Parashat Vayera tells the story of akeidat Yitzchak, God’s command to Avraham that he sacrifice his son, Yitzchak – a command which God suddenly rescinded just as Avraham held up the knife prepared to slaughter his son. An angel called out to Avraham to inform him that he was being tested to determine the extent of his subservience to God, and he and his descendants would be blessed for his preparedness to obey this command. The Torah then tells that Avraham saw a ram caught by its horns in the thicket in the woods: “Avraham lifted his eyes and saw there was a ram, afterward, caught in the thicket by its thorns” (22:13). Avraham proceeded to take the ram and offer it as a sacrifice in place of Yitzchak on the altar he had built for the sacrifice of his son.
A number of commentators noted the seemingly difficult word “achar” (“afterward”) in this verse. Rashi, based on Targum Onkelos, explains it to mean simply that after the angel instructed Avraham to desist, and not to sacrifice his son, Avraham saw the ram. Others, including Ibn Ezra, interpret this phrase to mean that Avraham saw the ram after it had become caught in the branches. The precise opposite approach is taken by Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch and Malbim, who explain “achar” to mean that Avraham looked around for an animal to offer as a sacrifice, and right after he saw this ram, it became trapped in the thicket. Avraham understood that God performed a miracle for him to enable him to offer this ram as a sacrifice. (The miraculous nature of this ram is indicated by Pirkei Avot 5:6, which cites a view that this ram was created together with other miraculous phenomena at the end of the six days of creation.)
The Chozeh of Lublin is cited as explaining the word “achar” in this verse as an allusion to the fact that the test of akeidat Yitzchak was not a one-time event, but rather repeats itself even “afterward,” albeit in a different form. Of course, God never commands the sacrifice of a child. In place of this test, however, God tests us through our entanglement of the “thicket” of human frailty. We so often feel as though we, like that ram, are “trapped” in our vices and weaknesses, that while we seek to advance and move forward, we are held back and restrained by our negative habits and instincts. The “akeida” which God expects of us is to continually and determinedly struggle to release ourselves from this “thicket” and devote ourselves to God – just as Avraham succeeded in disentangling the ram and offering it as a sacrifice. God will never again demand the kind of sacrifice He demanded from Avraham, but instead, He demands that we struggle, that we work hard to release ourselves from the entanglement of our negative inclinations, and not ever feel content remaining in the “thicket” of our faults and weaknesses.