Having a baby didn’t come easy for Abraham and Sarah. They had G‑d’s promise that they would have children, but it just wasn’t happening. And they weren’t getting younger. So when Sarah finally gave birth to Isaac at the ripe old age of 90, they were overjoyed. Now it was apparent to everyone that G‑d did have a master plan—He does make dreams come true—and that everything happens at the right time.

Then, when G‑d asks Abraham to take Isaac to aWhy would G‑d finally give Abraham a son and then take him away? mountain and offer him up as a human sacrifice, we’re left bewildered. Why would G‑d finally give Abraham a son and then take him away? Why snuff out Isaac’s life before he’s had any children of his own? Abraham and Sarah would have no children or grandchildren to continue their legacy of monotheism.

But Abraham, being the soldier that he was, didn’t ask G‑d any of those questions. He just saddled his donkey, and they left.

Abraham had no reason to think that G‑d would change His mind. G‑d had asked Abraham to do many difficult things in his life and not once had G‑d reneged on the challenge, saying, “I just wanted to see if you would actually do this for me.”So Abraham set up an altar of wood logs and with Isaac’s full consent tied him down onto this altar, took out his long knife and was about to take his son’s life when an angel, speaking on behalf of G‑d yelled out.

Abraham, Abraham don’t stretch out your hand to the boy and don’t do anything to him because now I know that you fear G‑d and you didn’t withhold your son from me.”

Rashi finds this message unusual, and he assumes that we’d find it problematic as well. Why does G‑d say the same thing twice: “Don’t stretch out your hand to the boy,” and “don’t do anything to him”?

To explain this, Rashi says (quoting the Midrash) that after G‑d said don’t stretch out your hand to the boy, Abraham said to G‑d: “If so, I have come here in vain. I will inflict a wound on him and extract a little blood.” G‑d responds, “Do not do the slightest thing (מְאוּמָה) to him.” Do not cause him any blemish (מוּם).

Rashi’s second question is about the rest of the sentence; don’t do anything to him because now I know that you fear G‑d.

It seems like G‑d is trying to explain Himself to Abraham; the reason that I’m telling you not to kill Isaac is because now I know that you fear G‑d. But since when does G‑d give Abraham his reasoning? Why not just tell him don’t do anything to Isaac and leave it at that? Is G‑d afraid that without this justification Abraham wouldn’t listen to G‑d and kill Isaac anyhow?

Rashi explains:

Rabbi Abba said: Abraham said to G‑d, “I will explain my conversation to You. Yesterday, You said to me, For in Isaac will be called your seed,’ and then You retracted and said, ‘Take now your son (and sacrifice him).’ Now You say to me, ‘Do not stretch forth your hand to the lad.’ ”

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him “I shall not profane My covenant, neither shall I change the utterance of My lips. When I said to you, ‘Take (now your son and sacrifice him),’ I was not altering the utterance of My lips. I did not say to you, ‘Slaughter him,’ but, ‘Bring him up.’ You have brought him up; [now] take him down.”

Abraham presents three contradictory messages, all coming from G‑d. First, G‑d told Abraham that his seed, the Jewish people, will come from Isaac. Second, G‑d tells Abraham to bring Isaac as a sacrifice. And finally, G‑d tells Abraham not to kill Isaac. G‑d responds by saying that He never actually told Abraham to kill Isaac, just to bring him up to the mountain.

So how is Rashi answering his question? Also why is Abraham questioning G‑d now? Why didn’t Abraham question G‑d as soon as He told him to sacrifice Isaac? And who is the real Abraham? Was he at peace with G‑d, or was he tortured by G‑d’s contradictions?

Later, G‑d tells Moses that Abraham never questioned G‑d. “Even when I told him that Isaac would be his seed (for the Jewish nation) and then I told him to sacrifice Isaac he did question Me.” But this humble, faithful Abraham that G‑d describes to Moses doesn’t seem to be the same Abraham here—the one who showcases these three contradictions to G‑d.

