Thursday, December 8, 2016

How a Baby Is Made

How is a Baby Made?  More specifically, what determines the future characteristics of the child?  One answer emerges from the story of Yaakov’s breeding of the sheep, an answer that seems to be endorsed by the Talmud: a child’s character is shaped by what the mother and father were thinking and doing at the time of conception.
The Gemara in Nedarim (20a-b) has an extended discussion about which, if any, acts of marital sex are discouraged or forbidden.  Yochanan ben Dahavai states that the reason children are born lame, mute, deaf, or blind, is because husband and wife were engaged in improper sexual behavior with their bodies (certain sexual acts), their ears (what they were listening to), their mouths (where they were kissing), or their eyes (where they where looking).  This statement parallels the belief, widespread in the ancient world, that the thoughts or actions of the parents can imprint themselves on the fetus being conceived.  In his book “Natural History,” Pliny the Elder (1st century CE) states:
… [T]hat a great many accidental circumstances are influential (that is, exert an influence on the fetus)—recollections of sights and sounds and actual sense-impressions received at the time of conception. Also a thought suddenly flitting across the mind of either parent is supposed to produce likeness [in the fetus] (7:2).
This understanding of fetal development is implicit in the story of Yaakov and the rods (30:37-39).  To ensure that Lavan’s flocks give birth to striped and spotted sheep, Yaakov peels white streaks in wooden rods and places them where the sheep will see them when they copulate.  And, lo and behold, this works:
And the flocks conceived before the rods, and brought forth sheep striped, speckled, and spotted (30:39).
Bereishit Rabbah (VaYeitzei, 73:10, Vilna edition) illustrates the validity of this science in the case of humans with the following colorful story:
There is a story of a black man who was married to a black woman, and she bore him a son who was white.  The father seized the son and came to Rebbe and said to him, “Perhaps this is not my son.”  Rebbe replied, “Do you have portraits in your house?”  He said, “Yes.”  “Are they black or white?” [Rebbe asked.]  “They are white,” [he replied.]  “It is from this that you have a white son,” [Rebbe responded to him.]
Although this science has now been displaced by the science of genetics, its acceptance by Bereishit Rabbah and the Talmud need not bother us from a faith perspective. Regarding issues of science, Rambam writes that the Rabbis were no more advanced than the experts at their time, and did not always understand the science fully (Guide to the Perplexed, III:14).  But what are we to make of the Torah’s story?  Doesn’t the Torah implicitly recognize the validity of this false scientific belief?  It does not.  The Torah relates that Yaakov operated with this belief, but it does not tell us why, in fact, the flock gave birth to spotted and striped sheep.  Indeed, the next statement in Bereishit Rabbah attributes these births to a different cause altogether:
Said Rav Huna of Beit Horon: Ministering Angels would carry sheep from Lavan’s flock and come and place them in Yaakov’s flock [at the time of copulation].   This is what is meant by the verse, “[And the angel said:] Lift up your eyes, and see – all the rams which leap upon the cattle are striped, speckled, and spotted.” (31:12)
According to Rav Huna, while Yaakov might have thought that his success was due to the striped sticks, it was really all God’s doing, and it was done by using a good old-fashioned science: mating the ewes with the right type of rams. This seems to be the pshat. The Torah presents us with two contrasting explanations for Yaakov’s success: the sticks and the mating with the rams. The first represents Yaakov’s efforts, the second, the actual truth which the angel reveals to Yaakov (“lift up your eyes and see…”). The moral here is one which runs through many of the Yaakov narratives: while Yaakov exerts great effort to achieve his goals, often by engaging in subterfuge, his success is not a result of these efforts but rather of God’s promised protection. This lesson is finally learned by Yaakov in next week’s parasha, when, faced with Esav’s approaching army, he abandons his plans and strategies and turns to God for help and salvation.
