Parashat Vayera: Akedat Yishak & Akedat Abraham
The final section of Parashat Vayera tells the story of Akedat Yishak, when G-d commanded Abraham Abinu to sacrifice his son, Yishak. Just as Abraham lifted the knife and prepared to slaughter his son, an angel called out to him and told him to desist. G-d promised Abraham that he and his descendants would receive great reward for this extraordinary act of devotion and subservience.
When G-d issues the command to Abraham, He tells him to sacrifice "Et Bincha Et Yehidcha" – literally, "your son, your only one" (22:2). The Hid"a (Rav Haim Yosef David Azulai, 1724-1806) offers a novel interpretation of this phrase, one which sheds an entirely new and fascinating light on the story of Akedat Yishak. The word "Yahid," the Hid"a writes, is often used in reference to the human soul. If so, then G-d’s command to Abraham to sacrifice "Yehidcha" – "your soul" – must mean that he was to sacrifice not only Yishak, but also himself, his own life. Abraham was told to sacrifice both his son and himself, to give his own life for the sake of G-d.
The Hid"a proceeds to explain that a technical, Halachic dilemma prevented Abraham from fulfilling this second aspect of G-d’s command. The process of offering a sacrifice includes the slaughtering, and then the placing of the sacrifice on the altar to G-d. If Abraham had been slaughtered as a sacrifice, Yishak, his son, would have then been unable to continue with the latter stages of the process, as he would have the status of "Onen" – somebody whose family member had just passed away. A Kohen who is an "Onen" is prohibited from performing the service in the Bet Ha’mikdash, and so Yishak would not have been allowed to perform any part of the sacrifice once his father was slaughtered. Abraham, however, as the Midrash (Bereshit Rabba) teaches, had the status of a Kohen Gadol, who is permitted to offer sacrifices even as an "Onen." Therefore, Abraham was able to sacrifice Yishak and then continue with the latter stages of the process. Even after becoming an "Onen" with the death of his son, Abraham would be allowed to continue tending to the sacrifice, given his status as a Kohen Gadol. And so although Abraham and Yishak very much wished to fulfill both of G-d’s commands, practically, they were capable of fulfilling only the command that Yishak should be sacrificed.
The Hid"a adds that this explains why G-d promised Abraham that in reward for his act, "Barech Abarachecha" ("I will assuredly bless you" – 22:17) – a double expression which implies that Abraham received two blessings in reward for the Akeda. The Hid"a explains that since Abraham fully intended to sacrifice himself, as well, and not only his son, he was rewarded with two great blessings – one for "Akedat Yishak," his willingness to sacrifice his son, and what we might call "Akedat Abraham," his willingness to sacrifice his own life.
This insight brings into focus the full extent of Abraham’s sense of absolute, unconditional subservience to G-d, how his love for the Almighty knew no bounds, and how committed he was to fulfill every command of G-d, fully trusting, without any doubt or uncertainty, that this is the greatest thing any human being can do. While we are not ever called upon to make these kinds of unfathomable sacrifices for the sake of G-d, our patriarch’s unequivocal subservience should inspire us with faith and devotion, and serve as a model of commitment to G-d’s laws even when this entails a degree of hardship and sacrifice.