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The Frontier of Self

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And it came to pass after these things that G-d tested Abraham. And He said to him “Abraham!” and he said “Here I am!”

And He said: “I beseech you: take your son, your only son whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I shall tell you of.”

And Abraham rose up early in the morning and saddled his ass; he took his two attendants with him, and his son, Isaac. And he broke up wood for the burnt offering and rose up and went to the place which G-d told him…

And Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order; and he bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar upon the wood.

And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.

And an angel of G-d called to him out of the heavens: “…Lay not your hand upon the lad, neither do anything to him.  For now I know that you fear G-d, for you have not withheld your son, your only son from Me…”

Genesis 22:1-12

The “Binding of Isaac” has come to represent the ultimate in the Jew’s devotion to G-d. Every morning, we preface our prayers by reading the Torah’s account of the Akeidah (“Binding”) and then say: “Master of the Universe! Just as Abraham our father suppressed his compassion for his only son to do Your will with a whole heart, so may Your compassion suppress Your wrath against us, and may Your mercy prevail over Your attributes of strict justice…” On Rosh Hashanah, when the world trembles in judgment before G-d, we evoke the Binding of Isaac by sounding the horn of a ram (a ram replaced Isaac as an offering) as if to say: If we have no other merit, remember Abraham’s deed. Remember how the first Jew bound all succeeding generations of Jews in a covenant of self-sacrifice to You.

Obviously, the supreme test of a person’s faith is his willingness to sacrifice his very existence for its sake. But what is so unique about Abraham’s sacrifice? Have not countless thousands of Jews given their lives rather than renounce their covenant with the Almighty?

One may explain that the willingness to sacrifice one’s child is a far greater demonstration of faith than to forfeit one’s own life. But in this, too, Abraham is not unique. Time and again through the generations, Jews have encouraged their children to go to their deaths rather than violate their faith. Typical is the story of “Chanah and her seven sons,” who, seeing her seven children tortured to death rather than bow before a Greek idol, proclaimed: “My children! Go to Abraham your father and say to him: You bound one offering upon the altar, and I have bound seven offerings…”[1]

Furthermore, while Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son, in thousands of Akeidot throughout our history Jews actually gave up their lives and the lives of their entire families. And, unlike Abraham, G-d had not directly spoken to them and requested their sacrifice; their deeds were based on their own convictions and the strength of their commitment to an invisible and often elusive G-d. And many gave their lives rather than violate even a relatively minor tenet of their faith, even in cases in which the Torah does not require the Jew to do so.[2]

Nevertheless, as the Abarbanel writes in his commentary on Genesis, it is the Binding of Isaac “that is forever on our lips in our prayers… For in it lies the entire strength of Israel and their merit before their Heavenly Father…” Why? What about the many thousands who made the ultimate sacrifice in reiteration of our loyalty to G-d?

Of No Substance

The same may be asked in regard to Abraham himself. The Akeidah was the tenth and final “test” in Abraham’s life.[3] In his first test of faith, Abraham was cast into a fiery furnace for his refusal to acknowledge the arch-idol of his native Ur Kasdim, the emperor Nimrod, and his continued commitment to teaching the world the truth of a one, non-corporeal and omnipotent G-d. All this before G-d had revealed Himself to him and chosen him and his descendents to serve as a “light unto the nations” and the purveyors of His word to humanity.

So this early act of self-sacrifice seems, in a certain respect, to be even greater than the latter ones. A man, all on his own, comes to recognize the truth and devotes himself to its dissemination – to the extent that he is even willing to sacrifice his very life to this end. All this without a command or even sign from Above. And yet, the Binding of Isaac is considered the most important test of Abraham’s faith. The Talmud asks: Why did G-d, in commanding Abraham on the Akeidah, say “I beseech you…”? Answers the Talmud: G-d said to Abraham: “I have tried you with many tests and you have withstood them all. Now, I beg you, please withstand this test for Me lest they say that the earlier ones were of no substance.”[4]

Again we ask, Why? Granting that the Akeidah was the most demanding test of all, why are the others “of no substance” without it?

The Trailblazer

Once there was an untamed wilderness: not a trail penetrated its thick underbrush, not a map charted its forbidding terrain. But one day there came a man who accomplished the impossible: he cut a path through this impregnable land.

Many trod in his footsteps. It was still a most difficult journey, but they had his charts to consult, his trails to follow. Over the years, there were some who made the journey under even more trying conditions than those which had challenged the first pioneer: while he had done his work in broad daylight, there were those who stumbled about in the black of night; while he had only his determination for company, there were those who made the trip weighed down by heavy burdens. But all were equally indebted to him. Indeed, all their attainments could be said to be but extensions of his own great deed.

