In the Akeidah episode, Yitzchak is described as an inactive participant. Avraham did everything, and according to the text Yitzchak did nothing. One may wonder, is it perhaps that he was so dumbfounded by the whole idea to the extent that he was numbed of any feeling, or maybe that his father had given him an injection and sedated him?

To my great surprise, I found in the Midrash Tanchuma (Bereishit, Parshat Toldot), that Yitzchak was indeed alert and, in fact, permeated with fear.

The Midrash is discussing the episode of Yitzchak’s blessing his children. When Eisav arrived at the home of Yitzchak and said, “Let my father rise and eat of his son’s game, so that your soul will bless me,” the Torah says, “Vayecherad Yitzchak chradah gedolah ad me’od” — “Yitzchak trembled with an exceedingly great trembling” (Bereishit 27:33). On this the Midrash comments, “Said Rabbi Levi in the name of Rabbi Chama the son of Chanina, ‘Yitzchak trembled twice [in his lifetime], once when he was on the altar, and once when Eisav entered, and you do not know which [trembling] was greater.’ ” Since it states here that his tremble was “gedolah ad me’od” — “exceedingly great” – it follows that this trembling was greater than his trembling at the Akeidah.

While this Midrash sheds a new light on the subject, it is very enigmatic.

In describing the events that led up to the Akeidah, the Torah twice employs the expression, “Vayeilchu sheneihem yachdav” — “And the two of them went together” (22:6, 8). Rashi explains that in the beginning Avraham, who was aware that he was going to slaughter his son, was proceeding with the same eagerness and joy as Yitzchak, who was unaware of the matter. Later, when Avraham told Yitzchak that, “Haseh le’ohlah b’ni” — “My son [Yitzchak] will be the offering” — though Yitzchak knew he was going to be slaughtered, it says again, “And the two of them went together,” to imply that they still walked together with the same enthusiasm and frame of mind.

If so, why did Yitzchak tremble when he was on the altar about to be slaughtered?

Another difficulty with the Midrash is why was the second trembling much greater. Logically, I would surmise the opposite to be the case. One should tremble more if he is seconds away from losing his life than if he realizes that he was deceived by one of his children!?

A careful analysis of what went through Yitzchak’s mind at the two episodes will facilitate our understanding of Yitzchak’s concern and reason of his fear.

Yitzchak was one of the fathers of K’lal Yisrael and, in fact, the most concerned and dedicated of the three. The Gemara (Shabbat 89b) relates that at a future time when Hashem will say to the patriarchs, “Your children have sinned against Me,” Avraham and Yaakov will agree to their condemnation and say, “Let them be obliterated for the sanctity of Your Name.” Yitzchak, on the other hand, will come to their defense. After hearing his defense of them and telling Hashem that if necessary he, “Will take all their sins upon himself, behold! I have already sacrificed myself before You,” the Jewish people will proclaim, “For you [Yitzchak] are the [true] father.”

The devoted progenitor of K’lal Yisrael was never concerned about himself, but rather about the welfare of his progeny. As he was lying on the altar, seeing the wood and fire which would consume his remains, and his father’s outstretched hand holding a knife to slaughter him, he suddenly saw the history of the Jewish people. Instantaneously he perceived that the Akeidah was not an isolated event of a personal nature, rather this is what his descendants would endure as a price for their attachment to Hashem and faith in Him. Yitzchak saw that throughout the millennia, till Mashiach finally redeems them, there will be many Akeidahs. The Jewish people will be oppressed, burned, and slaughtered for their faith, and this caused him to tremble. He was worried about the future and continuity of Torah and Yiddishkeit under such conditions.

Engrossed in these thoughts and seized by trembling, he was comforted however when the scene of Rabbi Chananya ben Tradiyon, one of the asarah harugei malchut – the ten martyrs who were killed by the Roman government, came into his mind. The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 18a) relates the inhumane treatment afforded him during his martyrdom: his body was wrapped in a Sefer Torah and consumed by fire. While he was experiencing excruciating pain, his students asked him, “Our teacher, what do you see?” He responded, “I see the parchment being burnt and the letters flying into the sky.”

Rabbi Chananya was actually telling his students not to despair. All attempts of the gentile world to destroy the Jewish community and the Torah would be of no avail. Even at a time of damage to the “parchment” (the Jewish community), the “letters” of Torah would ascend and be transferred to another part of the world, where another Jewish community would be built anew.

