Parashat Vayera- The Tests That Show Our Love for Hashem
We read in Parashat Vayera about the final of the ten tests that Avraham confronted and withstood – the test of Akedat Yishak, when G-d commanded him to sacrifice his son, Yishak. Abraham complied, proceeding with the Yishak to the site where the sacrifice was to be performed – and at the last moment, just as he lifted the knife, G-d instructed him to withdraw his knife, as his preparedness to fulfill this command sufficed to prove his loyalty.
When G-d first spoke to Abraham to present this command, He said, "Kah Na Et Bincha" – "Take, if you please, your son." Rashi, based on the Gemara (Sanhedrin 89b), notes G-d’s use of the word "Na" ("please") in this context, which seems to suggest that G-d "pleaded" with Abraham to sacrifice his son. Of course, G-d does not need to ask us to perform His will; it suffices for Him to command us, as we are subservient to Him. Why, then, did G-d "ask" Abraham to sacrifice his son? Rashi explains that G-d was telling Abraham, "I am asking you, withstand this test for Me, so that it won’t be said that the first [tests] were not real." Somehow, by passing the test of Akedat Yishak, Abraham proved that his passing the first nine tests was "real," a true indication of his unwavering, steadfast devotion to Hashem.
Why is this the case? How did the test of Akedat Yishak prove anything about the previous tests?
The answer emerges from a remarkable comment by the Ran (Rabbenu Nissim of Gerona, Spain, d. 1376), in one of his published Derashot (sermons), in a passage which fundamentally changes our entire understanding of the story of Akedat Yishak. The Ran writes that indeed, Hashem requested Abraham to sacrifice Yishak, and did not command him to sacrifice his son. According to the Ran, Abraham would not have been punished had he refused to go through with the sacrifice. This was not a command with which he was dutybound to comply. Hashem asked him to do this, but did not command him. And so G-d said, "Kah Na" – asking him to sacrifice Yishak.
This explains why this test revealed the nature of Avraham’s withstanding the previous nine tests. Were it not for Akedat Yishak, people might have thought that Abraham was devoted to Hashem only when it came to commands, to that which he was obligated to do. Akedat Yishak revealed that Abraham was prepared to go to the greatest lengths to serve Hashem even in ways he was not strictly required to. It showed that his commitment to Hashem was driven not just by the fear of punishment, but also by genuine love for Hashem, and an overpowering desire to fulfill His will.
I recall once in school we were given an assignment to write a 500-word essay. A certain smart-aleck in the class wrote an essay and stopped as soon as he wrote his 500th word. He insisted on doing the bare minimum requirement. The teacher was not pleased by his gall – and punished him by forcing him to write a 1000-word essay…
Sometimes we, too, have the tendency to stop after the 500th word, to do just the bare minimum that Halacha requires, and then allow ourselves to relax. But the greatest accomplishments in life are achieved when we seek to extend beyond the minimum requirement, when we feel dissatisfied doing just the basics, and ambitiously strive for more.
There are some tests in life that are thrust upon us, and our decision is how to handle the challenge. But there is also a different kind of test – one which follows the model of Akedat Yishak, as understood by the Ran: tests that present themselves in the form of an opportunity which we have the option to seize or to pass up. When we have an opportunity to do something great, beyond the strict call of duty, we are being tested to see whether we are committed to Hashem only out of fear, or also out of genuine love. If we seize these opportunities, even when this entails a great deal of sacrifice, then we show our true love and devotion to Hashem, that we are not just afraid of punishment, but overcome by love and devotion that knows no bounds.