Parashat Vayera includes the story of the Akeidah, or the binding of Isaac, one that has been a struggle for many to comprehend. If you had asked me when I was younger what was my favorite story to hear from the Torah, it was this one. And, I was always excited to hear it read on Rosh Hashanah. In fact, I usually forgot that it was being read then, and then during services, my ears would perk up when I heard my favorite story being read again– a treat in the middle of a long service. I think it actually came as a little bit of a shock to me to hear many years later that so many people struggled to understand the meaning of this section of the Torah. I guess I always just connected with an underlying meaning of the struggle in this story, and I got past the opening. What some saw as a difficult and awful decision, I saw as exactly what was described– a test.
The Akeidah (Gen. 22) opens with “God put Abraham to the test,” and the key word in Hebrew is the word nisah– tested. The Medieval commentator Abravanel discusses that “the trial was not a test evolved by God to find out what God did not know, but God made a demonstration, the root of the word being from nes meaning wonder or a sign which Abraham performed at the word of God, as an example and banner to all the people for them to follow.” Thus, it is clear that God is not trying to play with Abraham’s mind, but to ultimately take him on a journey from which he will learn, be strengthened, and evolve. We can further understand the context of the word nisah as Rashi did by looking at the way that related words are used in other parts of the Torah. Rashi points us to Exodus 20:17, where it notes Moses speaking to the people (using the word nasot) saying, “Be not afraid; for God has come only in order to test you.” We notice that Moses is trying to calm the people, knowing that no harm will come their way. But, they do need to feel what is happening around them. They are confused by what is going on while their leader is up on Mount Sinai, amidst thunder and lightning, talking to a God to whom they cannot.
Many commentators have chosen to translate the related word nasot not as to “test,” but rather as to “prove”– and back to Abraham, this depicts his journey in quite a different light. It makes me think back to trying times in my own life, choosing to recognize how those made me a different and, hopefully, a better person. We cannot change always what comes our way, but we can choose to accept it, and it may allow us to reimagine that which we can be, highlight the path we are on, or cause us to choose a new one. The idea of reaching this state through experience is known as nisayon. I leave you with what Ramban (Nachmanides) described of this phenomenon:
“This is my idea of what the term nisayon implies. Since man is complete master of his own actions, possessing the free will to act or refrain from acting, the term nisayon or trial expresses the situation from the point of view of the person himself. On the other hand, God, who confronts him with the trial commands him in order to translate into action the potentialities of his character, and give him the reward of a good deed, in addition to the reward of a good heart . . . All the trials described in the Torah were directed to benefit the recipient.”