Vayera – Akeida

When looking at the Akeida – the binding of Yitzhak on the altar, an event during which Abraham intended to take his own son’s life as he was commanded (but God held him back at the last moment) – questions arise. First among them is; many Jews lost their lives over the course of the centuries, for the purpose of sanctifying God’s holy Name, and few if any of them were commanded to do so in a direct command, as was Abraham regarding his son Isaac.  So, if so, what is demonstrated by akeida?

An example of self-sacrifice during the generations was the execution of the ten martyrs, including R’ Akiva, by the Romans.  There was no command from above for these great rabbis to allow themselves to be executed.  In fact, they could possibly have used their great spiritual level to have prevented the entire decree from occurring.  However, they understood that this was a decree from above, and they allowed themselves to be executed.  How was their self-sacrifice any less than that of Abraham?

The answer that we find in Chasidic literature (in the discourses of the Rebbe Rashab of the year 1918, page 283 as well as in the Rebbe Rayatz in the sefer maamorim 1928, page 102) is that the path of serving God by giving up one’s life (under the narrowly proscribed circumstances mentioned in the Rambam and halacha) was initiated by Avraham Avinu.  That is, the reason that later generations found it relatively easier to give up their lives to sanctify God’s name was because Avraham himself already opened up the path.  Every path of serving God is difficult until the spiritual “pipes,” so to speak are “opened,” and then the path becomes a two-way street, where in not only the person below finds it easier to choose, but God also clears the way for him from Above.

However, here another question arises, from the life of Avraham Avinu himself. In his early days in Ur Chasdim, he rebelled against the idolatrous ways of his society.  As a result, he was sentenced to death by the king, Nebuchednezar, who threw him into a furnace.  He was miraculously saved, but this was a test that noone commanded him to undergo.  There was no command from above telling Abraham to put himself in this dangerous situation, where in he was required to subject himself to the king’s decree.  How was this act, which occurred well before the akeida, any less an act of self-sacrifice than the akeida itself?

The answer, though, is that true self-sacrifice is the act of giving up our “I,” or our ego, not for any reason, but because God demands or requests it.  The test in Ur Chasdim was a public test, pitting Avraham against an idolotrous regime that sought to eliminate him and his radically monotheistic ways.  So, Avraham had a reason and motivation to go ahead with his self-sacrifice – in order to demonstrate that he was not willing to give up his monotheistic views under any circumstances.  The akeida, on the other hand, was a private matter between Avraham and God (the Ibn Ezra points out that even the assistants were not around at the time).  It was a test of Avraham’s commitment to God even when there was no reason for it – other than “God said.”  Only when Avraham had passed this test was it clear that all of his previous nine tests also took place with the same level of self-sacrifice.  And from that time on, every test that every Jew undergoes – even if it is a test that we can justify according to reason – occurs with the same level of self-sacrifice that Avraham underwent at the akeida.

For a more lengthy and detailed account, go to

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, vol. 20, Pp 73-78

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