The Akeida's Lesson for Penitents
R. Abahu asked: Why do we blow the shofar of a ram? God said: Blow with the shofar of a ram before Me, so that I will be reminded of the binding (akeida) of Yitzchak son of Avraham. And I will consider [the shofar blowing] the equivalent of your having bound yourselves before
At the climax of the story of the akeida, God commands Avraham:
Lay not your hand upon the lad, neither do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, seeing that you have not withheld your son, your only son, from
Rashi on this verse, quoting the sages, describes a conversation between God and Avraham:
“Lay not your hand” – to slaughter.
[Avraham] said to him: If this is the case, then I came [here] for nothing! I will just wound him, and I will draw a small amount of his blood.
[God] said to him: “Do not do anything (me’uma) to him,” Do not make a blemish (mum) in him.
These words are both astounding and frightening. Avraham, our forefather, who is the archetype of kindness and mercy, is determined to injure his son, despite the fact that God had “changed His mind” and told him not to lay a hand on the boy. How surprising!
The Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim (III:24) offers an unusual understanding of this story. Typically, the akeida is viewed as a symbol of the man of faith’s blind obedience to God. The story represents the concept of putting “We shall do” before “We shall hear” (Shemot 24:7). In other words, this seems to be a situation where actions are taken without understanding their purpose. And while this idea is a fundamental tenet of divine worship, it is not expressed (according to the Rambam) in the story of the akeida.
The Rambam believes that the goal of the mitzvot that are “without a reason” is to help us be subservient to God. We should do mitzvot in an unhesitating manner, as one who is commanded.
However, according to the Rambam, this does not apply to the akeida. The purpose of the akeida was not to dull the emotions but quite the opposite, to strengthen the emotions. But these emotions do not arise in a momentary frenzy; rather, they are the measured, considered result of much consideration and pondering. Whereas the philosophy of paganism only understands the concept of fear of punishment, our forefather Avraham had a different approach:
But the fact that he performed [the akeida] three days after he had received the commandment, proves the presence of thought, proper consideration, and careful examination of what is due to the Divine command and what is in accordance with the love and fear of God. There is no necessity to look for the presence of any other idea or of anything that might have affected his emotions.
For Avraham did not hasten to kill Yitzchak out of fear that God might slay him or make him poor, but solely because it is man's duty to love and to fear God, even without hope of reward or fear of punishment. We have repeatedly explained this. The angel, therefore, says to him, “For now I know [that you fear God]’ (Bereishit 22:12), that is, from this action, for which you deserve to be truly called a God-fearing man, all people shall learn how far we must go in the fear of God. [Friedlander translation]
Through the akeida, Avraham tried to teach the world something new. Therefore, he demanded that God would allow him to draw just a little bit of blood from Yitzchak’s body. This action, he felt, would leave an impression on the entire world, and would instill the message that he wanted to share.
The story of the akeida also highlights the significance of recognizing prophecy. Idol worship doesn’t know what prophecy is. The act of the akeida teaches us how powerful prophecy can be. Despite the fact that Avraham had been promised “Through Yitzchak you will have children” (Bereishit 21:12), and now he was commanded to bring this same Yitzchak up as a sacrifice, Avraham never doubted the truth of the prophecy and did not question it.
One of the main lessons of the akeida is that the act of repentance itself is something that requires thought and consideration. As in the akeida, so too in repentance it is not the temporary state of ecstasy that is primary. But rather, what is most fundamental is the true act of repentance, preceded by prior thought, consideration and the searching of the heart.
[This sicha was delivered on the second night of Rosh Ha-shana 5753 (1993).]