Yitzchak trembled at the thought that his children would suffer persecution, but he was somewhat relaxed by the realization that they would never become extinct. Torah and Yiddishkeit will always re-establish itself and ultimately flourish and blossom even more than before.

In our generation we have witnessed the holocaust, in which a large segment of our people were annihilated. The Torah citadels of Russia, Poland, Lithuania and Hungary were decimated. The scrolls were burned, but the letters flew up and landed in America and Israel, Australia, and other parts of the world; and today we have, thank G‑d, a stronger, larger, and more vibrant Jewish community than existed pre-war.

Even in Russia where for seventy years the communist literally burned the scrolls and forbade Torah study, the letters hovered in the air, and we are fortunate to see the reinstatement of Synagogues which were closed for decades and a rebirth of Torah study and dedication to Yiddishkeit.

Yes, Yitzchak trembled; the scenes he saw frightened him. It bothered him to know what his children would go through, but the trembling was limited.

However, the very frightening “charadah gedolah ad me’od” — “exceedingly great trembling” — was years later when he became old. He was unable to take care of himself and needed the assistance of his son Eisav whom he thought was a refined and reputable person. When suddenly Eisav’s true colors came to surface, it dawned on him how unfortunate he was that the gross Eisav, the person who is associated with Geihinom, had become his provider and was dictating what he should do and how he should do it (see Bereishit 27:22, 33, Rashi).

When Yitzchak saw that a time would come when the lifetime Torah observant father or mother would be declared incompetent and be placed in the custody of children who would not respect their wishes, this frightened him and he trembled exceedingly.

The Torah says, “He remembers the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and upon the grandchildren” (Shemot 34:7).

Rashi explains that this applies when, “Keshe’ochzim ma’asei avoteihem bideihem” — “When they hold the (sinful) behavior of their fathers in their hands.” This explanation is somewhat puzzling. Even if the children follow in the wicked footsteps of their fathers, they deserve punishment only for their iniquities. Why are they punished also for their father’s wrongdoings?

It happens often in our society that when a father becomes old or infirm, the children or grandchildren have him legally declared senile or irresponsible. They then proceed to control the father’s assets and institutionalize him. In many of these instances the father, who was a pious Jew all his life and carefully observed the laws of kashrut, is placed in an environment where the food is non-kosher and there is no spirit of Shabbat. During his older years, this unfortunate father is compelled to eat non-kosher and violate Torah precepts. There are cases where the father during his lifetime was an active ba’al tzedakah — generous person — and now that his children have seized control of his assets, they deny him the opportunity of giving tzedakah.

Rashi is teaching that indeed everyone is held liable and is punished only for the iniquities that he commits. However, there is an instance when the father or grandfather is the one who commits the transgression and Hashem will make the children or grandchildren account for it. This is in a case when they are “ochezim” — “holding on” — i.e. controlling the father’s life and restraining him from observing Torah andmitzvot. In such a scenario, though it was the father who actually ate non-kosher, or violated Shabbat, or did not give any tzedakah, the children who are in control and forcing him into the existing situation are the ones who will be punished for the parent’s iniquities since they caused their being committed.

Years ago, I heard from Rabbi Yisrael Jacobson, of blessed memory, a shocking story about a pious Jew who lived in America and conducted a Torah true life up to the last day of his life. Due to the lack of availability of Jewish education, his children and grandchildren went astray and were totally alienated from Yiddishkeit. Upon receiving notice of his passing they refused to have the rabbis make an “ancient style” funeral and had the “Jewish mortuary” in their neighborhood do the preparation. When some of his old friends, together with Rabbi Jacobson, arrived, they were amazed to see that the deceased was dressed in a suit and clean shaven of the beard he proudly wore all the days of his life!

When Yitzchak saw these phenomena, he trembled, not just a simple trembling but “charadah gedolah ad me’od” — “an exceedingly great trembling.”

Perhaps this is what goes through the minds of some of our senior citizens or even young people who are concerned about their future when they proclaim with all their might and emotion, “Do not cast us aside in old age; do not forsake us when our strength fails” (Psalms 71:9).

(מצאתי בכתבי אבי הרב שמואל פסח ז"ל באגאמילסקי)