“And Avraham awoke in the morning” (Breisheet 22:3). It is from this verse that the Sages (Pesachim 4a) derive the principle zerezim makdimim lemitzvot, that the meticulous promptly fulfil mitzvot. What makes this teaching so much more poignant is the context, that of akeidat Yitzchak. It is easy to eagerly await and greet the arrival of Shabbat or the Yamim Tovim with their beautiful atmosphere; it is even a joy for many to have the merit of giving tzedakah. Yet the principle of zerezim makdimim is derived from the verse relating to the sacrifice of one’s child. It is precisely by this most difficult of mitzvot that this principle is taught.
Further analysis brings some nuance to this notion. Avraham did not, in fact, perform the mitzvah at the earliest possible time. “And Avraham awoke in the morning” means that after hearing G-d’s command to bring his son as a “burnt offering”, he went to sleep, arising early the next morning, presumably well-rested for his journey. How could this be? Why did he not leave immediately to fulfil G-d’s command? Our tradition teaches that many of the momentous events of Jewish history happened at night. Why then did Avraham not depart immediately to fulfil the Divine command? Furthermore, knowing what lay ahead, how was it possible for Avraham to actually sleep that night?
One of the crucial challenges facing society is the ability to distinguish between religious intensity and religious fanaticism. While the former is wonderful and must be encouraged and nurtured, the latter is dangerous, destructive and debilitating. Claims that one is motivated for the sake of Heaven cannot excuse intolerable behaviour. Doing so may allow one to become a terrorist.
One of the ways of distinguishing between the pitfalls of fanaticism and the benefits of fervour is the amount of thought that infuses our actions. Fanatics act on emotion alone, often after being brainwashed into thinking in a particular way. No foreign ideas or thoughts are allowed to penetrate. Questions are not allowed and consequences are not given any thought.
Intensely religious people, on the other hand, have spent a lifetime refining their ideas and ideals. They are seekers of truth constantly questioning and looking for answers, and are not afraid of new ideas. They see the image of G-d in all people, understanding that religion is not meant as a tool to conquer the world but to improve it.
Avraham was no fanatic. The only reason Avraham was allowed to attempt to sacrifice Yitzchak was that he received a direct, clear command from G-d. Absent such command, he would have been guilty of (attempted) murder. Avraham understood exactly what he was doing. He had slept on the idea; and he had a three-day journey before arriving at “the place”, three days in which he could have changed his mind.
Despite the difficulty, and despite the fact that it went against everything he had spent a lifetime teaching, Avraham took his son to be slaughtered. With the knowledge that he was carrying out the will of G-d, no matter how mystifying, Avraham could get a good night’s sleep.
Fanatics are willing to hurt, even kill, others in their zeal to get closer to G-d. Truth be told, there is a certain, even if warped, logic to that approach. After all, is not man subservient to G-d? Should we allow anything to get in our way of serving Him?
Judaism eschews such an approach. “Do not harm the boy. Do not do anything to him” (22:12). Rashi explains that Avraham had a desire to at least draw some blood from Yitzchak; otherwise, he argued, his trip would have been in vain. Avraham did not yet fully appreciate that one must not hurt our fellow man in the service of G-d; we need not injure others in order to get closer to Him.
When we teach that the final and ultimate of Avraham’s ten tests was the akeidah, it does not refer only to his willingness to sacrifice Yitzchak. Ironically, it may also refer to his eagerness to draw blood in the service of G-d. The akeidah teaches that we must not allow ourselves to perform actions in the name of religion that our natural instinct tells us are morally problematic.
Avraham is our role model both in the area of gemilot chasadim and that of total dedication and submission to G-d. It is the proper combination of the two that enabled Avraham to be the founding father of the Jewish people.