The Value of the Question
The Torah reading for the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah is the powerful account of the Akeidat Yitzchak [the Binding of Isaac] (Bereishit 22:1-19). We are told how God commanded our forefather, Avraham, to take his son, Yitzchak, and offer him as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah. Many issues emerge from the account and include topics which fill the world stage. How can we understand the very nature of Biblical morality when God seems to demand of Avraham an act that is so contrary to our very perception of the ethical? For the student of Torah, though, the initial question which jumps out at the reader is much more specific. Why did Avraham not even question God in regard to this command?
The reason why this issue of Avraham’s quiet is the one which will first strike the Torah student is because we have just read of Avraham not doing this – and receiving a positive response for questioning. In regard to God’s intent to punish the people of Sodom (Bereishit 18:17-33), Avraham immediately questions God as to the propriety of this decision. Avraham is a questioner. We further see that God even welcomes such questions. What is thus most striking about Avraham’s response to the call of Akeidat Yitzchak is that he really seems to be acting out of character. Why did he not respond to God as he did before – with a question?
The significance of this insight cannot be overlooked. Many wonder why Avraham acted as he did, not challenging God in regard to the command. Some, within the broad realm of world opinions, wish to even contend that Avraham’s real test was to see if he would stand up to God and, on moral grounds, decline to follow this directive. Such responses obviously have their own problems and difficulties. The question, however, is different. In the act of questioning one is not necessarily challenging God but wishing for an explanation. The objective is to know. The Jew, in the service of God, indeed wishes to understand. When we accepted the Torah, we did not just say that we will do – i.e. follow the commands – but that we will do and strive to understand (Shemot 24:7). To question is actually a most essential undertaking within Jewishness. It is the opening step on the path to understanding. Therein, as such, lies the first issue we face in regard to the Akeida. How could the first Jew not question?
The Rabbis inform us that, indeed, questions abounded at the time of the Akeida. How could Avraham argue for justice – more explicitly, for justice to be explained to him -- in regard to God’s actions against Sodom – and not raise the issue of justice in regard to his own son, the righteous Yitzchak. The Midrash further informs us that at the very conclusion of the event, upon Avraham’s sacrifice of the ram instead of his son, the first thing Avraham did was turn to God with a question that had bothered him from the very onset of the matter. How could God call upon Avraham to sacrifice his son when God previously told Avraham that he would have descendants through Yitzchak? Indeed, Avraham, the first Jew, a thinking person, was full of questions whenever he lacked a level of understanding. He wanted to understand. Furthermore, from what occurred in reference to Sodom, he believed that it was God’s very Will that one should strive to understand to the extent that one can. This is identified in the question. How could he thus not question at the Akeida?
We may state that a problem, however, arises in regard to questioning when we are specifically called upon to act. We might then use a question to somehow avoid an obligation. So, it may be that, as God was commanding Avraham to act, our forefather was concerned that, perhaps, he would use the question to circumvent the command. As such, he acted as he was simply told or as he simply understood what he was told. When God explains to Avraham, in answer to the question the latter asked at the conclusion of the event -- that a careful analysis of the original command would show that it never called upon Avraham to kill Yitzchak and, as such, indeed, Yitzchak would still be the next father of the Jewish People -- He was further stating that the Jew must still always question even in regard to a command of God. Indeed, one can use a question to avoid what is Divinely demanded. Nonetheless, a true and full relationship with God’s Will still requires human query. Even in His commands, in any manner in which He relates to humanity, He demands thoughtful human involvement in the encounter. While there can always be a problem in a question, we must still always recognize the value of the question.
Our Jewish goal of emulating God is only possible in also striving to understand. Of course, such understanding is not always possible – but it is still always a most important goal. This is the value of the question and this is why the question is so significant within Jewish thought. Just as we are to learn from the event of the Akeida the extent of the commitment we are to have to God – that we are to follow Him even as we may not fully understand – we are to also further learn the value of the question. Even when we are called upon to thus follow His Will, just as Avraham learned at the conclusion of the Akeida, we are still to strive toward the utmost clarity possible.
What God effectively told Avraham was that when He communicates with humanity, even within a command, in the process He will still call upon the human being to think. To truly relate to God, the human being is always called upon to analyze, reason and to raise the necessary questions. This does not mean, though, that questions will be necessarily answered. The Divine truth is, in fact, always a step beyond us. This is actually most effectively transmitted through the question. It is thereby – when it is answered and when it is not answered -- that one gains a fuller appreciation of the Divine to the extent that one can.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of Nishma, which fosters the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further info, see www.nishma.org and nishmablog.blogspot.com. You can follow Rabbi Hecht on Twitter @NishmaTorah.
Rabbi Hecht has been a Panelist for Jewish Values Online for several years, responding to questions. You can find his answers by visiting Jewish Values Online, selecting the ‘View all panelists’ link, and clicking his name. A link will appear with his bio to show all answers he has submitted. Rabbi Hecht is the author of the Blog entry “Why Be Jewish?” which was selected as one of the three best for the first quarter of 5779. You can find a link to it at the top left of the Jewish Values Online home page, under Jewish Values Online Blog Awards 5779.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
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