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The Binding of Isaac: Event and Edifice

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Thirty-seven hundred years ago, a Jerusalem hilltop was the scene of one of the most dramatic moments in human history. There Abraham built an altar, bound his son Isaac, and was prepared to offer him as sacrifice to G-d. Three days earlier, G-d had spoken to Abraham and commanded him:
“Take your son, your only son whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah; and raise him as an offering atop the mountain which I will tell you.”[1]

G-d was testing Abraham, establishing the depth of the commitment upon which the nation of Israel would be founded. No sooner had Abraham arranged the firewood on the altar, taken the knife and stretched out his hand to slaughter his son, than “an angel of G-d called out to him from the heavens… ‘Lay not your hand upon the lad, neither do anything to him; for now I know that you fear G-d, as you have not withheld your only child from Me… Thus I shall bless you, and multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand that is at the shore of the sea…’ ”[2]

Maimonides[3] explains that the akeidah (the “binding [of Isaac]”) served to establish two key axioms of the Jewish faith: a) the extent of man’s capacity to love, fear and serve G-d; b) the principle of “prophecy”—the fact that G-d communicates His will to man.

By binding Isaac upon the altar, Abraham demonstrated that man is capable of a love and awe of G-d that surpasses his every other feeling or commitment. For what greater love is there than the love of a parent for his child? What greater fear is there than a parent’s fear for the life of his child?[4] With the akeidah, Abraham set his commitment to G-d above these most basic truths of human nature, establishing it as the all-surpassing consideration in the life of man.

Beyond the Most Unreasonable Doubt

The second truth established by the akeidah is the principle of prophecy. There are many levels and degrees of human communion with the divine, from the scientist’s contemplation of G-d’s creation, to the Torah sage whose interpretation and exposition of Torah is guided and molded by divine inspiration (ruach hakodesh).[5] Prophecy, however, is the ultimate divine communication—a revelation that completely transcends the equivocality and subjectivity of its human perceiver, so that its truth is absolute, incontestable and immutable. A fundamental principle of the Jewish faith is that G-d communicates to man in this manner.

When Abraham was told to offer Isaac as a sacrifice to G-d, this was contrary to everything Abraham was and stood for, contrary to everything he knew and believed about G-d, and contrary to what G-d Himself had said to him. Abraham was the epitome of loving-kindness, of whom the divine attribute of chessed (benevolence) said, “As long as he was around, there was nothing for me to do, for he did my work in my stead”;[6] he knew and related to G-d as “the merciful and benevolent One, slow to anger, great in kindness.”[7] The prohibition of taking a human life is one of the seven basic laws of civilization communicated by G-d to Adam and Noah (the “Seven Noachide Laws”) which Abraham had been laboring for many decades to instill in a world where murder and promiscuity were the staples of religious worship. And G-d had promised Abraham that Isaac (unmarried and childless at the time of the akeidah) would father a great nation who would carry on Abraham’s work of conveying the truth of the One G-d to the world.

So when Abraham heard the words “Take your son… and raise him as an offering,” he had many reasons to doubt their divinity, to surmise that not G-d but some malevolent voice had uttered them in his soul’s ears. Had his certainty that G-d had spoken them been an iota less than absolute, he would not—indeed, could not—have acted on them. Thus, concludes Maimonides, the akeidah is the ultimate exemplar of the principle of prophecy—that G-d communicates His will to man in a manner that leaves no doubt as to its origin, meaning, or manner of implementation.

The akeidah, then, was a double milestone in the history of man’s relationship with G-d. It set a new standard regarding the priority that the love and awe of G-d can achieve in the life of man; and it raised to unprecedented heights the absoluteness of G-d’s communication and self-revelation to man.

Altar and Ark

For many centuries, the event saturated the space and soil of Mount Moriah. Then, in the year 2928 from creation (833 BCE), King Solomon gave physical substance and form to the akeidah, erecting the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) on the very spot where Abraham had built his altar and bound his son as a sacrifice to G-d.[8] Solomon’s Temple embodied the two principles implicit in the Binding of Isaac: man’s supreme commitment to G-d, and G-d’s unequivocal revelation of Himself to man.

