One of the most prominent and enigmatic stories in the entire Jewish tradition is the Binding of Isaac – the Akeida. It is held up as a textbook example for discussions of right and wrong and cemented Avraham from wandering nomad into the pantheon of Jewish Patriarchs.
Reasonable people have disagreed for thousands of years about precisely which part of the story constituted the test, but what’s interesting is the way the Torah subtly describes Avraham’s struggle to comply:
קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר-אָהַבְתָּ, אֶת-יִצְחָק, וְלֶךְ-לְךָ, אֶל-אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה; וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם, לְעֹלָה – Please take your son, your only son whom you love – Yitzchak – and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him up as a sacrifice… (22:2).
The Ran points out that Hashem never instructed Avraham to sacrifice his son; Hashem only requested it – קַח-נָא.
Framing it as a request colors the turmoil Avraham faced – we can conceivably imagine Avraham exercising his choice and refusing – which some commentators argue he should have.
As Avraham approached the mountain, he found his task getting harder:
וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק – Avraham lifted his eyes, and saw the place from a distance. (22:4)
The Nesivos Shalom notes that הַמָּקוֹם is one of Hashem’s names, describing the attribute of immanent omnipresence, that God is everywhere, and “the place” of all things – הַמָּקוֹם.
Something did not feel right. He’d opposed human sacrifice his whole life, and yet here he was; about to destroy his life’s work and his family legacy, so he felt alienated – וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק.
At the story’s dramatic crescendo, the Torah doesn’t simply record that Avraham attempted to murder his son. He has to force his hand to pick up the knife – וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יָדוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת.
The Torah dissociates Avraham from his disembodied hand because Avraham wanted to resist what he was doing. The Kotzker explains that this description of Avraham’s cumbersome muscle movements truly reflected God’s desire, unkown to Avraham still, which was that Yitzchak would remain unharmed.
After this gut-wrenching struggle, an angel comes to stop him, and the test is thankfully over.
This story is held in the highest esteem, which is one of the reasons we read it on Rosh Hashana.
Not because it is a story about blind obedience and faith, but quite possibly, the exact opposite.
We can take strength from the fact that for every single one of us – even the greatest among us – the lines between right and wrong were not so clear cut.