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A Very Strange Commandment

A Very Strange Commandment

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They shake their heads and fume: How could Abraham have been so eager to obey G‑d's command to kill his own son in cold blood? Taking a human life is an absolute no-no. So what if G‑d commanded him--that's no excuse! We cannot allow religion to trump life. Murder is murder.

Mr. Abraham may deserve a Nobel Prize for extreme philanthropy and hospitality under the most trying circumstances. He may deserve applause for the brave rescue of innocents from the expansionistic aggression of a tyrannical empire. For his legendary honesty, charity, and his undying campaign against immorality and idolatry, Abraham is a commendable fellow, indeed. But none of this excuses his willingness to obey to G‑d's instruction to kill his son!

So goes their argument. Are they missing something?

If our utmost goal is the preservation of human life, even at the expense of disobeying an explicit and personal command from our Creator, then who or what are we worshiping? The human being, of course! Our absolute obedience has been sworn to ourselves, our mind and emotions. If we ignore G‑d's direct instruction because we decide that His command is unacceptable, then our own decisions rule.

Now, perhaps that doesn't sound too bad. But ideas are given to evolving and devolving. What happens when our reason dictates that in certain places it would be the height of compassion, to an individual or the rest of society, to end a human's life? Euthanasia, capital punishment, abortion, "assisted suicide." Should we look to G‑d's instructions or should we obey our own inner gods?

Let's say we chose the latter. Our own feelings are now deciding who should live and who should die, when taking a life is unforgivable murder and when it is just and compassionate.

What's wrong with that?

Well, what if we decide or are convinced that it is just and necessary to take the lives of every Gypsy, Jew, and dark-skinned person in our universe? Not too long ago, a few million rational, educated, cultured and scientific minds took only a few years to reach that conclusion.

Possibly a few million minds currently entertain the concept that our planet must be rid of infidels. Are they being unreasonable or barbaric? They don't think so. Their reasoning tells them they are acting in the interest of mankind.

In short, we cannot rely on our own rationale or emotions to guarantee the correct decisions in such matters. For that very reason, our Creator told
the first humans, and reiterated at Mount Sinai: "I made you, and My instructions are in your best interest. I know, 'cause I read the Manual for
the Successful Inhabitation of Planet Earth. In fact, I wrote that manual!"

G‑d gave mankind seven universal laws which guarantee our survival and success. They involve interactions between us and Him, each other, and our environment. The prohibitions against thievery, murder, and adultery all introduce a respect for human life and property. The prohibition of cruelty to animals implies care for all of G‑d's creatures. Establishment of court systems and enforcement agencies provide that these basic laws and their ramifications are encouraged and enforced, preventing the collapse of society.

To ensure that these laws are not modified by ever-rational and ever-compassionate, yet ever-changing, minds, we are told to believe in one G‑d Who commanded all seven laws, rendering them unchangeable. One G‑d created everything, knows what is best for all He created, and has no rival to challenge His wisdom. The prohibition of blaspheming G‑d instills a respect for Him and His seven basic laws.

Much as we love human life, we do not worship it. Our G‑d-given gifts of intellect and emotion bow before their Creator. So, as Abraham weaned ancient peoples off thievery and thuggery, he explained that these actions were not only an offense to mankind; they were an offense to G‑d.

Abraham's readiness to sacrifice his son in obedience to the only G‑d seemingly flew in the face of his entire life's efforts to eradicate human sacrifice, cruelty and idolatry. In truth, however, it actually highlighted the underlying and indispensable backbone of all of the seven laws and all of Abraham's teachings--the absolute obedience to G‑d's command, regardless of its compatibility with human logic and feeling. Sure, it was a "strange" request (to say the least), but if G‑d can be ignored in one area, He can be ignored in others areas too, and the world eventually reverts to chaos.

And what was the end of the story? "G‑d said: Do not lay a hand on the lad; do not harm him at all! For now I know that you are a G‑d fearing person" (Genesis 22:12). Not only was this a grand G‑dly denunciation of sacrificing or harming the innocent, but it was an eternal demonstration of the necessity of "irrational" obedience.

