Akeidas Yitzchak Q&A’s
Ibn Ezra (Exod. 20.1)
“...The second category (of commandments) are commands which are hidden, and there is not explained why they were commanded. And G-d forbid, G-d forbid that there should be any one of these commands which goes against human intelligence. Rather, we are obligated to perform all that G-d commands, be it revealed to us the underlying “Sode” (principle), be it hidden from us. And if we find any of them, which contradict human intelligence, it isn’t proper that we should understand it as implied. But we should consult the books of the wise men of blessed memory, to determine if such a command is a metaphor. And if we find nothing written (by them) we (must) search out and seek with all our ability, perhaps we can fix it (determine the command). If we can’t, then we abandon that mitzvah as it is, and admit we are ignorant of it”.
Reader: According to Ibn Ezra you quoted, “abandon
that mitzvah as it is”, refers to commands, which do not comply with
human reason. My question is why Abraham accepted the command of slaughtering
his only son. Isn’t this in opposition to human reason? To kill your own
child? This question is strengthened, as the Ibn Ezra’s very example of
incomprehensible laws is the command “circumcise the foreskin of your hearts”.
This is a matter of killing as well, but here, Ibn Ezra says it is impossible
that we should take this literally, i.e., to cut out our hearts. If this is
so impossible on the literal level, what made Abraham so willing to sacrifice
his son? Shouldn’t he abandon the command from G-d, just as Ibn Ezra says we
Reader: That is not the reason that the Ibn Ezra
says though. He doesn’t mention the last part of the verse or anything about
it contradicting another part of the Torah, namely that the Jewish people
should exists to perfect themselves.
Reader: Ibn Ezra says, “does He (Hashem) wish to murder us like a cruel person?” In other words there would be no benefit what so ever in taking the commandment literally, just the opposite; it is totally destructive and makes no sense, and so it goes against reason. It is for this reason alone that he mentions the example of “circumcise the foreskin of your hearts”. He doesn’t say that if one commandment goes against another part of the Torah that we have to reinterpret it. He says if it goes against “reason” we can’t take it literally. That is his point.
Mesora: But isn’t that which opposes another part of the Torah something which you consider going against reason”? Of course. So we must look at the entire verse, and the entire Torah.
Reader: So my question on the Akeida stands. Forget
about the example of “Umaltem”. The fact is the Ibn Ezra (and not just him,
Rav Saadia Gaon as well as many others mention this) says that if our
understanding of a Mitzva goes against reason “it is not proper to believe it
literally”. So my question on the Akeida stands.
Again, nothing in the act of killing Isaac contradicted reason - but wiping out the entire nation by taking literally “circumcise the foreskin of your hearts” is unreasonable, and must be interpreted. We do not allow our ignorance to question G-d’s commands. However, contradictions are different, and that which is contradictory cannot be followed. G-d gave us a mind to lead our actions, This means, by definition, that contradiction goes against G-d’s wish for man’s actions. Abraham slaughtering Isaac presented no contradiction. Jews following a command literally of “circumcising the foreskins of our hearts” is a contradiction to G-d’s plan that mankind endures.
Now, you might say it contradicts G-d’s very promise to make Abraham’s seed as numerous as the stars and the sands. Perhaps Abraham thought there were new considerations to which G-d reacted, altering His original plan.
Reader: How can Hashem change his mind? First He tells Abraham to bring his son as a sacrifice, then He tells him not to. Either Hashem changed his mind or, G-d forbid, one of the commands was not true, since contradictory statements cannot both be true! (Even Hashem can’t do that, that’s not possible). Many commentaries ask this question.
Mesora: G-d altered His plan to have man live forever. But this is not a “change in His mind”. After the first sin, man caused his death to become a reality. Why cannot G-d alter His plan, as “part” of His plan? G-d knows the future! Ibn Ezra teaches that G-d initially desired the firstborns to serve in the Temple, but were exchanged for the Levites subsequent to their sin of the Golden Calf. G-d knew this was to happen. He did not change His mind. Here too G-d changed His plan. In reality, G-d never intended that Isaac die, only that Abraham be tried by G-d’s command. Once Abraham prevailed, just before cutting Isaac’s throat, G-d told Abraham the truth, that Isaac is not to be killed, but that it was a trial. G-d knows all future events. Based on this reality, we cannot say He has changed His mind, as His “mind” is never ignorant, therefore, no changes are required to compensate for unforeseen events.
Reader: The Ralbag points out that really there can
be two understandings of Hashem’s initial command to Abraham. 1) Bring him as
a sacrifice. 2) To bring him up the mountain to bring a sacrifice with him,
to educate him in bringing sacrifices.
Now Abraham could have taken the easy way out. He could
have reinterpreted Hashem’ command to fit with reason. But he didn’t! This
was Abraham’s great test! He figured that, if in doubt, he should show the
maximum sacrifice to Hashem. This shows Abraham’s Yiras HaShem.
So Satan (Abraham’s emotions) was attempting to avoid killing his precious son. However, Abraham prevailed over Satan’s arguments.
Abraham struggles further with his instincts, and posed another possibility to himself, as you suggest, (the Talmud continues), “Satan said, ‘I heard behind the curtain (in heaven) “the sheep for a sacrifice, and not Isaac”. Again this illustrates what Abraham was feeling inside himself. That perhaps he is to merely sacrifice an animal, and not Isaac. It seems the Talmud entertains the idea that Abraham was unsure whether he was to actually kill Isaac, or a sheep. What was Abraham’s response? “This is the punishment of a liar, that even when he tells the truth, he is not listened to.” Abraham actually considered killing the sheep to be a very real possibility of the command’s intent. But when he said to Satan (to himself) “that even when Satan tells the truth, he is not listened to”, Abraham was saying that since this idea came from his instincts, its veracity is inconsequential. As this thought originated from the instincts, it is not trusted. Abraham completely denied any value his emotions presented through these rationalizations to spare Isaac. Abraham prevailed over Satan - over his strong emotions.
Another thought: When faced with the emotional appeal that an animal was to be killed and not Isaac, Abraham reasoned, “It is purposeless that G-d would make a statement so vague, allowing me to be doubtful as to which one I shall slaughter. If He wished an animal, He would say so clearly.” Perhaps Abraham saw that his confusion is just the workings of the emotions, and he did not heed to his emotions. This is what is meant by, “that even when Satan tells the truth, he is not listened to”, that is, “even when my emotions say rational possibilities, I cannot follow them (the emotions).”