that there was no fear of God in that place: "And Avraham said: Because I thought, surely the fear of God is not in this place, and they will slay me for my wife's sake" (Bereishit 20:10). But when Avimelekh told "all these things" in the ears of his servants, it says: "And the men were very afraid" (Bereishit 20:8). As for Avraham, the fear of God is the climax of the Akeida story: "For now I know that you are a God-fearing man" (Bereishit 22:12).  
The following parallels are also noteworthy: "And Avimelekh rose early in the morning, and called all his servants" (Bereishit 20:8); "And Avraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his ass" (Bereishit 22:3).[2] Avimelekh said to Avraham: "What did you see, that you have done this thing" (Bereishit 20:10), and God said to Avraham:  "Because you have done this thing" (Bereishit 22:17). "Now Avimelekh had not come near her… And God said to him in a dream, ‘Yea, I know that in the simplicity of your heart you have done this’" (Bereishit 20:4-6); and corresponding to this: "And the angel of the Lord called out to him out of heaven, and said: ‘Avraham, Avraham… for now I know that you are a God-fearing man’" (Bereishit 22:11-12).
The words of Avimelekh to God in the dream, "Will you slay even a righteous nation" (Bereishit 20:4), bring to mind the words of Avraham when he prayed on behalf of Sodom: "Will You sweep away the righteous with the wicked" (Bereishit 18:23), and add to the parallels to the story of the Akeida a general and contrasting parallel between Avraham and Avimelekh.
The strongest parallel is found in one verse relating to Avimelekh in relation to two verses at the end of the Akeida story, in a relatively rare verb. Regarding Avimelekh it says: "I know… and I also withheld you from sinning against Me…," and regarding Avraham it says: "For now I know… and you have not withheld your son, your only son" (Bereishit 22:12, 16).[3]
A closer examination of the wording of the text reveals several additional parallels. For example: "And Avimelekh king of Gerar sent, and took Sara" (Bereishit 20:2); "And Avraham sent out his hand, and took the knife" (Bereishit 22:10). "But God came to Avimelekh in a dream of the night, and said to him: Behold [hinkha], you shall die, because of the woman whom you have taken" (Bereishit 20:3); "And God tested Avraham, and said to him: Avraham; and he said: Here am I [hineni]. And He said: Take now your son" (Bereishit 22:1-2).
Another important parallel relates to oaths. Avimelekh asks of Avraham: "Now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me, nor with my son, nor with my son's son; but according to the kindness that I have done to you, you shall do to me, and to the land in which you have sojourned" (Bereishit 21:23), and Avraham answers him: "And Avraham said: I will swear" (Bereishit 21:24). And in the Akeida story we read: "And the angel of the Lord called to Avraham a second time out of heaven, and said: ‘By myself have I sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this thing…’" (Bereishit 22:15-16).
"I have withheld" – "you have not withheld"; the taking of Sara – the taking of Yitzchak and the knife; Avimelekh's rising early – Avraham's rising early. "I know" the simplicity of Avimelekh's heart – "I know" Avraham's fear of God; the fear of God – the fear of God; oath – oath. It is impossible to question the correctness of the Rashbam's fundamental argument, according to which the story of the Akeida is connected from all sides to the story of Avimelekh and Avraham, Sarah as opposed to Yitzchak. 
But this correspondence only sharpens the objection raised earlier against the Rashbam's interpretation: If Avraham sinned when he swore to Avimelekh and Akeidat Yitzchak is his punishment for this sin, why did God take an oath to him and bless him in the wake of the Akeida? And how did Avraham's fear of God become known by way of a test that was nothing but a punishment?
With great caution, I wish to propose a softened version of the Rashbam's daring interpretation, one that can join the traditional interpretations that view the Akeida as a test. What I propose is a synthesis of the two interpretations and an example of an all-inclusive and unifying interpretation. 
A comparison between Avraham's going down to Egypt (Bereishit 12:10-20) and his going down to Gerar (Bereishit 20) shows that, in fact, Avimelekh acted kindly toward Avraham. When Pharaoh realized that Sarai was Avram's wife, he did not hesitate to send them both away, this being what was expected of him based on justice: "‘Now, therefore, behold your wife, take her, and go your way.’ And Pharaoh gave men charge concerning him; and they brought him on the way, and his wife, and all that he had" (Bereishit 12:19-20). In Gerar, on the other hand: "And Avimelekh said: ‘Behold, my land is before you: dwell where it pleases you’" (Bereishit 20:15). Avimelekh was not obligated to treat Avraham in a way that went beyond conventional practice. He too, like Pharaoh, could have declared Avraham an "unwanted person" and have him removed from the country, in accordance with the accepted norm.
