Last time, R. Arama set up the Akeida as an opportunity for Avraham to show his readiness to listen to Hashem on a most difficult task. Now, he fleshes out some of the challenges Avraham faced in building his way to proving his readiness.
Questions About the Akeida
Like his contemporary Abarbanel, R. Arama starts with questions, most of which I will leave for when we review some of his answers. He does wonder why Hashem says “kach na et bincha et yechidecha,” please take your son, your only son—both for the “please” and as to why Hashem refers to Yitzchak as an only son. He adds to the question the note Hashem’s saying your only son had the danger of “opening room for the erroneous to claim the Akeida happened with Yishmael,” I think a hint to Moslem ideas about the event.
He suggests the na, please, came to reduce the element of command and coercion, to leave some room for Avraham to refuse, object, or ask for other options, as Avraham had done at Sodom [R. Arama means to elevate Avraham’s commitment, his having obeyed without question when Hashem left him room for just such questions. Were he right, I would wonder why Avraham didn’t ask questions here, when he did with Sodom. I think R. Arama might have answered Avraham worried his self-interest would be driving his arguments, where with Sodom it was more clearly his concern with justice and the propriety of Hashem’s actions.]
The Uniqueness of Love
Aristotle said the most complete love creates a unique connection, uniting parties as one person. It explains to R. Arama how the Torah can command us to love our fellows as ourselves (we are to foster the Aristotelian love, where we feel so united with them, what happens to them feels like it happens to us).
Having applied the idea to the obligation to love all Jews, R. Arama then says it’s impossible to have such love for more than one person (at its highest or fullest level, I think he means). Hashem speaks of Avraham ohavi (English translations ofYeshayahu 41 8 read it as “my friend”), in the singular, as if Hashem has no room for more. Similarly, Hashem chose one nation for special status, and required us to say Shema, asserting our sole connection to Hashem as well.
Avraham bonded with Yitzchak in a unique father-son relationship, justifying Hashem’s referring to him as yechidecha, your only son. [His examples suggest he was limiting Aristotelian love to one partner for each type of relationship; we can only have one son/child, friend, spouse, etc., with whom we develop the fullest love. Midrashic sources do attribute to Avraham a significant sense of paternal care for Yishmael; R. Arama does not clarify how he read those sources. He might have thought Avraham had some love for Yishmael, with only Yitzchak receiving the love of full connection.]
A Considered Act
Hashem places the Akeida in the land of Moriah for two reasons. First, the time Avraham would have to travel before binding his son for sacrifice would show he acted after careful thought, with time to reconsider. People faced with a hard task often rush to do it, to avoid struggle with the resistant parts of themselves. Hashem wanted it clear (to Avraham himself and to anyone who would later read the story) Avraham overcame his emotional instincts after they had enough time to do their best to dissuade him.
Avraham waits overnight before setting out on his journey for the same reason, to avoid others’ thinking he acted precipitously and without time to think it through. His obedience to God holds his natural compassion for his son with a firm grip.
As a third example, R. Arama reads R. Shimon b. Yochai’s comment (Bereishit Rabbah 55) about Avraham saddling the donkeys the same way. The literal comment wonders why Avraham did not leave the task to servants or slaves, and says love causes people to act contrary to norms. As opposed to the simple reading of norms of personal dignity, R. Arama thinks their love for Hashem causes them to rule over their physical sides, their chomer, similar to chamor, donkey. Too, a rider controls the direction of the animal s/he is riding, as our intellectual/spiritual sides should direct our material sides.
Avraham saddled up his physicality fully to Hashem’s service.
He took two attendants as further demonstration of his focus. Embarked on a counterintuitive task, many people would avoid human companionship for fear the other people would argue him out of his intention. Avraham knew they would have no effect on his readiness to do what Hashem told him. (Although he did leave them at the bottom of the mountain, R. Arama says, at that point concerned about their attempts to distract or discourage him.)
What Hashem Did and Did Not Say
Commentators struggled with how Hashem could give what we now believe to be an immoral command to Avraham, to sacrifice his son. Rashi to Ta’anit 4a s.v. u-khetiv understands a verse in Yirmiyahu to mean Hashem never intended the sacrifice to happen, raising problems of truthfulness, how Hashem could tell Avraham to act in a way Hashem in fact did not want.
R. Arama’s clever answer points out Hashem told Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchak on the mountain where Hashem would tell him. Read with care, the command would only take effect when Hashem selected a mountain. Avraham saw a cloud on a mountain, and assumed it was the one Hashem wanted, his dedication to fulfilling Hashem’s will leading him to jump to conclusions.
R. Arama does address one problem with his idea. Bereishit 22:3 says Avraham went to the place Hashem had told him, sounding like Hashem had already told him where to go. He says the verse means the general area, the land of Moriah, indeed identified explicitly by Hashem. When he and Yitzchak reach the top of the mountain, verse nine again says they arrived at the place Hashem had told him; R. Arama reads it to mean the place he had decided Hashem had told him.
[He obviously prefers his answer to Rashi’s, in that it avoids the idea Hashem told Avraham to act in a way Hashem in fact did not want Avraham to act. I have almost as much difficulty with his assumption prophets can misconstrue what Hashem said, to the point a prophet might sacrifice his son, barring a divine intervention to stop it. Especially in our contemporary world, where people already distrust authority of all sorts, the possibility prophets get it wrong seems to me to require great care before assuming.]
Enshrining the Credit
Among the ideas of his I could not leave on my cutting room floor, I liked his view for why Avraham called the place Hashemyireh, Hashem will see. When the angel stopped him, Avraham worried he would not get full credit for his readiness to have done what Hashem told him; he named the place as a prayer to Hashem to pay full attention to (to “see”) his internal and external states.
The angel returns to reassure him of his great reward, how all the world (R. Arama repeats here the universal acceptance of this story as a part of human history, a real-world event) would know he was in fact fully ready, and would be treated in Heaven’s eyes as if he had done it.
Many thinkers find the Akeida to be a big deal. For R. Arama, it provided an opportunity to remind ourselves of how little we know about the nature of Hashem’s knowledge, the value of bringing our potential into reality, Avraham’s ability to discipline his person to Hashem’s Will, calmly and deliberately. Creating a lasting legacy for his descendants, a legacy of self-control and service we can all hope to make our own.
By Gidon Rothstein
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and nonfiction, most recently “We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong With the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It.” He lives in Bronx, New York, with his wife and three children.