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...
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.