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Chesed and the Akeidah

Posted on י״ח במרחשון ה׳תש״ע (November 5, 2009) | in Vayeira | by

וַיְהִי, אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וְהָ’ נִסָּה אֶת-אַבְרָהָם; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי.

And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham, and He said to him, “Abraham,” and he said, “Here I am.” (Ber. 22:1)

There is a well-known Ramban on this pasuk: that Hashem tests people in order to bring their inner potential into actuality. He sets up nisayons (tests) specifically for that purpose: so that we can either gain the reward of putting our inner potential into action or not receive the reward if we do not complete the test.

To go on a brief tangent..I recently read an interesting Nesivos Shalom on the idea of korbanos/sacrificing1.  His discussion occurs within the context of improving middos (character traits). He states that the essence of bringing a korban to Hashem is to sacrifice part of yourself in the process; what you are sacrificing is the middah which is the most difficult for you to overcome. By working tirelessly to change that middah, you are making a true korban to Hashem.The actual sacrifice (the animal or other object) is not as crucial as the inner-growth that are you supposed to be achieving.

I think that Avraham’s sacrifice read in this light of this drash brings up many questions. What middah is Avraham being asked to sacrifice? One possible conclusion is that he is being asked to sacrifice his rachmanus (mercy)/chesed: by killing his heir, his beloved, waited-for son, he is expressing the antithesis of rachmanus and chesed. Which brings me to a counterpoint: Avraham was praised for is known by his middah of chesed! How is it that this can be considered a “bad middah” that he is being required to sacrifice?

I think that the answer is found in another well-known idea. The middah that we are praised for and the one which is at the core of our success, can also be the source of our greatest struggles. Take for instance a person who is very independent; while this middah gives him many great benefits, it can also be a stumbling block: he can be reluctant to ask for help when he needs it for fear that others will perceive him as being weak or incompetent. The same was true with Avraham: his outpouring of chesed is a gift which has lasted the Jewish people until this day. His chesed also caused some problems: he was reluctant to send away Ishmael (a negative influence on Yitzchak) and his decision to make a long-term peace treaty with Avimelech may have been one of the reasons why Hashem commanded him to perform the akeidah.2

I think that Avraham’s experience in the akeidah teaches us a great deal about how to go about working on our middos. When our best middah is entangled with negative aspects, Hashem will put us into situations where that middah is “purified”. As Ramban stated, we can either choose to work on that middah or we can continue to have our middah entrenched with negativity. Ultimately, we can strive to become like Avraham Avinu, who woke up early in the morning and with great joy, entered into a tremendous nisayon without a word of protest.

Shabbat shalom, Allison

  1. Helek Aleph, Taharos ha’middos, mamer aleph, perek daled
  2. I do not remember the source for this, but at some point, Devora Rubin (of Midreshet Rachel v’Chaya) taught it to us during the thirty days we spent learning akeidas Yitzchak. The idea (as I remember it) was that Hashem was “irked” that Avraham made a covenant with Avimelech that would last during their offspring’s’ future generations without Hashem’s permission. Hashem decided to make it clear to Avraham (via commanding him to sacrifice Yitzchak) that he was not in control of the fate of his generations.
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