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When you’re living with Avraham Avinu (Abraham our forefather), it’s hard to keep up. Looking at the three weekly Torah portions of Genesis in which Avraham is the protagonist, there is so much happening that you have to play close attention to avoid missing any of the details of his eventful life. This week (parshat Vayera), the main theme is the akeida, or binding of Isaac, with the intention to sacrifice him, as commanded by G-d.

But, let’s look at the “sacrifice” of Isaac. It was a seminal event in Jewish history, such that one of the medieval Jewish sages (the Abarbanel) described it as “the entire prestige of the Jews and their merit before their Father in heaven, which is why we recite it before prayers every day.” But, when you think about it, throughout Jewish history, there have been plenty of Jews (unfortunately) who were willing to give up their own lives for the sake of G-d. And indeed, many of them did so, and few if any of them heard a direct command from G-d. Abraham had direct communication with G-d, Who told him to sacrifice his son. How is this a greater act than all those Jews (including in the holocaust) who voluntarily gave up their lives, without any kind of command or communication from above?

For example, in the time of the Talmud, R’ Akiva and nine other major sages of the Talmud were executed by the Romans for the “sin” of spreading and teaching Torah. There was no command from above for them to give up their lives; they could have resisted and perhaps used their spiritual powers to totally avoid this punishment. But, they understood that it was a decree from Above even without being told by G-d. How was their self-sacrifice less than that of Abraham?

There are some who answer that giving up one’s own life is not as dreadful nor as sacrificial as giving up the life of your child (G-d forbid). However, many generations after Abraham, we find that Chana did just that, giving up her seven children for the sake of G-d. And as she herself said (Gittin 57B), “You (Abraham) tied [your son] on one altar; I tied on seven altars.” In fact, Jewish history is rife with stories of Jews who not only gave up their own lives, but also their childrens’ lives.

The Ikarim (a medieval sefer of philosophical investigation into Judaism) attempts to explain that Abraham had a choice. He could have said to G-d, “Wait a minute, You just told me that my descendents would come from my son Isaac. How can you now ask me to sacrifice him?” And since Abraham could have (at least theoretically) prevented the sacrifice in this way, his self-sacrifice was greater than that of others in later generations, who had no choice in the matter. They were obligated by the commandment of the Torah, “And I should be sanctified among the children of Israel” (Lev. 22:32), while Abraham was under no such halachic obligation. However, aside from the fact that from Abraham’s perspective, a direct command from G-d did constitute an obligation (even if, theoretically, he could have argued), we find many instances in later generations when righteous Jews could have found halachic leniencies in order to avoid giving up their lives to sanctify G-d. And yet, even under those circumstances, they sought to do just the opposite; to demonstrate their devotion and determination to sanctify G-d’s name by giving up their lives.

The answer that is mentioned in Chasidic literature (in sefer mamorim of the Rebbe Rashab of the year 1918, p. 283 and also from the Rebbe Rayatz in the sefer mamorim, 1928, p.102) is that the path of serving G-d 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 G-d’s name was because Avraham already opened up the path. If he had not done so, then later generations would have had much more difficulty in so doing. Every path of serving G-d is difficult, until the spiritual “pipes,” so to speak, are opened up. Once they are “opened,” then the path is a “two-way street,” so to speak, and G-d clears the way for the person who wants to sanctify His name by giving up his life. It is the initial step that was difficult, because until Avraham Avinu demonstrated his willingness to give up his son’s life, there was no paved path for this form of spirituality. But, once Avraham initiated it, the holy Jews of later generations found the path open to give up their lives when, G-d forbid, the situation called for it.

However, there is another question that comes up here, this time from the life of Avraham himself. Long before the test of the akeida (“binding” of Isaac on the altar to sacrifice him), Avraham went through another test of his desire to serve G-d. Way back in Ur Chasdim, where Avraham grew up, he became an agitator against idol worship. As he grew in knowledge and understanding of the existence of the one G-d, he simultaneously rejected and militated against idol worship. He did so quite publicly, demonstrating in no uncertain terms to the people of his town that he was a threat to their idolatrous way of life. As a result, the king of the town, the Babylonian ruler Nebuchednazar decided to have Avraham executed. He threatened him that unless he accepted idols he would be thrown into a furnace. When Avraham nevertheless stood steadfast in his rejection of idolatry, he was thrown into the furnace but miraculously saved. Here, then, was an example of self-sacrifice that was not commanded from above. Noone told Avraham to reject Nebuchadnazar’s demand to bow down to idols. He did so on his own, and this was well before the test of the akeida, when he was asked to sacrifice his only son. So, the question returns; what was so special about the test of the akeida?

