The day Abraham and God passed their test


By Rabbi David L. Abramson
Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Vaera, Genesis 18:1-22:24.

One biblical story that has yielded a tremendous variety of interpretations is Akeidat Yitzchak, the story of the Binding of Isaac. And Abraham, the hero of the story, is seen in a different light, depending on how you interpret the story.

By the end of the story, God spares Isaac’s life, telling Abraham that he has passed the test by proving his willingness to sacrifice his son. But in the meantime, why didn’t Abraham argue with God when God told him to sacrifice his son? Why did Abraham appear willing to carry out these instructions without a word of protest? Was Abraham some sort of religious fanatic, filled with misguided zeal? Or did Abraham silently carry out his orders because he was a spiritual weakling, lacking the backbone to stand up to God?

A fascinating interpretation of this story is offered by Rashi, the medieval Bible commentator. One of the most compelling interpretations of this complex story is his reading of Genesis 22:5: “Then Abraham said to his servants, ‘You stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you.’”

But Abraham was planning — at God’s instructions — to go up to the mountain with Isaac and to sacrifice Isaac. How, then, could he promise his servants: “We will return to you?”

“Va’ani v’hana‘ar neil’kha ad ko — I and the boy will go up there.” Indeed, “ko” does mean “there.” But sometimes it means something else — for example, “thus.” The phrase “ko amar adonai — thus says Adonai” is all over biblical literature.

And God used the word “ko” when speaking to Abraham, in Genesis 15:5: “God said to Abraham: ‘Look up to the heavens and count the stars if you are able to count them’; and God said to him: ‘Thus [ko] will be your offspring.’”

“Thus [ko] will be your offspring” is God’s promise to give Abraham a multitude of descendants through his son. And now, it appears, God is about to renege on that promise.
Therefore, when Abraham told his servants “neil’kha ad ko,” he was telling them: “We’ll go up to the point of ko” — up to the point at which God fulfills or doesn’t fulfill the promise.
And in so doing, Abraham was testing God!

Ultimately, both passed their respective tests. Abraham passed, proving his loyalty to God through his willingness to sacrifice his son. And God passed, by displaying faithfulness to that earlier promise to Abraham, by sparing Isaac’s life.

Abraham wasn’t a weakling or a blind fanatic. He was a courageous man of faith, who struggled with God, who tested God. And yet, the rabbis don’t ask: Who was Abraham to test God? Where did he get the chutzpah?

Abraham was entitled to struggle with God, because his relationship with God was one of mutuality. This struggle with God ultimately strengthened Abraham’s relationship with God. And it is from within an intimate relationship with God that we, too, can struggle with God.

The name of this intimate relationship is “b’rit,” the covenant that is the foundation of Judaism. We, Abraham’s descendants, have inherited the covenant, and it is up to us to keep this covenant alive.

We learn from this story that, if we are real participants in the covenant, through real involvement in the life of Torah and mitzvot, we can enter into a truly intimate relationship with God, one in which we can challenge God and struggle with God, and one in which God can challenge us.

Rabbi David L. Abramson is an adjunct rabbi at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County, a chaplain at the Hebrew Home and for the Jewish Social Service Agency, and a freelance teacher.

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