This week, we read of the Binding of Isaac, one of the most difficult narratives to square with what we rightly regard as a religion of peace whose primary goal is to perfect the world.
Rabbinic sources identify the attempted sacrifice of Abraham's heir as the patriarch's 10th and final test inflicted by the Almighty. Ever since uprooting himself and setting out on a life of wandering from place to place, Abraham consoled himself with the knowledge that one day, he would give birth to a son who would inherit the Promised Land and, through him, seed a nation of holy people too numerous to count.
When Abraham considers himself too old to father a child through his wife Sarah, an angel tells him that she will miraculously conceive. He'll be called Isaac, his name — it comes from the Hebrew root meaning "to laugh" — indicative of the joy of a 100-year-old man and 90-year-old woman at finally bearing a child.
Isaac is born, he's nursed, he's weaned, and the entire ancient world celebrates with the burgeoning family.
And then … Abraham is commanded to give it all away.
But what about Isaac? The Torah records that during their fateful journey up Mount Moriah, he notices the lack of an animal to sacrifice and asks his father about it. He was likely aware of the situation when his father drew a knife with which to slay him.
Midrashic calculations go even deeper. Isaac was 36 at the time, they indicate, certainly old enough to run away. But when they reach the mountaintop and no animal appears, he doesn't flee.
So if Isaac willingly gave himself up as a sacrifice, why do we refer to the episode as Abraham's test?
As strange as it may seem, sacrificing his son was a harder thing for Abraham to do — in fact, the hardest of all tasks — than it was for Isaac to be sacrificed. The ensuing Torah portions paint a picture of Isaac as a perfect, blameless human being, and the commentaries point out that he never left the boundaries of what would become the Holy Land. Being holy himself, if he figured that a Heavenly decree demanded his sacrifice, he would submit.
While the sacrifice was completely within Isaac's nature, it was absolutely antithetical to Abraham's. Abraham, who the Midrash tells us was thrown into the fire by King Nimrod as a punishment for his faith — another of the 10 tests, which of course, he survived — was no stranger to self-sacrifice. He gladly gave of himself for any command of the Almighty.
When, at the ripe old age of 99, he was told to circumcise himself, he didn't flinch. Three days later, when the pain was at its most intense, he busied himself with the great mitzvah of attending to guests, as the beginning of this week's portion relates.
Abraham, though, could have been one of those people for whom hospitality and humility came easily. And while he spread monotheism throughout the world, maybe he derived some selfish pleasure from knowing that he was the agent of change.
In truth, Abraham was blameless. But as a demonstration of his faith, he had to do something completely against his nature.
That's why we regard this test as a foundation of the Jewish faith, recalling it during the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah. True adherence to the Torah requires us to rise above our nature and willingly obey the commands of the Almighty, even if they seem beyond the pale.
Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. E-mail him at: jrunyan@ chabad.org.