Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Akeida, Sodom and the Etz HaDaas

Krum as a bagel
Many observers have noted the contrast between Avraham’s boldness in his prayer on behalf of the people of Sodom and his submissiveness to God’s command at the Akeda. In the Sodom story, Avraham boldly questions the justice of God’s decree (“shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?”), yet at the Akeda, the angels question God’s justice (according to this midrash), while Avraham remains silent.

The contrast might be explained by the key difference between the stories. While both involve Divine decrees that conflict on some level with our sense of justice, the Akeda decree is aimed at Avraham (and his son), while Sodom is not.

When Adam and Eve ate from the Etz HaDaas they became “yodei tov v’ra.” What does that phrase mean? Gil at Hirhurim had an interesting post regarding how the Rambam in the Moreh Nevuchim understood tov v’ra. All of the interpretations cited by Gil agree that the Rambam had some sort of subjective judgment in mind - either aesthetic judgment or moral judgment (“proper and improper.”) According to the Rambam, as a result of the etz hadaas, this subjective faculty replaced man’s ability to discern objective truth and falsity.

Whatever the precise articulation of this subjective faculty, I would suggest that the Etz HaDaas didn’t completely displace man’s objectivity , it just diminished and compromised it and subjected it to risk of being skewed by this other subjective “tov v’ra” faculty. Thus, a human being as spritual and lofty as Avraham certainly could apply this objective intellectual faculty, and did so when it came to Sodom.

Not so the Akeida. As the father of Yitzchak, the intended korban, Avraham realized that his intellect was incapable of passing moral judgment on God’s command. In this context, his subjective faculty was so overwhelming that he could not be certain whether any qualms he had regarding God’s command were the result of a subjective judgment or true objective discernment of truth or falsity. This idea is borne out by the Midrash that describes Avraham crying as he stretched out his hand to slaughter his son: “the tears fall on the eyes of Yitzchak from the pity of a father.” His tears are attributed to the pity of a father - Avraham’s subjective sadness over the impending loss of his son. He understood that he was in no position to convert his subjective feelings into a judgment against God. It was left to the angels, who are not subject to this human weakness, to speak up.

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