One of the most compelling episodes in the Torah is the story of the Akeidah, Abraham's fulfilling the divine commandment to bind his son Isaac on Mt. Moriah for the purpose of his slaughter.
One of the most compelling episodes in the Torah is the story of the Akeidah, Abraham's fulfilling the divine commandment to bind his son Isaac on Mt. Moriah for the purpose of his slaughter. The significance of this extraordinary display of faith and commitment to Hashem does not go unnoticed, as evidenced by its recital in the introduction of the daily prayers to invoke the mercy of Hashem upon us. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, this story becomes the Torah portion of the day, as well as a central theme in the prayers of Rosh Hashanah.
Abraham was no stranger to tests and sacrifice. Besides the test of the Akeidah, Abraham had successfully withstood nine tests prior. In one of them, Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his life for his beliefs and was actually thrown into a furnace by King Nimrod, only to be saved miraculously. Additionally, throughout history Jews have displayed great courage and sacrifice. Entire communities have been systematically "sacrificed". We must therefore say that there is more to the story of the Akeidah which provides it the tremendous significance. It was a totally new level of sacrifice which the descendants of Abraham, every single Jewish person, will acquire and become famous for.
The explanation: The fact that a person is prepared to sacrifice his own life for a particular cause, even if it is a G-dly one, doesn't necessarily imply that it is a true sacrifice. The person may conclude that life isn't worth living anymore under the circumstances, or that he would be making a bigger impact or statement about his goals in death. Since the worthiness of his "cause" might be questioned, in a calculated move the person makes a sacrifice to advance his agenda, and that makes perfect logical sense. However, this is not true sacrifice. True sacrifice is "mesirat nefesh" - sacrificing one's whole personality to Hashem. This type of sacrifice is a total commitment and dedicatio n devoid of logic; one is totally subjugated to Hashem and His will.
This is why the test of the Akeidah was so significant. Through all the previous challenges faced by Abraham, the only thing demonstrated was the logical attempt to "show the world" how seriously he was committed to his cause by overcoming tribulation, thus preserving his own integrity and that of his mission. This kind of outcome cannot be said of the Akeidah, because for Abraham to slaughter his son is totally counterproductive to his message. As a result of this "barbaric act", Judaism might seem to be some kind of sadistic cult, encouraging murder and human sacrifice, G-d forbid. This would have undermined the efforts of Abraham in his painstaking attempt to establish the Jewish religion. Abraham had nothing to gain logically from this performance. When Abraham went to sacrifice his son, it was only because this was the will of Hashem, and not for any other conceivable reason. This type of mesirat nefesh is what Abraham pioneered, and this is what is so special about the Akeidah and about all the sacrifices we and our ancestors have made.
This also explains a perplexing Talmudic statement. When Hashem initially requests Abraham to go to the mountain with his son, the Torah uses the unusual expression, "Please take your son. . ." (Genesis 22:2). The Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 89b) comments that Hashem was saying: "I request of you, stand firm for me in this trail, so that people should not say that there was nothing in the first nine tests." It seems unfair that just because Abraham wouldn't pass this enormous test of faith, all the previous accomplishments would be rendered insignificant. What the Talmud is saying is, should Abraham have been unable to pass this test, his former achievements might only have been because he wanted to make a point; by passing the last one, he showed that all of his past accomplishments were only a result of mesirat nefesh. He was completely and totally dedicated to Hashem.
The commitment, dedication, and sacrifice of Jews throughout history exists on a much deeper level after the pioneering work of Abraham. With this in mind, we should always have the strength and courage to overcome any obstacle or test that might stand in our way. In this merit, and in the merit of Abraham and all the Jews who have sacrificed their lives in Hashem's name, Hashem will surely have mercy on us.
Rabbi Yossi Lew is a rabbi at Congregation Beth Tefillah, youth coordinator at Chabad of Georgia, and a teacher at the Greenfield Hebrew Academy middle school.
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