Another striking difference: Regarding Pharaoh there is no mention whatsoever of the fear of God. God did not appear to him in a dream, nor did He speak to him. God punished him in an indirect manner: "And the Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Avram's wife" (Bereishit 12:17) – God brought harsh plagues upon Pharaoh and his house,[4] and Pharaoh understood by himself, without God speaking to him directly, that he was struck by the disease on account of Sarai. This was not the case with Avimelekh. It is true that God closed up the wombs of all the women in the house of Avimelekh (Bereishit 20:18), but He also appeared to Avimelekh in a dream to warn him, and even partially accepted his argument that "in the simplicity of my heart and innocence of my hands have I done this" (Bereishit 20:5): "And God said to him in the dream: ‘Yea, I know that in the simplicity of your heart, you have done this, and I also withheld you from sinning against Me’" (Bereishit 20:6). Avimelekh’s innocence was not confirmed, but the simplicity of his heart was.[5] 
Avimelekh's greatness is also evident in his saying before God: "Will you slay even a righteous nation" (Bereishit 20:4), like Avraham, and God's confirming by way of the words, "I know," at the very least, the simplicity of his heart. Avimelekh, in his rebuke of Avraham, spoke to him in terms of sin and the fear of God: "Wherein have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin, you have done deeds to me that ought not to be done" (Bereishit 20:9). In the context of Pharaoh, in contrast, there is not even a hint of such virtue, but only: "What is this that you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife" (Bereishit 12:18) – that is to say, why did you bring all these troubles upon me?
Avimelekh was, then, a man of virtue, a God-fearing man, seemingly like Avraham. He rose up early in the morning like Avraham; he merited speaking to God in a dream, like Avraham. He treated Avraham with kindness in the wake of God's words in the dream, and he allowed him to live in his land (hospitality!).
 The deceptive claim that "she is my sister" caused Avraham to feel inferior and embarrassed before Avimelekh, who had been suspected of lacking the fear of God but was found to be of a simple heart. When Avimelekh acted kindly toward Avraham and reminded him about this, Avraham could not refuse him. Avraham swore to the people of Gerar (until the fourth generation) about the land as well, as requested by Avimelekh, because he found himself in a position of moral inferiority. Avimelekh even emerged innocent, at least formally, from the accusation that his servants stole Avraham's well (perhaps with Avimelekh's turning a blind eye): "I know not who has done this thing; neither did you tell me, neither yet heard I of it, but today" (Bereishit 21:26). Not everything is perfectly straight in the kingdom of Gerar,[6] but Avimelekh emerged innocent!
When Avraham agreed to enter into a covenant with Avimelekh and give him his oath, thus formalizing the agreement between them, a question might have arisen about Avraham's selection, about his mission, and especially about the promise concerning the land. Perhaps Avimelekh was also worthy? Why was Avraham more fit to receive all the blessings than was Avimelekh? Perhaps Avraham's oath to him had absolute validity (and not only "with me, with my son, and with my son's son"). After all, Avraham and Avimelekh stood together at the same level, as it were, and bonded together with a covenant and oath. After Avraham's meeting with Avimelekh and in the wake of the oath to him, Avraham found himself in a position similar to that of Avimelekh and even bound to him, legally and morally. 
At that point, Avraham was commanded to bind his son and offer him as a burnt-offering – as a test, and not as a punishment, though this was a source of great grief for him. With this explanation, we return to the path taken by all of the commentators regarding the test, but we take from the Rashbam the clear connection to the story of Avimelekh. The test of the Akeida set Avraham's fear of God above and beyond that of Avimelekh. Like Lot, Noach, and all the other righteous men who were worried first and foremost about themselves and their families, when Avimelekh cried out to God in his dream: "Will you slay even a righteous nation" (Bereishit 20:4), he was pleading for his own life. On the other hand, when Avraham said: "Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?" (Bereishit 8:23), he was praying on behalf of the people of Sodom, including also his nephew Lot. Avraham was ready to sacrifice himself, his future, and his entire world, and he did not object. He did not cry out about himself or his son, but rather remained silent and accepted the decree, fulfilling God's command (as he heard and understood it) with perfect fear of God. In this way, he stood the test and merited anew God's blessing, this time with an oath.
