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  KD MAGAZINE!      ב"ה                    
 
 
  PARSHAT VAYERA  
 

17 Cheshvan 5769

Surrender
By Rabbi Asher Brander

PARSHAT VAYERA, BY RABBI ASHER BRANDER פרשת וירא, מאת הרב אשר ברנדר

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A young chicken and old cow are strolling down the side of the road. They chance upon a billboard ad for a local fast food joint - which displays a large picture of steak and eggs. Excitedly, the chicken proudly turns to the cow: look that's us- We're famous! The elderly cow turns to the chicken, not so quick young fowl. "For you it's a donation - for me, it's a commitment".

The tests of all tests[1], nisayon par excellence is akeidas yitzchak. It feeds national merit, gave inspiration to Jews throughout the ages who gave it all up for Hashem, forms the centerpiece of selichot , shofar, Rosh Hashana, Tachanun countless midrashim and beyond. Mipiha anu chayin.

But for whom was the test? Wasn't Yitzchak the one who was moser nefesh and was willing to commit his life? And yet, even as elements of this test were unique to Yitzchak, our classic "knowledge- base " and the simple textual read highlights Avraham, not Yitzchak as the primary testee[2]. The question we must probe is why? It's a famous question

Five approaches: follow [there are many others[3]]  

  1. A parent loves a child more than himself - Consider that Avraham, in his first test, was asked to give up his life rather than renounce his religion. He willingly plunges into the furnace. Assuming that the ten tests ascend in difficulty [or minimally that #10 is greater than #1] a developed more refined Avraham is much later in his life challenged to sacrifice Yitzchak. Ergo, the natural state of relations is that a parent's loves for one's child is greater than love for self. The Talmud also assumes that a parent's love for child is certainly stronger than the child's love for parent. [ For a parent, this notion is so patently obvious that any explication is superfluous - I write it for the children - J]  [Rabbeinu Bechayei, Beis HaLevi]
  1. Yitzchak was the culmination of Avraham's dreams - Avraham experiences a whole life of pining for a child -  to continue his life's work of Ahavas Hashem and perpetuate the mesorah. After one hundred years, Yitzchak is born; a great bond develops - thirty seven years of living, loving and learning between father and son create a permabond of unfathomable proportions. For Avraham, it doesn't get any better than this! Now Avraham must take, his son, the one, the apple of his eye .. [Moreh Nevuchim, 3:24]
  1. Repudiation of a life's work - What would happen to all those converts drawn to Avraham's pitch that Hashem, Hashem Keil rachum V'chanun - that the Lord is a merciful God. Would they not all walk away?
  1. Embarrassment - What could Avraham say to those that would accuse him of  being a charlatan?
  1. Avraham's nature was different than Yitzchak's - Avraham the essential manifestation of chessed in a human-being, had to transcend his nature to bring his son to the altar. Yitzchak, the paradigm of gevurah-strength, "merely" had to tap into his essence to willingly go as a sacrifice. Ultimately, Avraham and Yitzchal walk yachdav, but for Avraham the road traveled was far more perilous and daunting.  

One final approach moves me greatly - but first a word from a source that usually does not appear here. Immanuel Kant, famed German secular philosopher had a lot to say on the Biblical account of Akeidas Yitzchak. [For the sake of those who do not speak German (like myself), I present the English:

Abraham should have replied to this putative divine voice: "That I may not kill my good son is absolutely certain. But you who appear to me as God is not certain and cannot become certain, even though the voice sounds from the very heavens"...[For] that a voice which one seems to hear cannot be divine one can be certain of...in case what is commanded is contrary to moral law. However majestic or supernatural it may appear to be, one must regard it as a deception[4].

In other words, Avraham - to Kant, failed the akeidas Yitzchak because he did not challenge the morality of the command! To the traditional Jew, these are fighting words, a total antithesis to our mesorah - one that is replete with multiple references to the greatness and transcendent nature of the Avraham test.

But a gutte kasha, it is. In other words: why did Avraham not protest against Akeidas Yitzchak, for does it not seem that the commandment to place Yitzchak upon the altar [to presumably slaughter him] go against everything we know about Judaism and morality[5]?

