Thursday, November 9, 2006

Sacrifice Anyone?

This week’s parsha introduces a new Jewish value. It is a value treasured by G-d and Avraham alike and is undeniably essential to Judaism, but today it makes people uncomfortable. In our progressive world, it strikes many as primitive, even unhealthy. I am speaking of “Yirat Hashem,” the fear of G-d.

When Avraham and Sara move to Gerar and pose as siblings, it doesn’t take long for the king Avimelech to appropriate our beautiful matriarch. G-d informs Avimelech that Sara is a married woman and warns him against touching her. Indignant, Avimelech rightly accuses Avraham of tricking him.

"How could you do this to us? What terrible thing did I do to you that you brought such great guilt upon me and my people? The thing you did to me is simply not done!" (Bereishit 20:9).

Avraham silences the king with his frank reply:

"I realized that the only thing missing here is the fear of G-d. I could have been killed because of my wife."

To Avraham’s mind, security boils down to one basic question: Fear of Heaven. It is irrelevant that murder and adultery are against the law and it is irrelevant that people are educated and cultured. The only thing that can be trusted to control man’s passions and prevent sin is fear of G-d. The town of Gerar had none and that made it a dangerous place. The king didn’t argue.

Later in the parsha, G-d tests the strength of Avraham’s own fear of Heaven with the Akeida, the “Binding of Isaac.” When G-d commands Avraham to present his son as a burnt offering, Avraham heroically sets out to fulfill G-d’s will with perfect faith. At the last possible moment, an angel has to be sent to prevent Avraham from actually killing Yitzchak. G-d then says this:

"Now I know that you fear G-d. You have not withheld your only son from Me" (Bereishit 22:12).

It seems that fear of G-d is critical not only for the prevention of sin, but also for the fulfillment of mitzvot. Why is this? Shouldn’t love of G-d and appreciation for His infinite benevolence suffice to drive man to do mitzvot? Why is Avraham’s performance at the Akeida trial attributed to fear and not love? Isn’t love all we need?

No, we need more than love. Had Avraham only loved G-d and not feared Him, Avraham would never have brought his son to the Akeida. Before Yitzchak was born, G-d told Avraham explicitly that His eternal covenant would be established with Yitzchak and his descendants (Genesis 17:19). The new command to kill Yitzchak clearly contradicted that earlier prophecy. If Avraham’s relationship with G-d was built solely on love, the contradiction would have paralyzed him. For when man is in love, his sole focus is to bring pleasure to his loved one. Unable to determine what G-d really wanted, Avraham would not have dared kill Yitzchak (cf. Bereishit Rabba 56:16).

Fear, however, changes everything. The question is no longer what G-d wants, but what are my obligations. These are two very different things. G-d’s statement that Yitzchak will father the Jewish nation was not a command; offering Yitzchak as a sacrifice was. Do they conflict? Yes. Does this present a problem for one who fears G-d? No. Man is not responsible for reconciling divine contradictions; man’s job is faith and duty. This is why Avraham’s unquestioning obedience at the Akeida proved his fear and not his love.

There is another explanation.

It’s hard to love when you don’t feel loved. Love could not have brought Avraham to the Akeida for love doesn’t function well if it is perceived as one-sided. When mitzvot appear irrational or callous, like at the Akeida, man feels unloved by G-d and the love relationship falters. In such situations, when the eternal Torah confronts the temporal values of society and contradicts the sensibilities of the human mind, the resultant friction can only be resolved through sacrifice. Love would expect the sacrifices to be mutual. Fear would not. The Akeida must therefore be an expression of fear.

This explains why the Torah requires fear and this also explains why religiosity is so disturbing to modern man. In 1965, Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik published a monumental essay entitled “The Lonely Man of Faith.” It describes our problem and finds modern man wanting:

"Western man… certainly feels spiritually uprooted, emotionally disillusioned, and, like the old king of Ecclesiastes, is aware of his own tragedy. Yet this pensive mood does not arouse him to heroic action. He, of course, comes to a place of worship. He attends lectures on religion and appreciates the ceremonial, yet he is searching not for a faith in all its singularity and otherness, but for religious culture. He seeks not the greatness found in sacrificial action but the convenience one discovers in a comfortable, serene state of mind. He is desirous of an aesthetic experience rather than a covenantal one, of a social ethos rather than divine imperative. In a word, he wants to find in faith that which he cannot find in his laboratory, or in the privacy of his luxurious home. His efforts are noble, yet he is not ready for a genuine faith experience which requires the giving of one’s self unreservedly to G-d, who demands unconditional commitment, sacrificial action and retreat… Therefore, modern man puts up demands that faith adapt itself to the mood and temper of modern times."

In other words, in response to the Torah’s call for selfless service and noble sacrifice, man sardonically expects Judaism to make sacrifices for him. Avraham said it long ago in Gerar, but it can be said of modern times as well: “The only thing missing here is the fear of G-d.” Love abounds, but fear remains rare.


  1. Thanks again, Rabbi Gordon, for another thought-provoking interpretation of the weekly parsha!

    It seems as if Abraham must make a journey from the beginning of the parsha where he is shown as a Man of Chesed, to the end of the parsha where he makes his final lech lecha and becomes a Man of Din. Chesed is an expression of love, Din is an expression of yir'eh. It seems, then, that the episode with Avimelech represents that transition. Avimelech asks Abraham to show him kindness--Avraham agrees, but then carries out the Din regarding the dispute over the well.