The phrase lekh lekha, "go you," appears in the Bible only in two places. In the first instance, Avraham goes off to the promised land; in the second instance, he goes off to the site of the Temple, to see and to be seen.
In Biblical Hebrew, the word re'iya, seeing, bears the meaning of selection, and so too the word amira, saying.[7] In the first instance of going, God showed Avraham the land, and in the story of the Akeida, He said and showed him the chosen place and the fitting and desired offering. Twice in the story of the Akeida, Avraham lifts up his eyes: "On the third day, Avraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off" (Bereishit 22:4); "And Avraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns; and Avraham went and took the ram and offered it up for a burnt-offering in the stead of his son" (Bereishit 22:13). Truth be told, this is what Avraham awaited and hoped for while he was walking, and this is the mystery of their walking "together" (twice, before and after the conversation between Avraham and Yitzchak), when Yitzchak daringly asked his father: "‘Behold the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ And Avraham said: ‘God will show [= select] Himself the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son’; so they went both of them together" (Bereishit 22:8). This is the way Avraham concluded the story of the Akeida with the name of the place: "And Avraham called the name of that place Adonai-Yir'eh [= He will select the place and the offering]; as it is said to this day: In the mount where the Lord is seen" (Bereishit 22:14) – to see and to be seen, to select and to be worthy of being selected.
            Indeed, the call to Avraham in the story of the Akeida is similar to the first call directed toward Avraham:
Now the Lord said to Avram: “Go you out of your country, and from your kindred, and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you… and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” (Bereishit 12:1-3)
“…And go you into the land of Moriya; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you of.” (Bereishit 22:2)
And the angel of the Lord called to Avraham a second time out of heaven,  and said: “By Myself have I sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son, that in blessing I will bless you, and in multiplying I will multiply your seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore… and in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because you have hearkened to My voice.” (Bereishit 22:15-18)
Renewal of the mission, renewal of the purpose, renewal of the selection and of the blessing – these were the aims of the test, and from now on God's oath to Avraham will stand. 
God's oath to Avraham stands against Avraham's oath to Avimelekh – the one is eternal and absolute, like Avraham's fear of God, while the other is temporary and passing, like Avimelekh's fear of God, "with me, and with my son, and with my son's son" (Bereishit 21:23). Avraham's oath to Avimelekh would eventually lapse, and the shadow it cast upon Avraham already disappeared, because God's oath to Avraham includes a renewal of the selection, a renewal of the blessings of lekh-lekha. It was as if Yitzchak was born a second time by way of the revelation of God's angel who stopped the knife.
In the end, Avraham came back and returned to Be'er-Sheva, the well of the oath, and passed God's oath down to his son Yitzchak, who lived for most of his life in the Negev, between Gerar and Be'er Sheva.
(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] I heard this idea from Shimon Heksher (z"l) of Kibbutz Yavneh, who taught biblical interpretation in Yeshivat Kibbutz Ha-Dati in Ein Tzurim.
[2] Similarly, in connection with the expulsion of Yishmael, it says: "And Avraham arose up early in the morning" (Bereishit 21:14). There are also other elements shared by the story of Akeidat Yitzchak and the story of Yishmael's expulsion (e.g., the call of the angel of God from heaven to save them from death). This parallel adds to the connection between the Akeida and the preceding chapter.
[3] This parallel decided the matter for me in favor of the Rashbam's approach, to reveal the Torah's intention with the parallels and contrasts between Avimelekh and Avraham: God withheld Avimelekh from sinning against Him, but Avraham did not withhold his only son from God.
[4] Apparently, serious sexual diseases; see Rashi, ad loc.
[5] See Rashi, ad loc.
[6] Sara was taken and the well was stolen, and so there was no innocence of hand. But Avimelekh was misled about Sara, and he had no knowledge about the well.
[7] See at length in my father's book, Eretz Ha-MoriyaPirkei Mikra Ve-Lashon (Alon Shevut, 2006), pp. 3-6.