A crucial turning point in Jewish history was the Akedah, the "Binding [of Isaac]," in which Abraham was called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice of bringing his son as an offering to G‑d. Isaac was not a child, but a mature man. Nonetheless he too showed himself completely willing to give his life in order to fulfill G‑d's will.

There have been many examples in the past and also in the present of people giving up their lives in order to achieve a certain goal for themselves (albeit in heaven, whether imagined or real) or for their family or their people. In some cases sacrifice of one's life can actually be an extreme form of aggrandizement of self, or a mode of committing a horrific crime.

The case of Abraham and Isaac is different: it was a step of surrender of self. The sacrifice of Isaac would have meant the cancellation of everything that Abraham had spent his life trying to achieve. Let us consider this in context.

Since the time of Noah and the Flood, the world had gradually again sunk into a morass of idol worship and ugly practices. G‑d the Creator was totally forgotten. Then Abraham came on the scene. He reached the conclusion that there must be one Master of all existence. Soon he began to teach others. Eventually, guided by G‑d, Abraham embarked on his life's mission—to bring awareness of the Creator back into the world. He did this through manifesting the quality of Chesed, Kindness. He and his wife Sarah – who, like her husband, was an inspiring teacher1 – gathered around them loyal adherents who even followed them when they made the journey to the Land of Canaan.

However, a serious problem was the fact that Abraham needed a successor. Sarah was beautiful and wise, but she had not borne a child through all their years of marriage. Abraham did not feel that even his closest disciples, like his servant Eliezer, were fitting as successors in the task to reveal Monotheism to the world. He yearned for a son.2 Sarah asked him to take her maidservant Hagar as a concubine, and Ishmael was born. Then G‑d told him that Sarah herself would miraculously give birth to a child at the age of ninety, and that this son, Isaac, rather than Ishmael, would be Abraham's successor. Through Isaac a sacred nation, the Jewish people, would come into being. They would dwell in the Land of Israel and reveal knowledge of G‑d to all humanity.

Suddenly, when Isaac was grown up, and Ishmael had long before been sent away, Abraham received the Divine call to transcend his self, his quality of Kindness, and his future. To go to a distant mountain alone with his son and offer him up to G‑d. No one would see this: it would be a private event, abrogating the life-long work of a great religious leader. G‑d's own promises to Abraham were here being reduced to naught!

Abraham made the step which goes beyond self. Infinite G‑d rules all, and is unlimited. As finite human beings, we cannot understand G‑d. Abraham was ready to obey—and in fact, that was sufficient. Isaac was not offered up. Instead a ram was offered—and consequently on the Jewish New Year a ram's horn is blown, reminding us of this event.

The effect of Abraham's step beyond Self was to transmit to us, his descendants, a similar ability to go beyond fashion, convention, and ordinary understanding in our path through history, and through life, dedicated to G‑d. Abraham's actions helped ensure the existence and continued flowering of our people for all generations.3