Thursday, December 04, 2008

How Sure Was Avraham of Hashem's Command To Bind Yitzchak?

Over at eLomdus (read it first), a presentation of Rambam's different take on Avraham during the Akeida, in parshat Vayera. The classic, famous, explanation of Avraham's nisayon (which he cites from Avi Ezri, Rav Shach's commentary on Rambam's Mishneh Torah) was that since the revelation of prophets (other than Moshe) was not panim el panim, and there is a measure of interpretation involved, in any prophecy he did not intrepret it in a more convenient manner, but rather took it at its simple, intended level.

In contrast, Rambam writes in Moreh Nevuchim that there was no doubt in what the meaning of this, and other, prophecies were, or else Avraham could not have acted as he did. Indeed Rambam takes the fact that Avraham acted as he did as proof that there was no such doubt.

Here, by the way, is someone who develops this idea earlier -- Ralbag. He writes in his commentary on the Torah, roughly, as follows:
The test Hashem put to Avraham with this prophecy if it would be light in his eyes some specific thing to the honor of Hashem. And this is that if it was light in his eyes, he would not turn back from this, to interpret in this matter anything except that which one could understand from it in the beginning of delving. And if it was difficult in his eyes, and he sought for this statement a different meaning other that that which could be understood from it in the beginning of delving. And behold, Avraham understood this prophecy in accordance with what might be understood in it in the beginning of delving, and with all this he went forth with great diligence to perform that which he was commanded, according to his understanding {machshava}. And therefore, he arise early in the morning, saddled his donkey, etc..
Depending on how one understands this statement, there are different levels at which this conflicts with Rambam. One could try to harmonize it at some level, assuming the simple meaning was indeed the full intended meaning. It was then clear to Avraham what Hashem wanted, as it would be clear to any prophet. But even so, with the stakes so high, he might not have valued Hashem's command so much, and would have tried to rationalize it. And that would have taken him away from the clear truth. That does not mean that there really was a safek. But rather, to channel Jack Worthing from The Importance of Being Ernest, "I could deny it if I liked. I could deny anything if I liked." When one sins, one justifies all sorts of things, and (often) convinces oneself that it is the correct path. The mind is basically a machine which makes up rationalizations, and Avraham could have rationalized. But there was no real safek, and indeed the nevuah was clear.

Even if we said this, it would still be somewhat different from the Rambam. The Rambam would not read in any possibility of safek, because it was absolutely clear. And so I do not think Rambam would consider valid the idea that this was Avraham's test.

Indeed, Rambam would seem not to consider this a test at all (or any nisayon so), but rather a way of demonstrating to the nations these two facts -- of Avraham's dedication and also of the clarity of prophecy.

At any rate, in the end, Yitzchak was not slaughtered. And this was indeed, possibly, the true meaning of the original prophecy, and Avraham would have possibly arrived at that result had he engaged in a bit more iyyun into Hashem's words. But Hashem was in control, and made sure nothing, in the end, happened amiss. And Avraham passed the test by his attitude, and by not delving, because of his great eagerness to fulfill Hashem's command, even such an otherwise stunning, mind-boggling, and ethically challenging one.

Again, see eLomdus for the summary of Rambam's position. And read also the Rambam, in Moreh Nevuchim (3:24) inside -- available here. (There is a commentary on those pages I am not including, for the sake of space, but I do provide the main text here, especially since every other page there is upside down. Click on the pictures to make them larger. And while the whole perek is about nisayon, the relevant portion about the clarity of prophecy is in the last of these three images.)

1 comment:

Prophecy said...


If I remember correcly, the whole idea of Safek would be at odds with what the Ramchal says about prophecy: that the prophet knows beyond any doubt what is being told to him and by Whom.


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