Parashat Vayera: Breaking Our Nature
We read in Parashat Vayera the famous story known as "Akedat Yishak," where G-d commanded Abraham Abinu to offer his son, Yishak, as a sacrifice. This story begins by telling us that G-d "tested Abraham," to see the extent of his devotion to Hashem’s commands. Just as Abraham drew the sword to sacrifice his son, an angel appeared to Abraham and told him not to proceed with the slaughter, as this was merely a test.
The question arises as to why this command was a test for Abraham Abinu, but not for Yishak. According to tradition, Yishak was 37 years old at the time of Akedat Yishak. He was not a young boy forced into this by his father. Wasn’t this a test for him, as well? Why is Akedat Yishak presented as a test for Abraham, but not for Yishak?
One explanation is that this was a test specifically for Abraham because he had arrived at the belief in G-d on his own through logical reasoning. In a world that believed in idols, Abraham, in his profound wisdom and intelligence, recognized through logic that there must be a single Creator. Abraham’s great test was fulfilling G-d’s command that seemed wholly illogical. G-d had earlier promised to produce a great nation from Yishak, and now he tells him to kill him. This obviously defied all logic, and thus naturally challenged Abraham’s entire approach, of arriving at belief through logic. His obedience to the divine command demonstrated that he was committed to G-d not only when logic dictated following His laws, but even when His laws seem illogical.
But there is also another reason why this test was unique to Abraham. The Vilna Gaon taught that a person’s task in this world is to overcome his innate negative tendencies. We are to identify our areas of personal weakness and work toward improving ourselves in those very areas. Thus, for example, a person who is naturally a glutton and enjoys overindulging in food should focus the bulk of his attention on moderating his food intake. A person who is by nature short-tempered has the responsibility of fighting against this tendency and being patient and tolerant of other people. We are not here to just accept our nature, to resign ourselves to the character flaws with which we are created. Rather, our main job during our lifetime is to break our nature, to perfect the flawed areas of our personalities.
Abraham, as we know, was naturally kind and generous. His outstanding quality was Hesed, as expressed by his hospitality, and in his impassioned plea on behalf of the wicked city of Sedom. He naturally loved and cared for all people. The test of Akedat Yishak required Abraham to go against that natural instinct in the most extreme way possible. There is nothing more cruel and heartless than killing one’s own son. The command o Akedat Yishak was necessary for Abraham to show that he was prepared to obey G-d’s commands even when they directly opposed his most basic natural instincts. And thus the Midrash comments that if Abraham had not passed this test, the tenth and final test to which G-d subjected him, all the previous nine tests would not have counted. This test was necessary to show that he was devoted to G-d no matter what this entailed, no matter how strongly he was naturally disinclined to obey His command.
This insight into the Akeda is relevant to many different areas of life. We have a natural tendency not to admit to making a mistake, to always insisting that we are correct. In marriage, especially, this natural instinct must be broken. Marriage requires us to hear another perspective and admit when it is more correct than ours, something which is very difficult to do because it goes against one of our most basic, natural tendencies. We also have a natural tendency during periods of stress and anxiety to blurt out hurtful and damaging remarks. This tendency, too, must be broken for our marriage and other relationships to succeed.
The story of Akedat Yishak teaches us that we can and must break natural negative tendencies. There is no such thing as "It’s too hard, this is just the way I am." If this is the way we are, then our job is precisely to change that very nature. If a man as kind as Abraham could obey God’s command to slaughter his son, then certainly we can break our natural instincts toward anger, obstinacy, and so on. To the contrary, this is precisely why we are here – to correct those natural tendencies, to improve the flawed areas of our characters, to continuously work towards rising closer to perfection.