As far as the science of external influences is concerned, other rabbis, in addition to Rav Huna, rejected it as well.  In Nedarim, Rabbi Yochanan (not to be confused with Yochanan ben Dahavai) dismisses the position of Yochanan ben Dahavai and his concerns regarding certain forms of marital sex. He states that no particular act of marital sex is forbidden or discouraged.  In so doing, he rejects the notion that such acts impact fetal development and states that this belief, held by certain rabbis, is not actually true, nor is it relevant for matters of halakha.
Despite Rabbi Yochanan’s rejection of the position, the belief in this science does not fully disappear.  A number of Rishonim state that a couple should still avoid some of the activities mentioned in the Talmud to “play it safe,” and protect against the possible impact that these activities might have on their child.  In addition, in a different passage, the Gemara (Berakhot 20a) relates the following story about none other than Rabbi Yochanan himself:
Rabbi Yochanan used to go and sit by the gates of the mikveh. He said: When the daughters of Israel come up from immersing themselves, they look at me and they have children as handsome as I am.
This passage is shocking for a number of reasons.  First, Rabbi Yochanan was not concerned that he would have improper sexual thoughts.  Second, it indicates that it would be acceptable for a woman to be thinking of another man (here, Rabbi Yochanan) while having sex with her husband.   Finally, as it relates to our topic, it appears that Rabbi Yochanan believed that one’s thoughts during sex could, in fact, impact the formation of the fetus.  It is thus all the more significant that he rejects the halakhic implications that this would have for restricting certain acts of marital sex.
Possibly, Rabbi Yochanan distinguished between actions and thought. One’s actions do not influence the development of the fetus; one’s mental state and thoughts do.  This conclusion is implicit in the final statement in the passage from Nedarim.  The Talmud states that while there are no sexual acts that are off-limits, there are times when sex is forbidden because of the emotional and mental state of the participants. Specifically, the Talmud states that the couple may not have sex if the act is devoid of any sense of intimacy or connection. They may not engage in sex when one of them is drunk or asleep, in the absence of full consent, or while imagining having sex with a different person.
Here too, the Talmud connects this to the character of a child born from such a coupling:  children conceived during such moments will turn out to be rebellious and sinful.  Immoral acts during conception impact the moral character of the child.  It is the moral character of the act which matters, not the particular physical activity engaged in.  Through limiting this “science,” the Talmud moves from a focus on sexual acts to a focus on sexual ethics.
The story does not end there.  Given that what really mattered was a person’s thoughts at the time of conception, a number of Rishonim, and in particular the Kabbalists, such as the author of Iggeret HaKodesh, directed the man to focus his thoughts on the Divine to ensure that the child would be wise and God-fearing.  [The emphasis here and elsewhere on the man’s thoughts and role during sex in contrast to the woman’s is a topic for another time.] Some contemporary poskim push back on this and state that the purest thoughts that a person can have during sex is to be focused on his or her partner and the intimacy between them.
Yaakov’s attempt to breed sheep based on a belief in a particular science is a lesson in how human efforts can so often be misguided, and in the need to put one’s faith and trust in God.  At the same time, The Talmud’s narrowing of the scope of this science, and the resultant conclusions for the marital life of a couple, demonstrate that our human efforts are best directed to partnering with God, to believing in the truth of God’s Torah and to interpreting and applying it so as to best shape our religious lives and values.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Don't Just Do Something, Stand There!