From the explanation given above, that Avraham pioneered the spiritual path of self-sacrifice, it is understood that without his initial act, it would be impossible to serve G-d in this fashion even now. Avraham created the channels; without him self-sacrifice would not be a path in service of G-d. Self-sacrifice means giving oneself up for a higher cause – in this case, for the sake of sanctifying G-d. Quite literally, it means giving up one’s own existence for a higher level of existence – and this is impossible without divine help from Above. Man was created, and he cannot of his own volition elevate himself to a level beyond creation – “a prisoner cannot free himself” – for that, divine intervention is necessary.

On the other hand, we find situations in which non-Jews also give up their lives in service of G-d. In fact, there is an opinion that non-Jews must give up their lives if necessary regarding the seven Noahide commandments. And in the last few years, it has unfortunately not been unusual for non-Jews to kill themselves in “homicide murders” that they justify in the name of their own religion. The Torah is far from such barbarity (lehavdil), but how do we distinguish philosophically between our own self-sacrifice and that which we see among the non-Jews of the world?

But, the truth is that not all self-sacrifice is worthy of the name. The mere fact that a person takes his own life “for the sake of G-d” does not necessarily qualify his act as true self-sacrifice according to the Torah. It is possible that the person took this step after weighing his options and concluding that it was the only step that made sense for him in his situation. He could have made an intellectual calculation and decided that he has more to gain by taking his own life than by remaining alive. His intellectual accounting may have led him to the conclusion that he will have a “higher” existence if he takes his own life (as in the Moslem calculation that he will have “seventy virgins in the world to come,” and the like). This kind of calculation is found among the non-Jews, wherein they are convinced that taking their own lives will lead them to a higher form of existence afterward. Or, inversely, that they have no reason to remain alive – this as well is a calculated reason for taking one’s own life.

But, the real self-sacrifice occurs when one gives himself up – gives up his “I,” his ego – to G-d without making any kind of calculation or intellectual accounting whatsoever. He gives himself up completely in a way that indicates that his own existence means nothing to him whatsoever – only the existence of G-d matters. And that, we might say, was the path of Avraham avinu. In fact, we can see clearly that was the case regarding the binding of Isaac, but not regarding the test that Avraham underwent in Ur Chasdim.

The test of Ur Chasdim was a public contest pitting monotheism against idol worship. Avraham avinu was of course totally committed to getting the message of monotheism out there in the world; his motivation in all of his activities at that time was to denounce idol worship and promote the recognition and worship of one G-d in the world. For that reason, his self-sacrifice in Ur Chasdim, as noble as it was, was for a reason. It was in order to promote monotheism. The same could not be said of the akeida – the “binding” of Isaac on the altar. For this test, there was no reason, other than this was what G-d said to do. The purpose of the test was merely to see if Avraham was “G-d fearing.” And concurrently, there was no publicizing of the miracle; it is doubtful if anyone other than Avraham, Isaac (and later Sarah, who passed away when she heard the news) knew. As the Ibn Ezra (on our parsha, 22:1) said, “At the time of the akeida of his son, even the assistants were not around.” Quite the opposite; the act of binding his son on the altar, if publicized, would have resulted in negative publicity. It would have contradicted the very principle that Avraham strove so mightily to establish – the existence of the one and only G-d. The one and only purpose of the akeida was that it was commanded and requested from G-d, and therefore Avraham complied.

And that is the new principle that was established at the akeida – Avraham was asked to undergo a test of self-sacrifice that occupied no place whatsoever in human intellect. It was nothing more than the will of G-d. And automatically, then, it required total self-nullification.

Now, we can explain the Talmud (Sanhedrin 89B) that says that Avraham avinu was asked to undergo this test so that no-one would be able to say that the previous nine tests were for naught. If Avraham had not undertaken this test, then the “world” might have claimed that the only reason that Avraham passed the previous tests was on account of his own intellectual calculations. His thoughts and intentions were holy, but still since they were still in the category of intellect, they only served his own purposes. But, were he to be tested in something that did not mesh in his own calculations, then it was not clear if he would “pass the testŔ

But, by passing this test, Avraham proved retroactively that even the previous tests were undertaken with self-sacrifice. Even though it was possible to apply intellect and calculate holy reasons why it made sense to stand up to the tests, nevertheless, Avraham passed them for the right reason – because he had total self-sacrifice for the One above.

And that also is the reason why the “channels” were opened specifically by the final test of the akeida, and not by the other, previous nine tests. The point of opening up a new path of worship – any holy, Torah path – is so that Jews in all subsequent generations will be able to serve G-d in the exact same manner as those who opened and established the path. That means, in this case, that all Jews who serve G-d with true self-sacrifice pass in the same way that Avraham passed all of his tests. Even if it is possible to make a calculation and see that there is a reason – a good, and holy reason – for us to undertake a given test, nevertheless we pass the test for the same reason that Avraham avinu did, because of the inner attitude of total sacrifice for G-d. That is the true meaning of opening up a new path in service of G-d.

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, ztz’l, vol. 20, Pp.73-78 Rabbi David Sterne, Jerusalem Connection in the old city of Jerusalem