    My question is this: The Akedah opens with a three-fold description of Isaac—-“your son, your only one, whom you love…” However, after Isaac is saved, the phrase, “whom you love” is dropped TWICE: “For now I know that you are a G-d fearing man, since you have not withheld your son, your only one, from Me” (22:12); “Because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only one, I shall surely bless you…” (22:16)

    Why, after the Akedah, is Isaac no longer described as the son, “whom you love”?

  2. It's not just about Avraham's fear, this says alot about Avraham himself. He was committed to his cause, he wasn't the kind of man who was blindly committed though. As we see the parsha starts out the Avraham leaving a metting with G-d to greet to angels who have come in disguise. He knows when to go the extra mile, even if that mean leaving G-d's very presence!

    It's not just fear, G-d's request was a request, not a demand! He says "kach na", please take!

  3. Thank you Rabbi Gordon,

    Leaving Abraham's unquestionable personal commitment to G-d aside, are there any lessons of good parenting we can learn from otherwise traumatic experience for Isaac ? What can I add in presenting the Akedah story in a positive light to parents of small/teenage children, who are terrified by this episode ? Despite Isaac being 33 years old, most still consider his obedience child-like, and hence project the entire story onto their younger prodigy.

    Many thanks,

  4. Amanda Orrin11/09/2006 3:02 PM

    Rabbi Gordon,

    This idea is very thought-provoking, but it is important that we remember that the meaning of "fear" is not understood by Americans the way it is interpreted from the Torah. Rather, "awe" may be a more relevant term to describe the mitzvah at hand.

    Can you please give an example to the rest of us, that may be easier to relate to than the Akedah, in which we can excercise not only love, but also "fear" of G-d?

    Thank you!

  5. "Love abounds, but fear remains rare." Exactly! How many people in their daily lives actually consider the possibility that there is an omniscient, omnipotent being who actually judges what they do? In considering such a reality, one may reasonably understand Avraham's decision. Absent from such a reality, one is faced with a strange father and (arguably) an even stranger son. The recognition of G-d's sovereignty on earth and with it, the duty of oneself to G-d, is, perhaps, one of the key elements of true righteousness.

  6. Leo-
    The lesson is clear, and it's not just for kids: Faithfully do Hashem's will, even if you don't understand it - in the end all will turn out well. We can rely on G-d that He knows what He's doing. Kind of like a parent and a child, no?
    BTW, Yitzchok was 37 at the Akeida

    You are correct that "Yirah" can mean awe, but sometimes it simply means old fashioned fear of divine retribution. The correct translation will depend on the context, but there is no question that a Jew needs to have both.
    As for practical examples, every single day provides ample opportunities for excercising fear and "sacrificing" for G-d. Proper observance of Shabbat, Chagim, Kashrut and Family Purity and controling the negative drives for Lashon Hara, anger and selfishness are just a few examples of mitzvot that require man to rise above his personal desires and sacrifice them before the One G-d. These are the tests that elevate man above the instintive animal and develop him into a healthy spiritual being.

  7. R" Gordon, one question I have never asked about the Akeidah is why Sarah does not appear in the narrative? She is not told by Abraham what is happening and the blessing after the Akeidah is from G-d to Abraham and his seed. Why is the blessing not from G-d to the Avot and Imahot?

  8. Rafael Araujo11/10/2006 7:24 AM

    Yasher koach for your Divrei Torah. I would add what I saw last night in the Seforno al ha Teyreh. He comments on Avrohom's reply to Avimelech that there was no fear of G-d here that Avrohom ascertained this from the fact there was no "yiras malchus", fear of the government (lit. kingship"). Relating to what you are saying, maybe Avrohom saw was love and veneration towards Avimelech by the citizens of Gerar but no fear of him as melech and as such, since as you posit love is not enough, Avrohom knew that there can be no Yiras Shomayim in Gerar.

    Just a heoreh on your peshat - doesn't the Mesillas Yesherim state, when discussing zehirus, that ahavas H-shem is a higher level then fear of retribution, which he attributes to the hamon am? Maybe I am incorrect.

  9. Barry-
    I'm still thinking about your question.

    If the blessing was just for Avraham and G-d didn't have a need for Sara, why did G-d have to perform an extra miracle for her to mother Yitzchak? Hagar could have mothered him if Yishmael didn't cut it - remember, Hagar was also a prophet. It seems clear from the story that Sara plays a critical role as matriarch - especially when G-d commands Avraham to listen to her voice. Why doesn't G-d address her when he blesses the family? I can only guess, but I imagine it has something to do with the value of Tzeniut, modesty. Sara is in the tent, always avoiding the spotlight.

    Good point! Yes, both the Rambam & the Ramchal state that fear of punishment is at the bottom of the rung of man's relationship with G-d, but that does not make it any less essential - it is the foundation upon which one builds. Along with love, the Torah obligates fear: "Et Hashem Elokecha Tira."
    Rabbi Yisroel Salanter made the development of this fear a centerpiece of his educational philosophy.

  10. Anonymous (I)-

    You wrote:
    "It's not just fear, G-d's request was a request, not a demand! He says "kach na", please take!"
    While "na" can mean "please" as in Bamidbar 12:13, "Kel na refah na lah," the very same verse also demonstrates that the word can also mean "now." (See Onkelus ad loc.) Certainly, the vast majority of commentators take our "na" as "now." See, however, Sefer HaIkkarim who understands that Avraham was entirely free of any obligation.

  11. "It is irrelevant that murder and adultery are against the law and it is irrelevant that people are educated and cultured. The only thing that can be trusted to control man’s passions and prevent sin is fear of G-d."

    It's easy for me to say this today, but Rabbi E. Wasserman said it in Germany in 1936. See this:

  12. hi just an old shaar hatorah boy shepping nachas... is ishbitz really chaim meyer? thats my best guess