Akeidat Yitzchak & the TradeOff Paradigm (Ideas #30)

American society often holds up elusive dreams. Among the most elusive is that of having it all: career, family, wealth, satisfaction and peace of mind. Looking around us, we eventually see that such a dream is not only elusive, it is impossible.

It could be that previous generations understood this more intuitively. Scarcity of resources and opportunity made it clear to everyone that one could not "have it all." Presumably, it followed that this was true in the spiritual realm as well. In fact, the corpus of halacha deals greatly with mutually exclusive, competing values (i.e. if I am studying Torah and other mitzvot come up, which one do I give up for the sake of the other?).

In our times, however, we seem to be less comfortable with tadeoffs, being surprised by how much we are unable to attain, simply as a result of the human condition. Perhaps we can derive solace when we realize that even G-d himself has to make tradeoffs when dealing within the finite, rational world. I will focus on two examples.

In Bereishit 1:26, we have one of the most problematic passages in the entire Torah. We must remember that much of Jewish history has been dedicated to uprooting the idea of polytheism. It is in this context that we need to understand the famous phrase of "Let US make man." While various commentators suggest understandings (see for example Rav Saadia Gaon and Ramban), Chazal, as quoted by Rashi, are sensitive to the problem of putting God's act in the plural, no matter what the explanation. They continue to point out that the Divine calculation in using the plural centers around teaching the idea of humility. In other words, if all-knowing, all-powerful G-d indicated a need for others, where such a need is axiomatically impossible, certainly we can express our need for others who we only *believe* have nothing to contribute. I would add to the words of Chazal, that this idea is best expressed here, in the first chapter of the Torah, as opposed to having it tucked away in a less conspicous place. Ostensibly, this is G-d's most important single act. In working on the most important project or decision in our lives, would we want to involve others, who we feel would not make a positive contribution? Would we not be more tolerant of such people's involvement in issues of lesser magnitude?

Thus, a powerful lesson is taught to us on the nature of humility and the obligation to honor others by showing our need for their possible contribution, no matter how unlikely that contribution will be. This lesson could only be taught so dramatically by G-d's using the plural in the creation of man. As Chazal point out, this lesson comes to us at a theological cost - i.e. that it allows room for polytheists to find support for their beliefs in the Torah. What should be clear, however, is that that the cost and benefit described are inseparable. There was no way to have one without the other. Chazal are indicating that G-d made a choice of which one was more important - that is not to say that the cost is not present or even unimportant. It is simply saying that G-d saw that the negative that is necessarily created by such a teaching is better than avoiding the negative by softening the teaching of humility explained above.

Another example of Divine tradeoffs appears in the story of the Akeida. Avraham is asked to do much more than kill his child. He is asked to destroy his entire personhood in eagerly fulfilling the antithesis of everything he believes to be good and right. The text reveals the singular nature of this test by never repeating the word nisa with reference to Avraham or any other individual. This is the case, in spite of the oral tradition that Avraham was tested nine other times, presumably within the text of Bereishit. Apparently, such a stark test as the Akeida was needed for the development of mankind, and of G-d's chosen nation.

In 23:2, Rashi again brings the words of Chazal to explain the timing of Sarah's death (smichat parshiot). He tells us that when Sarah heard of the Akeida, her soul flew out of her body. However we are to understand this, it is not the portrait of a desirable death. Sarah's death could well be viewed as an inevitable consequence of what had just transpired. If we are to understand the Midrash as recording an actual historical event, I would propose that, here too, G-d made a necessary tradeoff. The test could not be accomplished without Sarah dying in the way that she did. The other choice was to alter the test and thereby weaken its absolute nature.

I suggest that this also answers another question, that has troubled commentators from the time of Chazal to the present. After we read of Avraham and Yitzchak's every action on the way to the Akeida, Yitzchak mysteriously disappears (most conspicously in 22:19) only to reappear several chapters later. Many answers are given, but everything I have seen seems forced or divorced from the story line. May it not be that Yitzchak did go back home... but not with Avraham? The human bond between father and son was forever strained. Even though Yitzchak agreed with every action taken by his father, a human being cannot see his father in the act of killing him and remain the same. His associations with his father could no longer be what they were before the Akeida. Yitzchak's "disappearence" is another indication of the inevitable cost of a test such as the Akeida.*


Not only is the concept of tradeoffs relevant in deciding between two mutually exclusive phenomena, it may also give us better insight into the nature of sin itself. If the positive phenomena mentioned in the two biblical selections above were shown to have inseperable negative consequeences, could we not likely find examples of the converse? In other words, could it not be that negative phenomena also come with inseperable positive consequences.** If so, it would follow that some acts proscribed by the Torah may actually contain some good.

It appears to me that this was precisely the issue with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It seems (Bereishit 3:6) that what ultimately convinced Chava to eat from the tree was its apparent beauty and practical use as food. That means that this was something unexpected to Chava - her expectation must have been that something forbidden by G-d would have no redeeming qualities (see Ramban).*** This is an inaccurate understanding of good and evil, or rather, it is only an understanding of pristine, absolute good and evil. It is not an accurate understanding of how evil presents itself in this world. This is also how Sforno(3:7) seems to understand the transformation that occurred in Adam and Chava's perceptions as a result of eating from the tree.


In reviewing the example of "let Us make man", we see that G-d had no choice, in the same way that black cannot simultaneously be white. In our example of the Akeida, however, we are left with a question. Could not G-d have created miracles to avoid what we are suggesting to be the natural consequences of the Akeida? In other words, couldn't Yitzchak have been put into a trance during the actual episode. Couldn't Sarah be cut off from all information about what had happened. Surely, this is no more difficult than splitting the Reed Sea or creating the world. The apparent reason that G-d refrained from intervening in the Akeida is that doing otherwise would bely the nature of life. If we are to learn from the actions of the Avot, they have to play by the same rules of rationality that govern the human condition.

By not intervening with miracles, G-d allows the Akeida to teach us one of life's most important realities in appropriately dramatic fashion: Great things often come at great cost. We need to appreciate that in living our lives. This means that making sacrifices is a necessary and expected part of striving for the good and the right. It also means ascribing value to those acts we choose to forgo, and mourning their inevitable loss. For example, when we chose to live in a religious neighborhood, it would be inappropriate to deem our decision as absolutely good. Rather, we mourn the lost opportunities for positive interaction with nonreligious Jews.


In summary, Torah law can be viewed as a Divine cost/benefit analysis. Similarly, decision-making in general is usually a question of choosing the better good; it is not defining one value as good and an other one as bad. It is worthwhile to keep this in mind as we make value judgments about the choices that are made by others as well as ourselves.

* Another passible example is where David is disqualified from building the Temple by having "blood on his hands", as a result of fighting essential wars for the benefit of the Jewish people. see Divrei haYamim I 22:9.

** see, for example Rabbi Soloveitchik's explanation of the positive dynamic ultimately put into motion by sin in his discussion of Tshuva me'Ahava in *Al haTeshuva*.

*** This unexpected cognitive disssonance seems to be what made so simple a test a very sophisticated one indeed.