The Beit Hamikdash was the center of the universe in all that regards man’s service of G-d. Here was the altar on which were brought the daily and seasonal offerings in which every individual was a partner. Here the farmer brought the first fruits to ripen in his orchard[9] and the shepherd brought the first-born of his flocks.[10] If a person had a sin to atone for, a personal salvation to be thankful for, a vow to fulfill, or the simple desire to contribute something of his heart and fortune to the Almighty, he came to the Beit Hamikdash. Today, when prayer has taken the place of the offerings, the Beit Hamikdash remains the “gate of heaven”[11] toward which we thrice daily direct our lips and hearts.

The Beit Hamikdash was also the center of the universe in all that regards the revelation of G-dliness in our world. Following the akeidah, Abraham named Mount Moriah Har Hashem Yeira’eh (“The Mountain on which G-d Shall Reveal Himself”),[12] and from the Temple that Solomon built on the site “the divine light emanated to the entire world.”[13] This was G-d’s “home,” the place where He chose to house His manifest presence in the physical world.[14] Ten regularly occurring daily miracles attested to its divinity,[15] and three times a year the entire nation made a pilgrimage to Mount Moriah to “see and be seen by the face of the L-rd.”[16] At the heart of the Beit Hamikdash was the “Holy of Holies,” the chamber that housed the “ark of testament” containing the divine communication to man;[17] a place so suffused with the holiness of G-d that it was “spaceless space”—not physical, not metaphysical, but neither and both in one,[18] reflecting G-d’s simultaneous transcendence of, and immanence within, the physical reality.

The Beit Hamikdash had two primary components, the altar and the ark, each the axis of one of the Tenple’s two elementary functions. The altar was the heart of the Temple’s definition as “a chosen house in which to serve G-d” and “a house for G-d in which to offer the korbonot(sacrifices).”[19] The ark, which was the sole object in the Holy of Holies, defined the Beit Hamikdash as “the dwelling place of the divine presence,” and “the place from which He spoke to Moses[20] and commanded the children of Israel.”[21] Here was the akeidah incarnate in gold and stone.

Object and Actor

In his discussion of the laws pertaining to the construction of the Beit Hamikdash, Maimonides twice repeats the fact that the altar in the Holy Temple stood in the exact spot on which the akeidah took place.

In his Mishneh Torah (Laws of the Holy Temple, 2:1) Maimonides writes: “The location of the altar is very exactly defined, and is never to be changed… Isaac was bound on [the site of] the Holy Temple.” The following halachah (ibid. 2:2) reads: “It is a commonly-held tradition that the place where David and Solomon[22] built the altar [of the Holy Temple]… is the very place where Abraham built [his] altar and bound Isaac upon it…”

Maimonides’ codification of Torah law is known for its concise and exact language, which begs the question: Why does Maimonides repeat himself, and in two consecutive halachot at that? But upon closer examination we find a couple of significant differences between the two statements. In the first halachah, the akeidah is described in terms of the fact that “Isaac was bound”; in the second halachah, the emphasis is on Abraham’s deed—the specialty of the site being that it “is the very place where Abraham built [his] altar and bound Isaac upon it.” Another difference is that despite the fact that the first halachah begins by speaking of the location of the altar, it concludes with the general statement that “Isaac was bound in the Holy Temple[23]; only in the second halachah is specific mention made that the akeidah took place precisely where the Holy Temple’s altar was located.

These differences reflect the two distinct elements in the akeidah and Beit Hamikdash: their role as vehicles of divine revelation and as monuments of man’s commitment to G-d. The first halachah relates to the element of “divine revelation,” which is a product of the event of the akeidah—the fact that Isaac was bound as a offering to G-d; the second halachah alludes to the tremendous love and awe of G-d implicit in Abraham’s deed.[24] Thus, the revelation of G-dliness derives primarily from the object of the akeidah(Isaac), while the service of G-d it exemplifies derives from the actor of the akeidah (Abraham).

Accordingly, the first halachah relates not to the altar per se, which is the hub of the “divine service” dimension of the Temple, but to the altar as a component of the “other” Beit Hamikdash—the Temple as revealer of the divine, centered on the ark and the Holy of Holies. In the second halachah, it is significant that Abraham bound his son on the site of the future altar, destined to embody the human commitment in the relationship between man and G-d.

Based on the Rebbe’s talks on various occasions[25]

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[1] Genesis 22:2.

[2]. Ibid., v. 9-17.

[3]. Guide for the Perplexed, part III, ch. 24.