Our Jewish response to Kant highlights a most fundamental Jewish notion of morality, a yesod of epic proportions. For at its core, Judaism teaches that no morality can exist independent of Divine dictate[6]. In other words the source of all morality begins with Hashem's command. That which is the ratzon Hashem, i.e. God's desire, ipso facto defines morality, even as may appear to defy huma comprehension or seem contra-moral. A striking midrash portrays King Shaul's struggle with the Amalek imperative [the obligation to wipe out the nation]: [Yoma 22b]

God,  for but one soul the Torah requires an eglah arufah [the ceremony of the broken calf]- , for all those souls of Amalek and what of the children  .. and what of the animals..A voice came from heaven: Don't be such a tzaddik

Morality that is not rooted within divinity is capricious and whimsical. Thus, (earlier in Vayera) when Avraham is asked by Avimelech why he did not inform Avimelech that he was married to Sarah - he protests: I am a man with a purity of heart and clean palms , Avraham responds with an apparent non-sequitur:

for I said there is no fear of God in this place.

But Avimelech never claimed to be God-fearing! He just said that he's a good moral guy.

Malbim explains the flow: you can be a really nice and sweet guy, but once your morality is divorced from Divinity and you make up the rules - then ultimately anything goes. Civility and culture perforce can not and will not protect man from himself[7]. A gripping vignette I recently read[8] illustrates the point 

Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, at the time a student in Harvard, relates how the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich told his philosophy class that a straight line leads from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant to the gas chambers in Auschwitz. His students were shocked to hear this great thinker say that the supreme ethicist from Koenigsberg could have contributed in any way to those terrible atrocities. In Kant's system, Tillich explained,ethics are determined by the human being, a complete rejection of heteronomous system imposed from Above. Once ethics are determined by human hands, rather than Divine decree, it is only a matter of time before the ethical monstrosity of Nazism arises.

Thus Avraham Avinu, intellectual giant, world philosopher had a fantastic nisayon. At the moment that God commanded, he surely comprehended the magnitude of the moral and ethical problem. Indeed Rashi raises a piece of the ethical question [22:12]  

R. Abba said: Avraham said to Him "I wish to clarify to You my complaint. Yesterday [previously] You said to me, 'For [only] through Yitzchok will seed be considered yours. And then, again You said, 'Take your son.' And now, You say to me, 'Do not touch the lad.' " G-d responded to him ..,

Herein lies the uniqueness of the Avraham test, for the very man whose discovery of God came through intellectual analysis; the individual whose sway over the masses was directly related to his brilliant and supple mind was ready, willing and able to surrender that logos to the Almighty. The test of bitul hada'as, the complete submission of human logic to a Higher Divine will is the naa'se v'nishma mantra of the faithful who on the one hand celebrates the question, chases it to the deepest places and on the other, exclaims fun a kasha starb nit , i.e. one does not die from the question.

As Jew, let us live a questioning life, one that passionately seeks to understand Divine truths; at the same time let use remember that our faith need not and dare not depend upon receiving the answer.


[1] Most assume that this was test # 10 [of ten] for Avraham. Cf. Rashi/Ramban in Pirkei Avos, Chapter 5. Ran argues

[2] Rabbeinu Bechayei points out that Yitzchak heard the command from Avraham while Avraham received it from Hashem. As such for Yitzchak, the leap of faith was greater than for Avraham.

[3] Cf. Maharit Orach Chaim, 2:6  who posits that at the end Yitzchak was bound and thus had no choice - while Avraham had to go the distance. Also see Midrash Rabah that Yitzchak hesitated for a moment in his encounter with the yetzer hara. Also, see Ibn Ezra who says he was young and thus coerced and finally see Hakesav V'Hakabalah

[4] Cf. Rambam Moreh Nevuchim who points out that Avraham's ability to bring Yitzchak on the altar proves that he knew beyond a shadow of doubt that he was having a Divine communication

[5] Indeed, Ibn Caspia in Gevia Kesef explains that one of the primary lessons to learn from the akeidah is the conclusion - that God neither wants nor demands that we sacrifice or children for him - a departure from heretofore pagan practices)

[6] This statement is intended in context of our discussion of absolute morality. Surely, there exists an intuitive basic morality - which we argue emanates from the resident tzelem elokim found in every human.  

[7] Malbim [ch. 20] is probably referencing Kant in his comments.

[8] Rabbi Josh Hoffman on NetVort


 

Good Shabbos,

Asher Brander 

Rabbi Asher Brander is the rabbi of The Westwood Kehilla, an orthodox synagogue in Los Angeles, CA. Their website is: http://www.kehilla.org/
 
 

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