In many ways, Yitzchak’s life parallels that of Avraham.  He travels to a foreign land to avoid a famine where he then claims that his wife is his sister to prevent her abduction and is subsequently blessed with great wealth.  He renews the covenant that Avraham made with Avimelekh, affirming his role as Avraham’s heir.  Most significantly, Yitzchak re-digs the wells that Avraham had dug, calling them by the same names that Avraham had given them. In this way, Yitzchak reclaims those wells and the water flows once more.
The message is clear: Yitzchak is the continuation of Avraham.   The opening verse of our parasha sums it up succinctly: “This is the story of Yitzchak son of Avraham: Avraham begat Yitzchak.” (25:19). Yitzchak’s story is that he is the son of Avraham.  Avraham is the initiator, the founder of the faith; Yitzchak’s role is to not initiate.  His job is to reinforce and consolidate, to transform Avraham’s vision into a way of life that can be passed down to future generations.
While Avraham journeys, Yitzchak stays put. Avraham’s mission is to travel: “Leave your land… and go to the land that I will show you” (12:1), “And Avraham travelled through the land until the place of Shechem… From there he moved on to the hill country… Avraham journeyed forward, heading southward” (12:6-9). This continues throughout Avraham’s life culminating with his final journey: “Take your son… Yitzchak and go to the land of Moriah…” (22:2).  Yitzchak’s mission, in contrast, is to put down roots.  God tells him straightaway that he cannot leave the land of Israel: “Go not down into Egypt; dwell in the land which I shall tell you of. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you…” (26:2-3). In the land itself, he travels only when circumstances compel he to do so, and even then, he never travels far: “And Yitzchak settled in Gerar… And he dwelled in the valley of Gerar… And he went from there to Be’er Sheva.” (26:17-23).
In Kabbalistic terms, Avraham embodies chesed, unbounded loving-kindness; Yitzchak embodies gevurah, restraint and self-control.  To say it another way, Avraham represents ahavah, love, while Yitzchak represents yirah, fear. (There is even something of an alliteration here: Avraham-ahavah, Yitzchak-yirah).   How are we to understand the yirah of Yitzchak?  Some view it negatively: Yitzchak is timid, unadventurous, unwilling to take risks; he will only do what is safe, what others have done before him.  I do not agree with this characterization, nor do I believe that it is fair.  There is a fear that can be good, and love that can be bad.  As Sefat Emet states:
For every Jewish person initially dedicates himself to serve God out of love and desires to cleave unto God.  This is the trait of “Avraham who loves me.” But afterwards, this well, the source of love, becomes clogged through love of material things which intermingle [with the love of God].  The correction of this is through the trait of Yitzchak, and this is fear of Heaven; for the sign of true love is that it gives birth to fear.  This is what is meant by the verse, “Avraham (love) begat Yitzchak (fear).
Excessive love and overflowing passion, says Sefat Emet, is not always good.  It may start as pure love, but if one isn’t careful, it can attach itself to inappropriate things and can undermine true commitment.  A man might fall madly in love with a woman, and commit to her and marry her, but then fall madly in love with the next woman who sparks his passion.  One may fight fervently for a cause today, only to put it aside to fight for another cause tomorrow and yet a third cause the day after that.
This happens in the religious realm as well. In his letter to the sages of Luniel, Rambam compares his relationship to Torah to that of young love:
Even before I was formed in my mother’s womb, it was Torah that I knew; and prior to exiting the womb I was dedicated to its study… and it is my beloved doe and the wife of my youth in whose love I was ravished from my young age.  Yet with all of this, foreign wives have become her competitors: Moabite women, Ammonites, Edomites, Tzidonites and Hittites.  The Lord knows that these wives were only taken initially to be  perfumers, butchers and bakers for her… Nevertheless, her conjugal rights have been diminished, for my heart has been divided into many parts regarding all types of intellectual pursuits.
Too much undisciplined love can lead one astray and cause the wells to become contaminated and clogged up.  The solution is to stay put and dig deeper, to put in the effort to get the water flowing once again.  If a marriage has lost some of its zing, the answer is to invest more deeply, to treasure the emotional intimacy that a deep and lasting relationship brings even if it comes with occasional loss of novelty and excitement.
How does this relate to Yitzchak’s trait of yirah? Sefat Emet explains this in another passage:
The meaning of this fear is that a person should fear lest he become disconnected from his intimate love of God.
Yirah is not timidity nor is it fear of doing something wrong.  It is a fear born out of love.  If one’s love is a profound one, one will protect it at all costs. It is the fear of losing that which is so precious that directs and focuses one’s love, allowing it to go deep rather than wide.
This dynamic of love and fear, of journeying and staying put, also plays out in the context of liberalism and conservatism.  Liberals have a vision of a more perfect, more just world which drives them to try to effect change as quickly as possible.  Conservatives argue that change is disruptive; too much change too quickly threatens the foundations of our society or religious community.  As with most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, in the productive tension created by these two opposite poles.  To be constantly moving, travelling, and seeking the Promised Land, is to be an Avraham without a Yitzchak.  Lacking sufficient traction, the gains that one makes in one generation might slip away in the next.  At the same time, to just stay put, to not do anything differently than the past even when the circumstances change and even in the face of injustice, is to be a Yitzchak without an Avraham.  It is to point one’s vision only downward, never upward and outward.
Our mandate is to join the vision and passion of Avraham with the perseverance and rootedness of Yitzchak.  Only then we will be able to travel to the Promised Land, to remain there and create a lasting heritage. In this way, we will re-dig the wells so that we too can say: “For now the Lord hath made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.”

