The Binding of Isaac

For years Abraham had no children. But at last his beloved wife Sarah bore him a son.

"And HaVaYaH remembered Sarah as He said, and HaVaYaH did to Sarah as He spoke. Sarah conceived and bore a son for Abraham in his old age. Abraham called the name of the son that Sarah bore Isaac. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born" (Genesis 21:1-5).

The birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah at such an advanced age was a miracle that flew in the face of natural law and the ordinances of the stars.

It was twenty-five years since this couple had set off on their journey to the Land. At that time they were still called by their original names, Avram and Sarai. They were already old then, and to all appearances they were congenitally incapable of ever having children.

Abraham knew this: as if the physical message of their old age and his wife's menopause was not clear enough, Abraham, the master astrologer, saw the facts written indelibly in the stars: "Avram cannot have children."

How many tears and prayers must he and Sarah have poured out to God to give them a child. Otherwise all their efforts to bring the knowledge of God to the world would die with them. How they must have longed and yearned for a successor that they could raise and train in perfect purity in order to establish the pathway of obedience and devotion to HaVaYaH for all time.

They were not interested in setting up a dynasty. They craved for a son because they wanted to do more than merely salvage tarnished souls from the prevailing degeneracy. They wanted to raise a whole new breed of human beings who would be pure from the very time of conception onwards, holy people fit to be priests and ministers of HaVaYaH. Only this way would the entire world be cleansed of its corruption and creation brought to its destiny.

Abraham and Sarah continued praying despite everything. They paid no attention to biological "facts" or the passing of year after year without their seeing an answer. People thought they were crazy. When the aged Abraham walked about the Land calling on God's name and preparing for the perfect society his descendants were to build, the Canaanite inhabitants jeered and taunted him. What senile madness was this for a barren old man to dream that his seed -- his descendants -- would inherit the land for ever?

Still Abraham and Sarah did not give up. They carried on yearning and pouring out their prayers. They knew that the teaching they were bringing to the world was so vital that it had to survive them and endure for ever. Again and again they poured out torrents of words and prayers from the depths of their hearts.

And the words won. Their prayers prevailed. Abraham and Sarah's words became the Word of God.

"And He took him outside and said, Look over the heavens and count the stars, if you can count them. And He said, So will be your seed." (Genesis 15:5).

In taking Abraham "outside," God was saying: "Go out from your astrology. You've seen in the stars that you are not going to have a son. Avram has no son. But Abraham will have a son. Sarai will not give birth. But Sarah will have a child. I will call you by a different name, and this will change the mazal." (Rashi ad loc.)

The decree of the stars was that Avram and Sarai were indeed permanently barren. This was a physical fact -- a reality caused by the radiations from the mazalot, the constellations, into the material world and inscribed in their actual bodies, which were biologically incapable of procreation.

But the nature of things in the physical world is governed by their tzurot, the spiritual forms or "angels" that make them what they are. These tzurot are the letters and formulae that govern the structure and functioning of the chomer, the material substance to which they give form. However, one who has the power to change the tzurah can change the very physical nature of the chomer to which it is bound. The right change of words and letters can bring about a total change of tzurah that generates a corresponding change in the chomer. This can lead to a complete miracle -- a phenomenon that simply and blatantly flies in the face of natural probability and the "ordinances of the stars".

Words have the power to alter mazal, the flow of influence from the angels and stars into the actual physical world. Avram and Sarai could not have a child. But Abraham and Sarah could have a child.

The wisdom of tzurot -- letters and words -- was the very wisdom Abraham had mastered and taught in his Sefer Yetzira. The mystical foundations of this wisdom are the deepest of the deep. Yet the wisdom can be applied in the simplest way by practically anyone. Abraham's pathway is the path of prayer: speaking out the innermost yearnings of our hearts sincerely and honestly in the simplest of words and offering them to HaVaYaH as the "charity of our lips", a service performed for the simple reason that this is what He wants of us: to turn to Him and ask Him for everything we need and desire. For this is the way to come to know and understand that everything in the world is from HaVaYaH.

