Obligation 172 in Rambam’s list of Biblical commandments requires us to obey an established prophet (leaving aside certain limitations, such as never being allowed to worship a power other than Hashem). The mitzvah comes to mind this week because I think we sometimes misconstrue the religions heroism in the ‘Akedah, the Binding of Isaac.
Sanhedrin 89b says Yitzchak submitted to being bound on the altar to be slaughtered only because Avraham was an established prophet. (I assume the Gemara adopted the chronology of Seder ‘Olam Rabbah –attributed to the tanna R. Yose b. Chalafta—which thought Yitzchak was thirty-seven at the time, old enough to resist had he wanted.)
Today, people discuss the ‘Akedah as an issue of faith, which seems incorrect. Avraham had a prophetic experience, in which Hashem told him to sacrifice Yitzchak. As Rambam lays out in Laws of the Foundation of the Torah, starting at chapter seven, prophets’ visions were clear and certain. When the experience ended, the prophet had no doubt s/he had heard from Hashem (or an angel communicating Hashem’s Will), nor any uncertainty as to the message being conveyed.
We sometimes confuse the issue by calling certain remarkable achievements “inspired,” especially in the arts. We also sometimes speak of great Torah scholars as benefitting from ruach ha-kodesh, the Divine spirit. Each of those can be correct while still being qualitatively different from prophecy. (Rambam in the second part of the Guide for the Perplexed points us in that direction, when he says prophecy combines wisdom and imagination. Those blessed with a bounty of one or the other produce insights which look somewhat prophetic to the rest of us. Crucially, Rambam is clear they are not in fact prophecies.)
The importance of the clear line arises in cases such as the ‘Akedah, and remind us of where religious struggle is understandable and where it’s not. Avraham embarked on the ‘Akedah after having had a prophecy, which means he was completely certain about what he was supposed to be doing. Yitzchak, too, knew (in the Gemara’s reconstruction) he had to follow Avraham, a certified prophet.
Prophecy is so far in our past, we have forgotten—experientially, not just intellectually—what that means. Prophets are born with certain talents, develop them in certain ways, and live a life very different than the ordinary (I again leave the details to your follow up, the seventh chapter of Rambam’s Laws of the Foundations of the Torah an excellent place to start).
As Avraham and Yitzchak went to the ‘Akedah, we admire their fortitude, not their faith, their having found the will to carry through on an enormously difficult task. Humans want to live; we all the more so want our children to live, especially a child who is the long-awaited answer to prayers, the one Hashem had promised would continue this parent’s ethical and religious revolution.
Likely, the two of them had also reached the level of confidence in Hashem to accept this must be the right course of action, regardless of whether they could see what made it right. In that sense, their underlying faith did matter, but it was faith in Hashem’s overall goodness, rather than faith in the prophecy itself.
Many of us let ourselves be lured into questioning long settled issues like whether prophecy exists, whether Hashem commanded the Torah, and more, and thus deny ourselves the true religious success of shaping ourselves to act as Hashem wants, regardless of what our untrained human instincts tell us. We let theoretical questions close off the real task of Jewish life, training ourselves to follow Hashem’s Will.
That task takes us to becoming the kinds of people who do what Hashem wants, the road to the highest possible success and accolade (as my late teacher, R. Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, used to stress), being called an ‘eved Hashem, a servant of Gd. It is a title bestowed on only one human being while he was still alive, Moshe. A Jew who walks through life tempted by sin, sometimes succeeding and sometimes not, is living a Jewish life; one who spends his or her life dithering over the religion’s basic propositions has allowed him/herself to be ensnared in a battle Hashem never wanted us to have to fight.
Our important religious moments, like Avraham’s and Yitzchak’s in Va-yera, come as we overcome our urges to do that which we know we should not be doing, as we improve in our ability to fulfill Avot 2;4, to nullify our will in the face of Hashem’s.
It is such moments which bring us closer to being true spiritual as well as physical descendants of our Fathers Avraham and Yitzchak. All the other stuff is a sad and unfortunate digression.