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Speaking is Believing

After the climactic event of the akeida, the Torah turns its attention to more quotidian matters: the death and burial of Sarah and the finding of a son for Yitzchak. In this shift, a number of the major characters move off the scene.  Not only Sarah and Avraham, but God as well. In our parasha, God is neither seen nor heard; God is only spoken about.

This shift in God's role is intimately connected to the passing of the baton from Avraham to Yitzchak. Avraham is a visionary, a charismatic leader to whom God has directly spoken. People are drawn to his passion and his person, feeling that they can connect to God just by being in proximity of Avraham. But not everyone can be nor should be an Avraham. For the vision to live on and continue to the next generation, what is needed is a successor who can sustain the vision without the immediacy of God's presence. One must move from charisma to forms and rituals that can communicate and embody the faith. If this can be achieved then the belief can survive and be passed forward.

Avraham heard God's voice throughout his life; but after the akeida, it is seeing that takes central stage: "And Avraham called the name of that place, God Sees, as it is said to this day, on the mount God will be seen" (Breishit 22:14). In future generations, the Torah is telling us, God may not always be heard, but if we try hard enough, then "even to this day" God can be seen.  

The theme of seeing God and seeing as God goes back to the story of creation.  God sees that the world is good.  Adam and Eve fail to see as God would; they see the tree as "good for eating," and not as forbidden and off-limits. The later generations continue to see the world through their lens of self-interest, seeing, coveting and taking whatever they want. As a result, God sees that the world that was good has become bad, and it must be destroyed so it can start over. 

The message is clear - God sees what is good and we must learn to see the world through God's eyes.  Avraham is chosen and given this task. He is told not to go to the land of Canaan, but to go to the land which God will show him; he must learn to see the place that God has chosen. Avraham's story ends with God telling him to take his son, to perform the akeida on "one of the mountains that I will show you," to again strive to see where God is directing him. It is thus at the critical moment that he sees what it is God truly wants from him; he sees the ram and offers it instead of his son.

An essential part of seeing the world through God's eyes is seeing God in the world. This is a choice that we make. We choose how we interpret the events in our lives; are they chance events brought about by an arbitrary cosmos, or are they acts of divine providence, in which God's presence can be seen and felt? The culmination of Avraham's story is his declaration, his hope, that God will always be seen, "that is should be said until this day, on the mount God will be seen'."

How is this accomplished? Most essentially, by how we speak - "that it should be said until this day". How we narrate and interpret the events of our life becomes the lens through which we see the world. Avraham called out in the name of God everywhere he went. By invoking God constantly, Avraham changed people's perception of reality. People began to see a world in which God shapes all events.  The famous rabbinic story of Avraham drives home this point:

Reish Lakish said, "Read not, 'he called' [in the name of God] but 'and he made to call'." This teaches that our father Abraham caused the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, to be uttered by the mouth of every passer-by. How was this? After [travelers] had eaten and drunk, they stood up to bless him; but, said he to them, "Did you eat of mine? You ate of that which belongs to the God of the Universe.Thank, praise and bless Him who spoke and the world came into being." (Sotah 10b)

It is not the intellectual belief - that God provides - which was the most important, but the discourse that Avraham created. By talking about thanking God for the fruit, by encouraging others to "thank, praise, and bless," that is, to talk about this as well, Avraham shaped the way others saw the world. Such talk becomes habitual, it spreads and impacts others, whether they are aware of it or not. "God is with you in all that you do," Avimelekh says to Avrahm (Breishit 21:22). By talking about God, Avraham has made Avimelekh see God; Avraham has brought God into the world. As Rashi (24:7), puts it: "[Avraham says to his servant:] 'God, Lord of the Heavens and the Earth.' [This is to say, while in the past God was only Lord of the Heavens,] now God is also Lord of the Earth, for I have made God's name commonplace in the mouth of all".

This talking about God which leads to seeing God, is the blessing that Avraham passes on to his servant, to Yitzchak, and to the next generation. The God who has taken me from my father's house, says Avraham to his servant, will also be with you to ensure the success of your mission. This will become a reality if you see it as such. The servant has learned this lesson well; he prays and the right woman appears. A skeptic might say that this is luck but the servant knows it is God answering his prayers. When the servant acknowledges God's hand in the meeting of Rivka, he makes it a reality: "And he said: 'Blessed is God the Lord of my master Avraham... as for me, God has guided me to the house of my master's brother" (24:27).  

