Posted on March 23, 2011
by Alex Krule
We’ve grown up with the golden myth of Avraham. Avraham is an ideal character in the Tanach; Avraham is a figure whom we should all strive to be like; Avraham is the quintessential Jew. But this myth was taught to us by our preschool teachers and is just that: a myth. It has become apparent that this Avraham that we have come to know and love has never existed.
Rambam’s commentary on Pirkei Avot, Chapter 5, Mishnah 3 explains ten tests of Avraham. The tenth and final test is the akeidah – the Binding of Isaac – found in this week’s parsha. Rambam says that the akeidah exists to test Avraham’s faith in God. Now, according to the traditional understanding of Avraham, we would like to believe that Avraham passes this test. However, the case simply is not so. Avraham misunderstands God’s directions and fails the test.
In Genesis 22:2, God says, “v’ha’alei’hu sham l’ola.” Now, according to the preliminary understanding of the text (found in a JPS), this means that Avraham is to “offer [Isaac] there as a burnt offering” (JPS Tanach, 39). However, we must look further into the text to find the true meaning.
Rashi, a notable medieval French commentator, notes that God never said “lishchot,” to slaughter, when he tells Avraham what to do with Yitchak. Additionally, he comments on the “bringing up” or “ola” part of the action. He says that where it says “la’a lot,” to bring up, it also says “la’redet,” to bring down, later in the text. Similarly, according to Ibn Ezra, a French rabbi and commentator who specialized in a grammatical analysis of the Torah, says that “nasah,” nun-samech-hay, often translated as “he tested,” can be spelled with a sin and an aleph. How does this change the meaning of the passage? Well, “nasah” with a sin and an aleph means “lifted up” or “elevated.” This is not the only place in the Tanach where the word “nasah” (with a sin and hay) means “to elevate.” In Exodus 20:17, it says “n’sot etchem” (“God will raise you, so that the vision of God will always be upon you”). This means that, as a member of the Nation of Israel, God will raise you higher, in terms of holiness, above the other nations, and that God will always be watching over you.
I believe that the fundamental test that Rambam spoke of was a test of Avraham’s understanding of God’s will; a decision between pshat (basic understanding) and drash (in depth understanding), if you will. God was testing to see if Avraham would take God’s words at face-value (pshat) or to seriously consider the deeper meaning of God’s words (drash). I also believe that the true answer is the drash; Avraham was not supposed to kill Isaac, rather, he was supposed to lift him closer to God. Avraham obviously interprets God’s words only to the level of pshat. And so, Avraham fails that test.
What does this mean? Why does it matter if Avraham failed a test? Well, this read of the Torah is dramatically different from the traditional read. Many of us learn in Hebrew School that Avraham was going to sacrifice Isaac, but it was actually a test of faith from God. We are also taught that Avraham is a near-perfect role model to be looked up on. This is clearly not true, but it doesn’t mean that we should not respect Avraham. Avraham is not perfect, but that is what makes him an important character in our heritage. Instead of trying to be perfect, which, as humans, we can never be, we can look at Avraham and acknowledge that we have flaws; that it is okay to not be perfect. We must cease from putting our biblical heroes on a golden pedestal and think of them on the same level as us. Only then will we have a more accurate understanding of our tradition.