Abraham was the pioneer of self-sacrifice. And the first instance of true self-sacrifice in all of history was the Binding of Isaac.

Selfishly Altruistic

For to sacrifice one’s self is not the same as to sacrifice one’s life – there is a world of difference between the two.

The human story includes many chapters of heroic sacrifice. Every generation and society has had its martyrs – individuals who gave their lives for their faith, for their homeland, and for virtually every cause under the sun. They did so for a variety of reasons. For some it was an act of desperation: to them, their lives were not worth living unless a certain objective could be attained. Others believed that their deed would be richly rewarded in the hereafter, so they readily exchanged the temporal benefits of physical life for the soul’s eternal gain. Finally, there were those for whom their cause had grown to be more significant to them than their lives: they had come to so completely identify with a certain goal that it became more integral to their “self” than their existence as individuals. In all the above cases, the martyr is sacrificing his life, but not his self. Indeed, he is sacrificing his physical life for the sake of his “self” – be it the self projected by his obsession, the spiritual self of his immortal soul, or a broader, universal “self” he has come to identify with. Ultimately, his is a selfish act; “selfish” in the most positive and altruistic sense of the word – here is an individual who has succeeded in transcending the narrow, material definition of “self” which dominates in our corporeal world – but selfish nonetheless.

Breakthrough & Revelation

Abraham was a man with a mission. A mission for which he sacrificed everything, a mission more important to him than his own life.

For many years he had agonized over the fact that there was no heir to this mission, that his work of bringing the beliefs and ethics of monotheism to a pagan world would cease with his passing from the world. Then came the Divine promise: miraculously, at the age of 100, he will have a son, out of whom will stem the people of Israel. “You shall call his name Isaac,” said G-d, “and I shall establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him.”[5] And then G-d told him to destroy it all.

When Abraham bound Isaac upon the altar, it was not in the service of any calling or cause. In fact, it ran contrary to everything he believed in and taught, to everything he had sacrificed his life for, to everything G-d Himself had told him. He could see no reason, no purpose for his act. Every element of his self cried out against it – his material self, his spiritual self, his transcendent, altruistic self. But he did it. Why? Because G-d had asked him to.

Abraham was the pioneer of self-sacrifice. Before Abraham, the self was inviolable territory. Man could enlighten the self’s priorities, he could even broaden and sublimate it, but he could not supersede it. Indeed, how could he? As a creature of free choice, man’s every act stems from within: his every deed has a motive (conscious or otherwise), and his every motive has a rationale – a reason why it is beneficial to his own existence.  So how could he be motivated to annihilate his own self? The instinct to preserve and enhance one’s self is the source and objective of a creature’s every drive and desire – man could no more transcend it than lift himself up by pulling on the hair of his own head. Yet Abraham did the impossible. He sacrificed his self for the sake of something beyond the scope of the most transcendent of identities. Had he not done so, no other act of self-sacrifice – previous or subsequent, of his own or of his descendents – could be presumed to be of any “substance,” to be anything more than the expression of a higher self. But when Abraham bound Isaac upon the altar, the heavenly voice proclaimed: “Now I know that you fear G-d.” Now I know that the will of G-d supersedes even the most basic of your instincts, that all your deeds, including those which could be explained as self-motivated, are, in essence, driven by the desire to serve your Creator. Now I know that your entire life was of true, selfless substance.

So when we speak of the Akeidah, we also speak of those who trod the path this great deed blazed. Of the countless thousands who died for the creed of Abraham, of the many millions who lived for its sake. Their sacrifices, great and petty, cataclysmic and everyday, may, on the surface, seem but the outgrowth of their personal beliefs and aspirations: commendable and extraordinary, but only the fulfillment of an individual soul’s identity. But the Akeidah revealed them to be so much more than that. For Abraham bequeathed to his descendants the essence of Jewishness: that at the core of one’s very being lies not the self but one’s commitment to the Creator. And that, ultimately, one’s every choice and act is an expression of that “spark of divinity” within.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Kislev 21 5731 (12/19/1970)

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[1] Talmud, Gittin 57b.

[2] According to Torah law, a Jew most give up his life rather than commit murder, certain sexual crimes (such as incest or adultery) or idol-worship, or where there is a deliberate attempt to force a renunciation of the Jewish faith.

[3] See Bartenurah commentary on Ethics of the Fathers 5:3.

[4] Talmud, Sanhedrin 89b

[5] Genesis 17:19.

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