The Binding: Now I Know that You Fear God
And it happened after these things that God tested Abraham. And He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ and he said, ‘Here I am.’ And He said, ‘Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go forth to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering, on one of the mountains which I shall say to you.’ And Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey and took his two lads with him, and Isaac his son, and he split wood for the offering, and rose and went to the place that God had said to him (Genesis 22:1–3).
“Abraham our father was tested with ten trials and he withstood all of them, to make known how great is His love for our father Abraham” (M Avot 5:3).
“It came to pass after these things that God נִסָּה (nissah), tested, Abraham (Genesis 22:1). It is written: You have given נֵּס (nes), a banner, to those in awe of You לְהִתְנוֹסֵס (le-hitnoses), to be unfurled (Psalms 60:6)—trial upon trial, elevation above elevation, to test them in the world, to elevate them in the world like a ship’s banner” (Bereshit Rabbah 55:1).
“And He said to him, ‘Abraham! Take, pray, your son (Genesis 22:2). And Abraham, having pity upon Isaac, said before Him: Master of all Worlds concerning which son do You decree upon me? Is it concerning the son lacking circumcision, or the son born for circumcision? He answered him: Your only one. He rejoined: This one is the only son of his mother, and the other son is the only son of his mother. He said to him: whom you love. He said to Him: I love both of them. He said to him: Isaac” (Bereshit Rabbah 31:38).
“And what is the purpose [of the Binding]? אֶמֶת (Emet), truth: in order that the equity of God’s justice may be מְאוּמָת (me’umat), verified, in the world. Thus, if one says, ‘Whom He wishes to enrich, He enriches; to impoverish, He impoverishes; whom He desires, He makes a king; when He wished, He made Abraham wealthy, and when He wished He made him king,’ then you can answer, ‘Can you do what Abraham did?’ Abraham was a hundred years old when Isaac his son was born to him (Genesis 21:5). And after all this anguish [i.e., Sarah’s childlessness], it was said to him, ‘Take your son…’ (Genesis 22:2). And he did not refuse.
Rabbi Yonatan said, ‘A potter does not test a weak vessel, for if he hits it just once, he will break it….’ Rabbi Yose son of Ḥaninah said, ‘When a flax maker knows that the flax is in good shape, then the more he beats it, the more it will improve and glisten….’ Rabbi El’azar said, ‘The matter may be compared to a householder who has two heifers, one strong, one weak. On whom does he place the yoke? So the blessed Holy One does not try the wicked but the righteous: YHWH probes the righteous (Psalms 11:5)….
One said, ‘I am more beloved than you, for I was circumcised when I was thirteen years old.’ The other said, ‘I am more beloved than you, for I was circumcised sooner, namely, on the eighth day.’ Ishmael said to him, ‘I am more beloved than you, because I could have objected but didn’t.’ At that moment Isaac said, ‘Would the blessed Holy One appear to me and tell me to cut off one of my limbs I would not object.’ The blessed Holy One said to him, ‘If I should tell you to offer yourself up to Me, you would not refuse’” (Bereshit Rabbah 55:1–4).
“[And Abraham made a great feast on the day Isaac was weaned (Genesis 21:8)]—the adversary said to the Almighty, ‘Master of the Universe! To this old man did You graciously vouchsafe the fruit of the womb at the age of a hundred, yet of all that banquet which he prepared, he did not have one turtle-dove or pigeon to sacrifice to You! He only acted in honour of his son! Rabbi Shim’on son of Abba said: [Take,] pray, [your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac…] (Genesis 22:2)—נָא (na), pray, can only denote entreaty. This may be compared to a king of flesh and blood who was confronted by many wars, which he won by the aid of a great warrior. Subsequently he was faced with a severe battle. Thereupon he said to him, ‘I pray you assist me in battle that people may not say, there was no reality in the earlier ones.’ So also did the blessed Holy One say to Abraham, ‘I have tested you with many trials and you withstood them all. Now, be firm, for My sake in this trial, that men may not say, there was no reality in the earlier ones….’
