The akeida is one of the dramatic highlights of the Torah. It is, according to Rav Kook, the apex of the illustrious career of Avraham Avinu. It is also very difficult for us to comprehend. Much depends on the perspective from which we approach the story, and in particular the question of who is the protagonist.
It is simplest to understand the story of the akeida as it is told to us – from the omniscient perspective of the narrator, Hashem Himself, who related the tale to Moshe Rabbeinu. In this light, the conflict is dramatic irony: The characters don’t know that no human blood will be shed, but Hashem knows and so do we. Indeed an argument could be made that Avraham should have known that Hashem would never expect of him something so monstrous, and should have figured out the loophole that undermined the letter of the command.
In Israel, in the wake of the Six-Day War and then the much more traumatic Yom Kippur War that succeeded it, a whole generation wrestled with the terrible sacrifices that were made at the behest of their parents. For the survivors of those conflicts, predominantly secular and shaken to their core, their experience echoed with the resonance of the sacrifice of Yitzchak, offered by his father as a sacrifice to the Almighty. Rav Kook in his commentary on the siddur, Olat Hare’iya, examines these momentous events from the point of view of Avraham, whom he describes again and again as “the father” or “the holy father.” In emphasizing Avraham’s essence as well as his role of “father of a multitude of nations,” Rav Kook draws attention to the enormity of the challenge embodied in this act of offering his beloved son as a sacrifice to his G-d.
In one of his sermons from Rosh Hashana, Aish Kodesh examines the story of the akeida that is read, in addition to this Shabbat, on the second day of that holiday. Aish Kodesh observes that the magnitude of the sacrifice, the sanctity of the occasion, and the merit obtained by Avraham and Yitzchak resonate through the ages and are recalled each year on Rosh Hashana as if the akeida is being performed anew.
Rav Kook expresses a similar theme which he elucidates in considerable detail. When Avraham undertakes this act at the command of Hashem, he changes forever the relationship between the Creator and His creation. Avraham elevates his consciousness to a level of conformity with the Divine Will that transcends all the laws of nature, whether physical or spiritual. In doing so he also usurps the natural order; he establishes the precedent that through will and intent, a sentient being can interface with the Divine and can bring blessings into the world and alter the course of history.
Rav Kook stresses that it is not every year at the blowing of the shofar that the power of the akeida is felt in our world – rather, every day when we recall these events and strive in our small way to emulate the spiritual majesty of our forefather Avraham, we reenact that sacrifice in some small way and we experience the transcendence and the enlightenment of Avraham to the best of our own individual ability.
Rav Kook explains further the nature of “the test” that Avraham underwent in carrying out this unspeakably difficult command of Hashem. Here again his words track closely with the teachings of the Aish Kodesh, his junior by fifteen years. (It is unlikely that they ever met. Aish Kodesh was a Chassidic master and Rav Kook was a scion of the Volozhin Yeshiva, the seat of traditional Lithuanian scholarship.) Aish Kodesh speaks of Rabbi Akiva, whose fate tragically he was to experience personally. He says that Rabbi Akiva “suffered,” in his own words, because he didn’t know until the end of his life if he’d ever have an opportunity to prove his complete devotion to Hashem in sacrificing everything on that altar. Rav Kook teaches that “the test” that Hashem presented to Avraham was an opportunity for that tzaddik to achieve spiritual heights that could never be reached in the natural world. Hashem knew that Avraham’s greatest desire was to serve in the highest and most complete manner imaginable, but that even a noble lifetime dedicated wholly to the pursuit of holiness would never test him to the fullest extent of human capability. For this reason, Rav Kook says, Hashem “gifted” Avraham with this challenge that would have been insurmountable for any lesser man.
In devoting himself without hesitation to performing these deeds, Avraham not only proves his worth but he elevates all of us – his offspring – and all of humanity by association. And it isn’t only Avraham who is transformed by the experience. Yitzchak is not of weak faith like some who might see themselves reflected in him. He did not resist or struggle against the bizarre and terrible mission he found himself literally bound up in. Yitzchak willingly submits himself to the prophetic awareness of his father, and in doing so, earns enduring prophecy for himself as well.
There are times, mercifully limited in their frequency, when the servants of Hashem are tested and given an opportunity to transcend the base materialism and the limited perspective of, for example, the servants of Avraham who were left behind when he and Yitzchak proceeded to the akeida. We must face these challenges not as scourges to humble us but as the Aish Kodesh did in the Warsaw Ghetto and beyond – as opportunities to demonstrate that we are spiritual beings who only grow stronger in the face of adversity.
Rav Kook explains in the prayer that follows the account of the akeida each morning that when you achieve the spiritual level of Avraham, you realize that even the “anger” of Hashem is a manifestation of His love for us. When we encounter this apparent rage with true faith and love of Hashem and of each other, then no matter what happens we will only ever know His mercy.