Just as HaVaYaH created everything through His Word, so He has the power to change everything at will through words and bring entirely new creations into the world. When we recognize this and offer Him our words, our will becomes His will and our very words themselves become the Word of God that determines what will be.

The amazing rejuvenation of the aged Abraham and Sarah followed by the miraculous birth of their beautiful new baby Isaac was a most awesome manifestation of the supreme power of God to bring about anything He wants. Isaac was living proof of the power of prayer -- Abraham's way of using words to bend reality.

A whole new era was beginning. Abraham had searched so long to discover the trail. He had struggled so hard to break his way through. From now on, under the leadership of Isaac -- who would follow the discipline of prayer and prophecy from the very outset -- this tough, inaccessible mountain track would turn into a readily accessible field that others too would be able to learn to work in order to bring the world to perfection.

To the Mountain

There was Isaac eagerly binding himself to the yoke and throwing himself with all the strength of youth into the work of ploughing the field, practicing the ways of justice, charity, prophecy and prayer.

As Abraham watched his beloved son -- living proof of the power of words -- could he have any doubts about the truth of the chilling prophecy that suddenly came to him through those same trusted methods?

"And He said to him: Take your son -- your only son whom you love -- Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him up there as a whole offering on one of the mountains that I will tell you." (Genesis 22:1-2).

This was the ultimate mountain, Abraham's supreme test. The familiar prophetic voice was telling him to sacrifice his son to God.

From his earliest years Abraham had been destined for priesthood. The woman who wanted him to bring a sacrifice to Terach's idols (see Abraham smashes the idols) felt instinctively that Abraham understood about divine ministry. The question was not whether to bring offerings but to whom. Abraham saw the absurdity of bringing offerings to powerless idols, but he knew a great deal about offerings and self-sacrifice to HaVaYaH.

Did the path of prayer and devotion really lead to literal human sacrifice?

This is not the place for a discussion of the profound mysteries of the Binding of Isaac, which has been discussed at length by philosophers and moralists throughout the ages. The fact is that in the end it turned out that it was not the will of God to shed human blood -- not even for the sake of a holy sacrifice, let alone in murder and warfare.

After three days of anguish following the prophecy, Abraham finally reached Mount Moriah. This was the place from whose Earth Adam's body was formed. This was where Noah offered sacrifices after the Flood. This was the place which was -- and will be -- the site of the Holy Temple of God.

They came to the place that God told him, and Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood and bound Isaac his son and put him on the altar on top of the wood. And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.

And the angel of HaVaYaH called to him from the heavens and said: "Abraham! Abraham!" And he said, "I am ready!" And He said, "Do not put your hand to the boy and do not do anything to him. For now I know that you revere God and you did not hold back your only son from Me". (ibid. 9-12)

It was not Isaac's blood that God wanted. Isaac's very life was to be the sacrifice. He was to be the exemplar of total submission to God and obedience to His law.

Yet Abraham was not satisfied. Had he climbed all the way to the top of the mountain in total surrender, only to leave without surrendering anything?

Abraham raised his eyes and saw that there was a ram caught by its horns in the thicket. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as an offering in place of his son. And Abraham called the name of that place "HaVaYaH sees, as it is said this day, On the Mountain HaVaYaH is seen." (ibid. 13-14).

Here was the mountain, the place where mankind can attain the peak of connection with God -- seeing and being seen -- by climbing to the very summit of lowliness, humility, submission and self-sacrifice.

When Adam ate the forbidden fruit, the sin was that of arrogant selfishness. Now, through Abraham's willingness to make the supreme sacrifice, it would be possible to rectify the sin. The very earth from which Adam's body was formed would be the place of the atonement altar of his descendants for all time. Through the Temple sacrifices (which will be discussed in later segments of the course) humanity would learn what it is to slaughter one's own willfulness and selfishness, placing what God commands over and above what man desires.

What God most wants of man is that he should know God. Mount Moriah, the place of sacrifice and prayer, would be the place for all mankind to come to know God. For "My House will be called the House of Prayer for all the nations" (Isaiah 56:7).

Abraham had conquered the Mountain.



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