In return, the descendants of Abraham and Isaac--who apart from receiving an expanded package of commandments and deals, were also charged at Sinai to continue spreading this legacy to all of mankind--are able to recite the portion from Genesis that recounts the story of Isaac's binding in their daily morning prayers, and add: "Sovereign of the universe! Just as Abraham our father suppressed his compassion for his only son to do Your will with his whole heart, so may Your compassion suppress Your wrath against us; and may Your mercy prevail over Your attribute of stern justice."

We say to G‑d: Maybe we're not matching up to Your expectations, but we're trying. Submitting to a higher authority doesn't always come easy to us thinking and feeling human beings, Y'know. So please occasionally ignore Your "logic" and "feelings" too, and help us nonetheless!

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Rochel Chein for chabad.org September 18, 2013

To Vivian See www.chabad.org/760981 for a fascinating discussion of the significance of the phrase Kach Nah - Please take. Reply

Vivian Warshaw California September 11, 2013

The akeda: a command or a request. The wording of God's conversation with Avraham is perplexing: Kach NAH et bincha etc.: PLEASE take your son etc. To me, this is not a command from God. It is a request from God which I believe God expected would start a discussion with Avraham. Instead, Avraham blindly follow what he believes is a command and the rest is history. But just imagine what might have followed if Avraham said
"wait a minute. You promised me that Isaac would be a great man and produce as many children as there are stars in the sky. Are you breaking your promise?"
I have never come across any explanation of the word NAH in the akeda. Has anyone ever commented on it? Reply

Danielle Branley St.Germain, WI/USA April 24, 2011

obedience to G-d think if our Creator took His breath of life away from us for one second....all would cease to exist! . we live because of G-d's grace and for no other reason--therefor we do not have the right to judge G-d or question His commands eve if they contradict the original commandments He gave us, He howrever, has the right to test our love and is doing it every minute of our lives.....and would somebody please explain to me why I can't spell His name out on this site? Reply

Jonathan Johannesburg, South Africa June 1, 2009

The way I see it "If the powers that be............"
My friend, are you referring to G-d or to man?
If man - yes, we should know enough not to - as that is what G-d commanded us.
If G-d - G-d commanded Abraham to kill his own son - however, he then withdrew this "order." He only commanded Abraham to kill his son to test his faith and obedience to Him. Reply

jeshua petersburg, va May 28, 2009

the way I see it if the powers that be dare you to slaughter your own child, you should know enough not to Reply

Jonathan Johannesburg, South Africa May 28, 2009

Occasionally ignore your logic & feelings too I am not assuming that I know God. However, we learn a lot about G-d from our religion. "Why do you assume that G-d has feelings?" Simply because we learn/know(?) that "Your G-d is a mercyful G-d." Is mercy not a very strong and powerful feeling?? What I said above is in NO WAY demeaning to G-d. Reply

Anonymous Napa, CA via jewishnapavalley.com May 27, 2009

Occasionally ignore Your logic and feelings too This implies a knowledge of G-d. Why do you assume that G-d has feelings. This is a human emotion. The ability of a human to imagine the nature of the Supreme Being is like an ant imagining the nature of the human mind. In the case of the human imagining the nature of G-d, It is demeaning to G-d. Reply

Jonathan Johannesburg, South Africa June 20, 2008

I still don't get it - Alex "Who is out there to reeducate them? Nobody: from their point of view, Mohammed was the last prophet, and there will never be another."
That is why I said (June 6th): "It is, in my opinion, going to have to be left to G-d to sort this one out."
And (June 19th): "Can man succeed in this "education?" - or is G-d the only way here?" Reply

Alex June 19, 2008

Rabotai, my point was that the killings "in the name of Allah" that the Islamofascists are committing are NOT viewed BY THEM as MURDERS, but as the KILLINGS of the UNREPENTANT infidels (SINNERS).

