I wrote an article in examiner.com on a troubling aspect of the current Torah reading:
One of the most perplexing episodes in the Torah occurs in this week’s portion, Vayeira, when God calls upon Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on an altar. Many have questioned the purpose of this request, and satisfactory answers seem elusive. Some posit that God wanted to test Abraham’s loyalty. Others trace martyrdom (and even suicide bombers) to this incident. Perhaps in frustration, still others suggest the command was arbitrary, imagined, or allegorical. In any case, our tradition relates that Abraham had already shown willingness to die for God. (Midrash Rabba Genesis 39:3, Rashi Avot 5:4). Was it necessary to yet again put Abraham’s loyalty to the test, particularly at Isaac’s expense?
Abraham’s great discovery was the concept of “Chesed” or loving-kindness (Zohar Genesis 146). He spread a message that resonated with tens of thousands of followers (Mishneh Torah, Avodat Kochavim 1:3): the existence of an infinite creator who desires to shower love and spiritual pleasure upon his creations. Abraham’s subsequent experiences with God’s tests forced him to confront a profound paradox: how could this loving, benevolent creator be reconciled with a cold world full of seemingly cruel “tests”? If only we could conceive of an approach to this challenging query, a “Unified Theological Theory” would be within reach.
We are told that “God tested Abraham ten times” (Avot 5:4). The truth is, these tests were meant to demonstrate that the purpose of life’s trials is not to weed out the disloyal, but rather to establish the fully developed identity of the individual. Without an awareness of independent, constantly evolving, selfhood, Abraham’s and God’s mutual goal of love and relationship is inconceivable. Mature relationship cannot be born out of coercion, nor can it be founded on dependency or emotional neediness. Genuine love is a choice made by two individuals who recognize the value of their own existence, and are therefore capable of relating to another without suffering a loss of self. Essentially, it is only such an independent identity, emerging from life’s tests, that can allow for healthy love and relationship to endure.
Of course, there is a fundamental contradiction to that critical independence—life itself is given to us. How can we attain selfhood if the very life in which we become ourselves is granted by God? Abraham had to face this very contradiction. He had earned much in his life; however, his son’s life and the nation it would generate were bestowed upon him as a gift from God. If “givens” create dependency, thereby damaging the possibility for mutual relationship and love, Abraham’s revelation regarding loving-kindness and the shared relationship between God and His creations becomes embroiled in an inevitable Catch-22.
There is one possible resolution to this quandary, all too familiar to those who have faced life-threatening situations. Individuals who have undergone a critical illness or survived a serious accident are most able to appreciate life, acutely cognizant of its significance after confronting death. In fact, in this state of awareness they are almost incapable of taking life for granted, always mindful of how precarious it really is. Because they don’t hold the common assumption that their existence “belongs” to them, they are free to create an identity unlimited by longing for a security they know they can never possess. Only then does life become a magnificent gift to be utilized, rather than a matter of ownership or dependency.
For Abraham to escape the potential bondage of everything given him, he needed to endure the most devastating experience of all, one that challenged everything he ever counted on. The Binding of Isaac showed Abraham that all he treasured could be seized from him in a single, insane instant, by none other than God Himself. It demonstrated once and for all that nothing, not God’s chosen nation, not even life itself, can be taken as a comfortable given.
Only after this test could both Abraham and Isaac live as true individualists, setting the foundation of the rest of their lives and of Jewish history with an understanding that those things that are given to us are not our own. Life may be allotted to us free of charge, but the story of the Binding of Isaac illustrates that, ironically, we can only fully become ourselves if we live as having narrowly eluded the clutches of death. Then, we can “let go” to the extent that we feel we have nothing to lose other than our own potential. Deep down, most of us can accept that the immense pleasure found in this kind of freedom, this authentic independence and opportunity for meaningful love, justifies life’s trials, and only a lesson this significant could warrant a command so extreme.
The Binding of Isaac is meant to create a paradigm shift in our outlook on life. Those things that are granted us, be they looks or abilities, are not our own and should not identify or define us. What we call “I” is only the result of developing all that was given to us. It is in understanding this subtle distinction that we become free of attitudes that hold us back from the crowning achievement of self-actualization, and that which can ultimately propel us to greatness and love.