These events could be understood in a radically different way if seen through different eyes. The Gemara (Hullin 95b) makes a shocking statement: "Rav... said: Any omen (nachash) which is not like that of Eliezer, Abraham's servant... is not considered [the Biblically prohibited act of] divination." Rishonim grapple to explain why, if this were the case, it was acceptable for Avraham's servant to perform his test; did he commit the sin of divination? (see, for example, Rambam, Avoda Zara 11:4, and Ra'avad and Kesef Mishne ad. loc.; Radak on Shmuel I, ch. 14; Gur Aryeh Breishit 24:14). The answer is that it all depends on the framing. Were the servant to have interpreted the sign as magical, it would have been nichush - something which happened "merely by chance, and not through God's providence." (Sefer HaHinukh, mitzvah 249). But by praying, the servant saw what transpired as an answer to his prayers; he saw in the events not chance or magic, but God. 

In the servant's long retelling of his encounter with Rivka, we hear how, through the eyes and in the words of the servant, God is ever-present. "And God blessed my master...", "God will...make your path successful", "And I said, 'God...[she] will be the one that God has chosen for my master's son", "And I blessed God... who led me down the true path to take the daughter of my master's brother for his son."  And it is this discourse that is then consciously or unconsciously adopted by his listeners: "And Lavan and Betuel said, "From God the matter has come, we cannot speak to you bad or good" (24:50). 


We live in a world in which God does not speak to us directly. Despite this, we can in fact choose whether or not to see. Avraham's faith is sustained through learning to see, and how we see is first and foremost shaped by how we talk. Speaking is seeing, and seeing is believing. Indeed, "more beautiful is the conversation of the servants of the fathers, than the Torah of the sons." (Breishit Rabbah 60). It is through such conversation, such daily discourse, that our world is shaped and that God is seen.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Why Did God Test Avraham?

Why did God test Avraham with the command to offer Yitzchak as a sacrifice?  This is really two questions. First, what purpose was the akeidah meant to serve? And second, how could God have commanded such a reprehensible act, implicitly condoning murder, even if the plan was to retract the command all along? 

Midrash Tanhuma addresses both of these questions. Let's start with the first one.  The midrash asks why God tests only the righteous:

Said Rabbi Yonah - flax, the more you pound it, the more it improves. When is this true? When it is of good quality but when it is of inferior quality, if you pound it, it bursts. Similarly, God tests none but the righteous.

Said Rabbi Yehudah bar Shalom -a potter does not tap on a weak vessel or jar, lest it break. On what does he tap? On a strong vessel...
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Said Rabbi Elazar - this can be compared to a farmer who has two cows, one strong and one weak. On which one does he place the yoke? Is it not on the one that is strong?

According to Rabbi Yonah, when God tests a person, it is like the pounding of the flax - it is not pleasant for the flax, but the flax comes out stronger as a result.  Similarly, our ability to withstand adversity, to persevere, to keep the faith even in the most difficult of times, transforms us and makes us stronger than we were.  This approach is adopted by Ramban: "The purpose of a test is for the one being tested. God commanded this act in order to actualize Avraham's potential, that he should receive reward for his good acts and not just his good intention." (Commentary to Torah, Breishit 22:1).

Rabbi Yehudah offers an explanation more in line with the pshat. A test allows one to know the quality of that which is being tested, just as a potter taps a pot to know that it is good.  God tested Avraham to know how God-fearing he was, as the angel says, "Now I know that you are God fearing." The problem here is obvious: God is all-knowing, so any such test would be superfluous. Perhaps the point of the midrash is that a potter taps his pot to demonstrate its quality, not to determine it.  The test allows others - Avraham himself and all future generations - to know the quality of Avraham's faith and character. Thus, Breishit Rabbah states that the word nissa (to test) indicates that this test was like the raising of a flag (neis) announcing Avraham's greatness to the world.

Rabbi Elazar provides the third metaphor: placing a yoke on a cow. Here, the farmer is not interested in the cow. He wishes to plow his field and he chooses the animal that is best suited for the task. God has a lesson to teach humanity. The nature of the lesson has been debated through the centuries but according to the pshat of the text it is clear: one must be prepared to give up everything that is dear to him for his love and fear of God. Avraham was commanded in the akeidah not to test him, but because he could be trusted to carry it out. Rambam echoes this position when he states, "Know that the aim and meaning of all the trials mentioned in the Torah is to let people know what they ought to do or what they must believe... The purpose not being the accomplishment of that particular act, but the latter's being a model to be imitated and followed." (Guide, III:24) 

Any one of these three explanations is satisfactory provided that we could find a satisfactory answer to our second question. How could God ask Avraham to take the life of another in God's name?