[The adversary said to Abraham on his way to Mount Moriah:] Look, you reproved many, and slack hands you strengthened. The stumbler your words lifted up, and bended knees you bolstered. But now it comes to you and you cannot stand it, it reaches you and you are dismayed (Job 4:2–5). He replied, I will walk in my wholeness (Psalms 26:2). ‘But,’ said [the adversary] to him, Is not your reverence your safety? (Job 4:6). ‘Remember,’ he retorted, What innocent man has died? (ibid.). Seeing that he [Abraham] would not listen, he said to him, And to me came a word in secret (ibid., 12) thus have I heard from behind the curtain, ‘the lamb will be for a burnt-offering, while Isaac will not be the burnt-offering.’ He [Abraham] replied, ‘It is the penalty of a liar, that should he even tell the truth, he is not listened to’” (BT Sanhedrin 89b, cf. Midrash Vayyosha 1:36).
“וַיְהִי (Vayhi), it came to pass, after these דְּבָרִים (devarim), things (Genesis 22:1). Rabbi Shim’on said: We have learned that the expression It came to pass in the days of denotes sorrow, while the phrase וַיְהִי (Vayhi), it came to pass—even without in the days of—is tinged with sorrow [see BT Megillah 10b; Bereshit Rabbah 41 (42):3].
It came to pass after—the lowest of all upper rungs. Who is that? דְּבָרִים (Devarim) [Shekhinah], as is said: I am not a man of דְּבָרִים (devarim), words (Exodus 4:10) [at the beginning of his career, Moses was heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue (Exodus 4:10), not yet filled with the divine word, not yet intimate with Shekhinah]. Who came after this rung? And Elohim tested Abraham (Genesis, ibid.) for the evil impulse came to accuse in the presence of the blessed Holy One. Here we should contemplate: Elohim tested Abraham. The verse should read: tested Isaac, since Isaac was already thirty-seven years old, and his father was no longer responsible for him. If Isaac had said, ‘I refuse,’ his father would not have been punished. So why is it written, Elohim tested Abraham, and not Elohim tested Isaac?
But Abraham, precisely! For he had to be encompassed by judgment [or: crowned by rigor], since previously Abraham had contained no judgment at all. Now water was embraced by fire. Abraham had been incomplete until now, when he was crowned to execute judgment, arraying it in its realm. His whole life long he had been incomplete until now, when water was completed by fire, fire by water.
So Elohim tested Abraham—not Isaac—calling him to be embraced by judgment. When he did so, fire entered water, becoming complete. One was judged, one executed judgment—encompassing one another. Therefore the evil impulse came to accuse Abraham, who was incomplete until he executed judgment upon Isaac. For the evil impulse appears after דְּבָרִים (devarim), coming to accuse.
Come and see the mystery of the word: Although we have said that Abraham is written, not Isaac, Isaac is encompassed by this verse through the mysterious wording: Elohim tested אֶת (et) Abraham. It is not written tested לְאַבְרָהָם (le-Avraham), Abraham, but rather נִסָּה אֶת אַבְרָהָם (nissah et-Avraham)—tested et Abraham, precisely! This is Isaac, for at that time he dwelled in low power. As soon as he was bound on the altar, initiated into judgment fittingly by Abraham, he was crowned in his realm alongside Abraham—fire and water encompassing one another, ascending. Then division became apparent: water versus fire.
Who would have created a compassionate father who turned cruel? It was only so that division would manifest: water versus fire, crowned in their realms, until Jacob appeared, and everything harmonized—triad of patriarchs completed above, and below arrayed….
Isaac said to Abraham his father, My father!… (Genesis 22:7). Why didn’t he answer him at all? Because he had withdrawn from a father’s mercy for his son, so it is written: Here I am my son (ibid.). Here I am—mercy [i.e., Abraham (Ḥesed)] has vanished, transformed into judgement [i.e., Isaac (Gevurah)]. Abraham said, and it is not written: His father said, for he did not appear as a father but rather as an adversary” (Zohar 1:119b–120a, TZ 139a).
“Son honors his father—Isaac to Abraham. When did he honor him? When he bound him on the altar, intending to offer him up as a sacrifice. Isaac was thirty-seven years old, while Abraham was an old man, so if he had kicked with one foot he could not have withstood him. Yet he honored his father, allowing himself to be bound like a lamb to fulfill his father’s will” (Zohar 1:103a).
Do not reach out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him, for now I know that you fear God and you have not held back your son, your only one, from Me (Genesis 22:12).
Abraham My servant (Genesis 26:24).