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The divine temple
And the human heart
Everything was at stake. From Abraham’s love for his son to his reputation as a man of God – it was all on the line. At the tail end of his career, the first person to have discovered God was summoned to the ultimate religious trial. Would this courageous pioneer forfeit everything he had accomplished, both personally and professionally, to obey an incomprehensible divine command? Could he pull the trigger and sacrifice his own son, based upon instructions delivered by a God he believed in but had never actually seen? Everything was at stake atop that windswept mountain during the binding of Isaac.
Though his internal conscience could not decipher this unusual command, Abraham willingly submitted. During his three-day travel to the mountain, he struggled to reconcile this puzzling demand with his own moral instinct. Unable to understand this frightful request, Abraham suspended his own moral conscience in favor of the divine will. In doing so, he passed the basic test of religion and carved a template for our own religious experiences.
Synchronicity and submission
As God is compassionate and desires human prosperity, His will is synchronous with human interest. Obeying His will improves our personal lives and the overall human condition. Religion isn’t meant to stifle or suppress human experience but to empower and enhance it. There is no clash between the divine will and the human heart. It may not be immediately obvious, but every divine instruction improves the human experience. God isn’t arbitrary and doesn’t issue empty or purposeless commands. As we mature religiously, we discover deeper understandings of this overlap between religion and human benefit. There is no conflict between the human heart and the divine temple. God created both, and they coincide.
However, everyone, at some point, arrives at that mountain and experiences an akeida moment in which they cannot decipher the mystery of the divine will. At some point, we all face the Abraham challenge: Can we suspend human reason, silently obey the divine mystery and submit to the will of a higher being?
Abraham programmed that ability within every Jew, and we have been faithfully perpetuating his legacy ever since. As much as we endeavor to reconcile religion with human interest, we always fall short. At that stage, when we are riddled by God’s indecipherable will, our obedience and submission kick in to ensure durable religious commitment, even absent human understanding. Faith is part reason and part trust.
Humans and robots
Yet, for all his submission to divine instructions, Abraham isn’t portrayed as a hollowed-out and unemotional automaton. In theory, the most efficient way for him to kill his son would be to take his emotions out of the equation, numb his feelings, objectify his son and act dispassionately. By muffling his emotions, Abraham can carry out this terrifying act which his conscience rails against.
Yet, Abraham is portrayed as a loving father, not an indifferent robot or a crazed fanatic. The Torah’s description of the akeida contains 10 terms that derive from the word “av,” denoting a father, or from the term “ben,” denoting a son. These terms are completely redundant, as we are well aware that Isaac is Abraham’s son. The recurring references to a father and son underscore that neither father nor son abdicated his affection for the other, even as they proceeded toward the unimaginable. They retained their humanity and deepened their relationship, even though they chose to prioritize the will of God over human instinct.
Likewise, the midrash reports that until the very last minute, Abraham prays to God to rescind the harsh decree.
The akeida remodeled religious history by providing a template for human submission to divine wisdom. Each year, on Rosh Hashanah we invoke Abraham’s epic heroism, sounding a shofar and pleading with God to forgive our sins.
Even though Abraham recognizes that his sacrifice would reshape religious history, as a human being he still desperately pleads for a way out. To do any less would have rendered him a monster. He realizes that, in the end, if the decree isn’t repealed, he will have no choice but to obey God’s instructions. However, he continues to pray for a reversal, hoping that he could avoid this fearsome challenge.
There is absolutely no contradiction between his readiness to execute divine will and his praying to avoid that test. Bending his will to God’s will isn’t meant to eviscerate his natural human feelings for his beloved son.
Finally, the midrash describes the actual moment in which the sacrifice “almost” occurs. Isaac is tightly bound as his father raises the knife to perform the sacrifice. Tears flow down the father’s cheeks as he recognizes this to be his final goodbye to his son. Even though Abraham’s heart is overjoyed at obeying the divine command, he still sobs at the thought of killing his son.
God fashioned our hearts into multi-chambered organs because He expects us to simultaneously sense multiple and often clashing emotions.
On that day, Abraham’s heart was suffused with both joy and sadness. He submitted his decision to divine authority but preserved his humanity and his conscience. God expected no less. He desired a kind and sympathetic father standing upon a mountain rather than a cold mannequin emptied of the noble impulses which God Himself implanted. Abraham’s heroism consisted not only in his submission to God but also in his preservation of his humanity.
Multi-chambered organs: Multiple – and often clashing – emotions
God delivered two guidance systems by which we live our lives. One is a religious system, a list of commandments, a roster of 613 do’s and don’ts distilled within the Torah. Additionally, He vested us with common sense and moral intuition, a sense of right and wrong, which provide a navigational compass. In the rare cases in which these systems appear to clash, faith demands submitting the human heart to the divine code. However, these akeida-like cases are very rare.
More often, the divine law and the pure human heart complement each other. Even if a decision isn’t directly legislated by the Torah, it should still be inspected based upon moral conscience. When we listen to our inner virtue, we are listening to a divine whisper, even if it isn’t a divinely articulated commandment.
Thankfully, our world is benefiting from a religious surge, as Torah study and observance are each on the rise. We have access to more Torah knowledge and greater familiarity with the first system of God’s law than in the past.
Sometimes, though, the emphasis upon the law mutes our inner voice of human conscience and morality. Many of life’s decisions lie outside the purview of actual Torah law but must still be shaped by common sense and moral intuition. These moral instincts were planted by God, and we should listen to their murmur. God speaks to us through His Torah, but he quietly whispers to us through our conscience. Religion moves in stereo.