The Binding of Isaac, a lesson in holding back?
Among our most famous and most disturbing Biblical stories, Akeidat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac, is perhaps the top of the list. This is a story that demands of us that we ask questions and yet produces few if any complete answers. Why was Abraham commanded to do such a deed by G-d? Why did Abraham not protest? How could fulfilling a divine command be allowed to lead to such grief and brokeness in the family and seemingly for generations to come? The approach that this story teaches us not to offer human sacrifice is very far from satisfying. And while I am able to accept that some questions have no answers, and relieved that in the end no son is offered, I am not comfortable leaving it just at that.
One approach is to see the story through the lense of the sephirot, the divine attributes that we are to cultivate within ourselves and that the patriarchs are identified with. Abraham is associated with Chesed, loving kindness, endless, automatic ever-flowing love. This is the boundless love of a mother for her child, an inherent capacity to help, comfort, and care for others. Abraham is viewed as the archetype of Chesed through his unfailing concern for others. While recovering from the self-inflicted pain of circumcising himself at the age of 100, he cares not about his own pain relief but only the desire to offer hospitality. While sitting at the door of his tent during the hottest part of the noon hour, three days after his surgery, he races out into the dessert, even interrupting a vision of the divine, to offer hospitality for three strangers. He is clearly a master of Chesed.
But to be a master of Chesed, perhaps one must also achieve Gevurah, the second sephira, associated with Isaac. Gevurah is inner strength, knowing when to hold back, creating the boundaries and channels for Chesed to flow. If Chesed is the outstretched hand, Gevurah is the hand held back. Chesed desires to always help and act; Gevurah teaches us that there are times of pause and contemplation. Chesed is a hug, Gevurah is a stern "keep away!" yelled at a child playing too near to a stove. To the child, there is the hurt feeling of having done wrong, but from the perspective of the parent, this yelled warning is not a scolding, but an expression of the very same love that produces the comforting hug. "Let there be spaces in our togetherness" Khahil Gibran wrote. Without Gevurah's space, Chesed can not fully thrive. Real love is not allowing people to do whatever they want; real love and concern includes setting limits and safe boundaries.
Perhaps Avraham had mastered Chesed, but needed an infusion of Gevurah energy. Perhaps Isaac, the bound, the withheld, the passive, the acted-upon-one needed to learn more active Chesed; and Abraham, man of love and action, needed to fully experience Gevurah, a withholding of the love for the purpose of it flowing in more defined channels and more healthy measures. Abraham may have had too much Chesed, and not enough understanding of Gevurah. So perhaps the G-d of infinite loving Chesed, demanded of the archetype of Chesed, the most extreme form of Gevurah, the ability to imagine holding back his fullest and deepest love for his son and to offer him on the altar. The G-d of Chesed is also the G-d of Gevurah and all of the other sephirot.
While I would prefer that Abraham had argued for his son as he did for the sinners of Sodom and Gemmorah, and would also prefer that God feel that Abraham passed the test, but not with the highest of grades due to his lack of protest, I can imagine the story to have a different purpose: for Abraham to have this complete immersion and experience in the world of withholding and restricting his loving actions. There are times that this is what is called for and not just to offer pure love.
Having my own sons Circumcised was among the hardest tasks I have ever faced. Despite my love of our Jewish traditions, it is entirely counter-intuitive to ask that a knife be used against the 8 day old flesh of a baby's foreskin. There is the inner scream, much louder than the baby's cries: "Don't hurt my baby, don't harm him, don't touch him with that knife!" Yet, we proceed, not only because it's a mitzvah. We proceed because we and our precious new born son must experience both the joy of Chesed and the discomfort of Gevurah. We must learn, as perhaps Abraham needed to learn, that love is not always enough. We must learn that there will also be moments of holding back, of saying "no", of setting limits, of doing what is hard, painful, and even hurtful from the perspective of the child. And this Gevurah which seems so harsh, also comes from the place of love and desire for our child's well-being.
Abraham had mastered Chesed, so perhaps he was challenged to fully face Gevurah through the hardest form of strictness and withholding of love that anyone can possibly imagine. And as an eight day old boy is circumcised and we hear his cries and those of our own, we can appreciate the power of love, the power of inner strength, and also the deep relief that it is a foreskin that we are asked to offer, and no more. Abraham was the father of our people. He was a master of love, kindness, and hospitality. So perhaps a God of love, kindness and hospitality needed to make sure that Abraham was also capable of Gevurah. So he tested him, in this hardest of hard ways, to teach Abraham, and Isaac, and all of us, and the whole world that we need more than love; we need to know when to hold back, when to set the limits, and when to do what is counter intuitive because being a parent of a people or just a parent of a child will demand nothing less.