Tanhuma seems to have this question in mind when it tells the back-story of the akeidah. According to this midrash, Yishmael had taunted Yitzchak that while he, Yishmael, submitted to circumcision at the age of 13, Yitzchak was circumcised as an infant and was not prepared to suffer for God as much as he did. Yitzchak responded:  "Were God to say to my father, 'Slaughter Yitzchak your son,' I would not resist." The midrash continues:

Immediately the matter pounced upon him, as it says, "It was after these
devarim, these words (of Yitzchak), and God tested Avraham."

If Yitzchak was prepared to give his life to God, God is now - in the eyes of the Midrash -off the hook. This point is illustrated in the Talmudic discussion of the need for hatra'a, forewarning, for a person who is about to commit a cardinal sin. Only if the person states that he knows that this sin is punishable by death and is choosing to sin nonetheless, do we execute him, because then he "accepted this death upon himself." (Sanhedrin 40b) A human court can only use violence against another person if that person has given them license to do so. Similarly, according to the midrash, God had license to ask Avraham to do violence against Yitzchak because Yitzchak had given God permission to do so.

The midrash also defends God by positing that God was not the initiator; God is merely following Yitzchak's lead. There is also a subtext that Yitzchak's boast was inappropriate, that would should not be seeking to suffer or give our lives for God needlessly. The command to Avraham was a punishment for Yitzchak, laying the responsibility for the akeidah even more fully at Yitzchak's feet: "Immediately, the matter pounced upon him." 
But, with all this, shouldn't God have refused? This is taking innocent life; nothing should have compelled God to command it! The next passage in the midrash provides an answer to this question:

This is as the verse states, "Where the word of a king is, there is power: and who may say unto him, this is what you should do? He who keeps the commandment shall fear no evil thing (Kohelet 8:4-5).  Whatever God wants to do, He is the ruler, and no one can stay his hand.  But who can tell him, "Here is what you should do"?  "The one who keeps the commandments" - these are the tzadikkim, the righteous ones who keep God's mitzvot, and God fulfills their edicts....

This audacious passage reads the juxtaposition of two verses in Kohelet to teach that a righteous person can tell God what God must do. This idea that God fulfills the decrees of a righteous person is found in the Talmud (e.g., Sotah 12a) where the Gemara tells us that God fulfills the wishes or pronuncements of tzadikkim. In our case, the meaning is more shocking: a righteous person can tell God how to act even to the point of countermanding God's own wishes. The midrash gives an example: God wanted to destroy the people when they made the Golden Calf but Moshe grabbed God - as it were - by the collar and would not let this happen; Moshe told God what to do! 

Once we have established that God's hand can be forced by the demands of the righteous, God is now totally off the hook for commanding the akeidah. Yitzchak wanted this test and God had no choice but to acquiesce.

Implicit in this need to defend God is the recognition by the midrash that God's command to Avraham presents deep moral challenges. This grappling with the command of the akeidah also seems present in the Rabbis' citation of the verse "Who can tell the king how to act?". In this citation, we can hear the Rabbi's desire to challenge God for commanding the akeidah, and at the same time their acknowledgement of their inability to do so, for who are they to say that God acted incorrectly?  

Breishit Rabbah uses this verse in just this way: "Who can tell the king how to act?... [In the Torah it states,] 'You shall not test God,' [and yet,] 'The Lord tested Avraham'." By testing Avraham, the midrash is saying, God is acting against God's own rule. We can call attention to this, raise questions and struggle with this, but in the end we must accept it and submit to God's authority. 

The irony in the Tanchuma is that alongside their reticence in voicing a critique, the Rabbis have also asserted that a tzaddik can challenge or countermand God. They are willing to state that Yitzchak did this - by asking God to command the akeidah - but they are not prepared to do this themselves and directly challenge God for giving this command. 

In these short passages of Tanhuma, we see the Rabbis offering multiple ways of understanding the purpose of the akeidah, and the moral challenges that it presents. The grappling is subtle and it is expressed through the tradition, not in opposition to it. As we face struggles in our own lives and feel that we are being tested by God, let us pray that we will have the strength to endure, to deal with our challenges constructively and emerge stronger from the process.