[4]. Thus Abraham’s demonstration of faith far exceeds that of Isaac, for the sacrifice asked of Abraham “has no compare, not in the giving up of wealth, nor in the giving up of [one’s own] life, but is the ultimate of all possible sacrifices; one cannot even conceive that human nature would acquiesce to such a thing” (ibid.).

[5]. It is said in the name of the Baal Shem Tov that the works of the Torah authorities of all generations up to, and including, the Maharsha, (1555-1631) were written with ruach hakodesh.

[6]. Sefer HaBahir, cited in Pardes, portal 22, ch. 4.

[7]. Exodus 34:6.

[8]. Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Holy Temple, 2:1-2 (see below).

[9]Bikkurim (Deuteronomy 26:1-11).

[10]Bechorot (ibid., 15:19-20).

[11]. Genesis 28:17.

[12]. Ibid., 22:14, as per Rashi (see note 16 below).

[13]. Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 4:5. Thus while windows set in thick stone walls are built narrow on the outside and broad on the inside in order the maximize the amount of light coming into the room, the windows of the Holy Temple were constructed the other way around—narrow on the inside and broad on the outside—to express the idea that it is a source of luminescence to the world, rather than its recipient (Rashi, I Kings 6:4).

[14]. Exodus 25:8; I Kings 8:13; et al.

[15]. Ethics of the Fathers 5:5.

[16]. Exodus 23:17. According to the Talmud (Chagigah 2a), the word yud, resh, alef and heh in this verse is to be read both as yir’eh (see) andyeira’eh (be seen), as in Genesis 22:14, cited above. Indeed, the Talmud’s basis for this interpretation is the verse in Genesis (Yad Ramah on Talmud, Sanhedrin 4b), further emphasizing the correlation between the “revelation” of the akeidah and the “revelation” of the Temple (see also Kli Yakar on Genesis 22:14).

[17]. See note 19 below.

[18]. The Holy of Holies measured twenty cubits (approx. 30 feet) by twenty cubits. In its center stood the ark, also of a specified size (“two cubits and a half should be its length, a cubit and a half its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height”—Exodus 25:10). Nevertheless, the ark did not occupy any of the space of the chamber that housed it, so that the distance from each of the ark’s outer walls to the interior walls of the Holy of Holies was ten cubits. In the words of the Talmud (Yoma 21a), “The area of the Ark was not part of the measurement.” This was more than mere transcendence of the physical: the ark did possess physical area (indeed, its spatial dimensions were prescribed by law and integral to its status as a holy object), yet at the same time, it did not occupy any of the area of the Holy of Holies. Thus it demonstrated the truth that G-d simultaneously transcends and pervades the parameters of His creation.

[19]. Maimonides (Book of Mitzvot, positive mitzvah #20; Mishneh Torah,Laws of the Holy Temple, 1:1).

[20]. The ark held the two tablets on which G-d had inscribed the Ten Commandments, as well as a Torah scroll written by Moses. In the Mishkan(the temporary and portable forerunner of the Beit Hamikdash that served the people of Israel during their journey in the desert), Moses would hear the divine voice issuing from atop the ark (Exodus 25:22, et al).

[21]. Nachmanides’ commentary to Exodus 25:1.

The question as to which of these two aspects of the Beit Hamikdash is the more basic one is a subject of dispute between these two great sages: Maimonides emphasizes the altar and man’s service of G-d, while Nachmanides sees the ark and divine revelation as the more fundamental element.

[22]. King David dug the foundations of the altar.

[23]. In certain editions of Mishneh Torah there is a gloss that suggests that the word bamikdash (“In the Holy Temple”) should be amended to “in the place of the altar.” The Yaavetz, however, rejects this suggestion, maintaining “Rabbi Moses [Maimonides]’ wording is extremely exact” and that the author of this gloss “simply did not understand its meaning.”

[24]. See note 4 above.

[25]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXX, pp. 68-75; ibid., vol. XI, pp. 116-126.

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SimpleJew

Year after year after year we are reading and saying that that binding of Isaac was a test to Abraham. But is it? Was it? Is it that simple? What IF the test was designed for Sarah? After all Isaac is the only son to her ( Sarah), Abraham had another son Ishmael, who is his first born. And is it not that Satan challenged Sarah with a false news? And if family facing a major challenges is it only a test for a man? What about the fact that the soul of a husband and wife is consider to… Read more »

Jun Villela

WHY YOU ARE NOT COMPLETING THE NAME GOD BUT INSTEAD YOU USE G-d? but honestly i am blessed with your article.

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