Who is out there to reeducate them? Nobody: from their point of view, Mohammed was the last prophet, and there will never be another one. Reply

Jonathan Johannesburg, South Africa June 19, 2008

I still don't get it - Alex Thank you Rabbi.
"In fact the prophet wrote that G-d does not want the death of the sinner but that he or she repents and live."
Does this not also relate to post above "In answer to both questions" dated June 11 i.e.
Good point: "Until the Muslim nation understands that it's not possible for there to be a message from a prophet that overrides the word of G-d, this will continue to be a problem. Education is key."
However, I feel that this is going to be a problem for a long time to come because to achieve the understanding mentioned is a very lengthy process.
Can man succeed in this "education?" - or is G-d the only way here? Reply

Rabbi Ya'akov Lancaster, PA June 18, 2008

I still don't get it - Alex My dear friend, you misread the statement in Yechezkel. Look at the context and the complete sentence. In fact the prophet wrote that G-d does not want the death of the sinner but that he or she repents and live. Reply

Jonathan Johannesburg, South Africa June 11, 2008

I still don't get it - Alex "And another question, related to this one. The Book of Yechezkel: the prophet is commanded to strike down and kill those who do not repent in their wicked ways and do not turn to G-d: "he will die because of his iniquity, and I shall require his blood from your hand" (3:18) Why does G-d require human blood from a human hand? Does it not create a precedent? How was Yechezkel perceived by his coreligionsts and compatriots? As an avenger for G-d? Or as a mass murderer?"
My post above - "Infidels" of June 6: I said:"It is, in my opinion, going to have to be left to G-d to sort this one out." I have no idea how He will do this, but if He commands man to "strike down and kill" people for their iniquities - or if He brings a natural catastrophe upon said people, then He would have spoken - so to speak. Reply

Jonathan Johannesburg, South Africa June 11, 2008

In answer to both questions Good point: "Until the Muslim nation understands that it's not possible for there to be a message from a prophet that overrides the word of G-d, this will continue to be a problem. Education is key."

However, I feel that this is going to be a problem for a long time to come because to achieve the understanding mentioned is a very lengthy process. Reply

Alex June 11, 2008

I still don't get it Abram stood up and argued with G-d (!) for the sake of two strange cities for the only reason that his nephew - a righteous man - lived in one of them. And the angels got Lot and his family out of the destruction and mass slaughter. But 14 years later, Abraham did not even think twice when he heard a command to sacrifice his son! Why did he not argue with Hashem this time around?

And another question, related to this one. The Book of Yechezkel: the prophet is commanded to strike down and kill those who do not repent in their wicked ways and do not turn to G-d: "he will die because of his iniquity, and I shall require his blood from your hand" (3:18) Why does G-d require human blood from a human hand? Does it not create a precedent? How was Yechezkel perceived by his coreligionsts and compatriots? As an avenger for G-d? Or as a mass murderer? Reply

Yitzchak Lawrenceville, NJ June 8, 2008

In answer to both questions This is precisely the reason it is important to teach the world the seven universal laws. Until the Muslim nation understands that it's not possible for there to be a message from a prophet that overrides the word of G-d, this will continue to be a problem. Education is key. Reply

Jonathan June 6, 2008

INFIDELS "Possibly a few million minds currently entertain the concept that our planet must be rid of infidels. Are they being unreasonable or barbaric? They don't think so. Their reasoning tells them they are acting in the interest of mankind."
The problem here is: who is going to change their minds - when, according to them, they were commanded to do this by G-d (Allah)? No reasoning by any man is going to have any effect. It is, in my opinion, going to have to be left to G-d to sort this one out. Reply

Alex May 23, 2007

Rav Paley, Hag Sameach! I was studying your article and found a very disturbing phrase there:

"Possibly a few million minds currently entertain the concept that our planet must be rid of infidels. Are they being unreasonable or barbaric? They don't think so. Their reasoning tells them they are acting in the interest of mankind."

What disturbs me is that their reasoning is actually not that they want to kill the infidels for the sake of mankind, but they say Allah (G-d) told their prophet to do so. Reply