Rashi’s commentary is hard to understand. It doesn’t seem to answer the question, and it paints an unpleasant picture of Abraham in our minds.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe has a fascinating insight into Rashi’s enigmatic explanation. Rashi’s opening words, says the Rebbe, are a total game-changer in understanding what Rashi is really getting at. Abraham said to Him (to G‑d), “I will explain my conversation to You.”

What was that previous conversation Abraham is alluding to?

The Conversation:

G‑d: Don’t stretch out your hand to the boy (to finish slaughtering him)

Abraham: Then I came for nothing; let me wound him, at least

G‑d: Don’t do anything to him. Don’t do the slightest thing to him. Don’t cause him any blemish.

What did Abraham have to explain about thisAbraham worried that G‑d misunderstood his offer conversation? Abraham worried that G‑d misunderstood his offer.

Did You, G‑d, think that I was unprepared to kill my son and was instead offering a smaller sacrifice? Were You rejecting my offer because I showed a lack of total commitment by offering Isaac’s limb?

Let me explain to you where I was coming from, G‑d. When you asked me to bring up Isaac as a sacrifice, I didn’t try to understand why you’d ask me to sacrifice him. I put my mind aside and just followed. But when you told me not to kill him, I allowed myself to try and make sense out of what had just transpired. I thought maybe G‑d doesn’t want me to kill Isaac, but to wound him. In that way, I could partially sacrifice him and still have him as the father of my offspring. G‑d, I wasn’t trying to bail out of your request; I was just trying to figure out what You wanted.

When you read Rashi like that, you see that Abraham isn’t questioning G‑d at all. When He can’t figure out G‑d, he doesn’t even try. It was only after G‑d says “Don’t kill him” that Abraham tried to work it out logically and reconcile all of G‑d’s plans.

How does G‑d respond? By calming Abraham down.

You are worried that you demonstrated a lack of faith? To the contrary! Now I know more than ever how much awe and devotion you have for Me! The reason that I rejected your offer to wound Isaac was because I never intended for you to kill him. I misled you by saying “bring him up.” You thought that meant to kill him. I only meant to bring him up the mountain and then to bring him down.

“ … don’t do anything to him because now I know that you fear G‑d and you didn’t withhold your son from me.”

With Rashi's explanation the verse reads, “Don’t do anything to him,” it perhaps meant “I’m not dismissing your offer to wound him because you showed weakness; to the contrary, you showed incredible devotion. I’m telling you not to do anything because I never intended for you to kill him.”

That’s why G‑d was so proud of Abraham and later praised him to Moses. Abraham didn’t try to figure G‑d out unless there was some constructive outcome in doing so. When G‑d told him to bring Isaac up, he didn’t try to understand it, he just humbly moved forward.

Only later, when he thought he could finally make sense of it did he allow himself think it through. Now that’s someone to be proud of. Someone who knows the right time to surrender and the right time to analyze.


When G‑d’s plan makes no sense, it can bring me to my knees in humility. G‑d, why? This is so messed up! G‑d, what in the world are you doing?! It’s so tempting to get caught up in the seemingThis is so messed up! injustice in life. If G‑d is good, then why this? But perhaps the Jewish response, as modeled by the first Jew, is not to pry into the mysteries of the universe and figure out why. G‑d’s master plan is beyond human comprehension.

We can pray—pray for things to change, pray for healing and pray for the humility to accept G‑d’s plan. But until Moshiach comes, we can’t understand how suffering makes any good sense.

In the end, Abraham thought he’d found a way to put the pieces of the puzzle together. When there was some constructive purpose, he went there. Because sometimes we can see the silver lining in a challenge, and things start to make more sense. Then the focus shifts from why me G‑d to what is G‑d asking from me.

The famed Holocuast survivor and former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael Lau, visited with the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1974. While they were conversing, the Rebbe asked him about the reaction of Jews to the Yom Kippur War.

Rabbi Lau told the Rebbe that the Jews were asking each other, Vos vet zein? “What will be?”

The Rebbe immediately grabbed Rabbi Lau’s arm and emphatically said to him, Yiden fregen nit vos vet zein? Zei fregen, Vos geit men ton? “One shouldn’t ask, ‘What will be?’ We should ask, ‘What are we going to do?’ ”