Parashat Vayera- Our God and God of Our Forefathers
Parashat Vayera contains one of the most famous stories in the Torah – the story of Akedat Yishak (“The Binding of Yishak”). God tests Abraham’s loyalty by commanding him to offer his beloved son, Yishak, as a sacrifice. Abraham obeys the command, travels to the site where the sacrifice is to take place, and prepares to slaughter Yishak, until an angel calls to Abraham and tells him not to proceed with the sacrifice.
According to most opinions, the command of the Akeda was the tenth and final of the ten tests to which God subjected Abraham. It stands to reason, then, that this was the most difficult of the tests. After all, when a person is tested, the tests get progressively more difficult, not easier. But it appears, at first glance, that at least one of Abraham’s earlier tests was more difficult than this one. As the Midrash famously relates, when Abraham was still young, the wicked king Nimrod sentenced him to death for challenging pagan beliefs and advocating the belief in one God. Abraham refused to retract his condemnation of paganism even at the threat of death, and Nimrod threw him into a furnace. Miraculously, Abraham emerged unscathed.
On the surface, the test of the furnace was a more difficult challenge to Abraham than the rest of the Akeda. As hard as it must have been for Abraham to sacrifice his son, God had explicitly commanded him to perform this act, and he knew he had to comply. But when Nimrod threatened to have Abraham killed, nobody told Abraham to give his life. In fact, God had not spoken to him at all at that point. Abraham was prepared to give up his life voluntarily, without being commanded to do so. Moreover, the miracle of the furnace took place when Abraham was young and all alone in his opposition to idolatry. It must have been very difficult for him in that situation to agree to surrender his life. The Akeda, however, occurred when Abraham was already a renowned, well-established figure with a large, loyal following, a position that gave him more confidence in undertaking difficult measures to obey God.
In what way, then, was the Akeda a more difficult test?
The answer is that the command of the Akeda defied logic. Until that point, Abraham was able to explain in rational terms everything he believed and everything he did. He convinced people of the fallacy of paganism and the truth of monotheism through sound reasoning and logic. But the sacrifice of his son was utterly irrational. Besides violating the most basic creed of ethics and morality, it also contradicted God’s earlier promise to make a great nation from Yishak. It made no sense for God to proclaim that a nation will emerge from Yishak, and then command Abraham to kill him before he begot children.
Until the Akeda, Abraham demonstrated a faith that came through inquiry and analysis, through logical thinking and reasoning. He preached monotheism on the basis of rational thought, engaging his contemporaries in theological debates and presenting compelling arguments for the existence of a single Creator. But at the Akeda, Abraham was called upon to demonstrate a different kind of faith – “Emuna Peshuta” – simple, straightforward belief that did not depend on any kind of logic. He believed in and accepted the divine command without questions, even when he could not explain it on the basis of rational thinking.
In the beginning of the Amida prayer, we describe God as “Elokenu V’Elokeh Abotenu” – “our God and God of our forefathers.” Hashem is both “our God,” and the “God of our forefathers.” He is “our God” in the sense that His existence makes sense to us, it is something we can understand and explain. But this type of faith can only go so far. God must also be the “God of our forefathers,” the God that we’ve heard about through tradition. We accept this belief because this is what we’ve been taught by our parents, who were taught this from their parents, and so on. Even when we encounter questions that we cannot answer, we retain our belief in the “God of our forefathers,” the Creator whose existence has been taught through tradition for millennia.
Toward the end of the daily prayer service we recite the “En K’Elokenu” prayer, which begins by proclaiming, “There is no one like our God.” In the next section, we ask, “Mi K’Elokenu?” – “Who is like our God?” This prayer expresses the proper attitude we must have toward faith. First, we must establish the simple belief that “En K’Elokenu,” there is one Creator of the universe, a belief that cannot be shaken by any questions or philosophical inquiries. Once this faith has been firmly established, we can then go on to ask the question, “Mi K’Elokenu?” We are encouraged to ask, to explore, to study, and to inquire, to make Hashem “our God,” but only after we’ve firmly and unequivocally established the faith in “the God of our forefathers,” firmly believing in God’s existence irrespective of rational argumentation.