The following is a short thought on this week’s parshah, Vayera. For past articles on Vayera, please use the following links: Willful Blindness (2016); Perceiving Providence (2015); Shakespeare and Sodom (2014).
“And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham… And He said, ‘Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go away to the land of Moriah and bring him up there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains, of which I will tell you’” (Gen. 22:1-2).
Here are those familiar lines—those which bring us, at the end of our parshah, to the infamous “binding of Yitzchak:” the “akeidah.” Much has been written about the perplexing ordeal which these lines preface. In truth, however, our preface itself requires commentary. After all, the Torah introduces the akeidah to us as a “test” of Avraham’s faith. And yet it is Yitzchak who is to be “brought up as an offering.” What this means—though we often overlook it—is that the outcome of “Avraham’s” ordeal actually lies entirely beyond Avraham’s control. Avraham may well resolve to do Hashem’s bidding, only for Yitzchak to refuse to participate. And suppose that Yitzchak does refuse, and suppose that Avraham therefore falls short of fulfilling Hashem’s command—does Avraham then “fail” the test?
The answer, it seems—as unintuitive as it may sound to us—is, actually: “yes.” For Avraham to pass this test, he must garner Yitzchak’s buy-in; perhaps, in fact, that is what the test is all about. Avraham, after all, had proven his loyalty to Hashem long before the akeidah; his devotion to Hashem was by this point established beyond doubt. Yet what remained to be determined was whether Avraham had managed to raise children whose commitment to Hashem equalled his. Hence the akeidah: a test not so much of whether Avraham would follow Hashem’s will, but, more critically, of whether the next generation would follow along with him. Whatever else the binding of Yitzchak may represent, theologically—and there is much to say about it, to be sure—its meaning is inextricably linked with the issue of chinnuch: of Jewish education and of Jewish continuity. Has Avraham successfully imparted his values unto posterity, to the extent that his son is willing to sacrifice for those values if called upon to do so? Does Yitzchak feel himself compelled by the convictions which his father found so compelling? That is the true metric of spiritual legacy—Avraham’s, no less than Yitzchak’s.
Like Avraham, all of us find ourselves “tested” in our efforts to serve Hashem. We strive to pray more fervently, to understand Torah more profoundly, to perform mitzvos more punctiliously, to act with greater kindness and sensitivity in our relationships with others. But achievement in avodat Hashem is not gauged merely in terms of the levels of piety, scholarship, or even character refinement which we personally develop. Our faith is not the faith of the lonely man or woman. It is a covenantal faith; a communal faith; a faith which we are responsible for preserving and also for transmitting. And so, in some sense, the ultimate measure of our spiritual success is not merely whether we have lived with faith, but whether the faith that we have lived with holds within it something powerful enough, something inspiring enough, something authentic enough, to leave a lasting impression upon those whose task it shall one day be to carry that faith forward in our stead.