The Binding of Isaac, known as the Akeidah, unfolds in Chapter 22 of Bereishith and according to Chazal (The Sages) this was the Tenth Test of Avraham Avinu. The Hebrew word for test can also mean exalted. During the account of the Akeidah, HaShem calls to Avraham three times and he responds all three times by saying, Hineni, usually translated as, “Here I am.” The Patriarch’s answer is evidence of his utter willingness to follow HaShem’s instruction. The number three is connected to Avraham, Isaac and Yacov, the Avot. It’s also symbolic of the three pilgrimage festivals: Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. And, it represents spiritual growth, underscoring that it was time for Abraham to enter a higher level in his relationship with G-d. The Creator beginning the process to fulfill his promise to Abraham years earlier that He would, “make of him a great nation.”
It all begins with a three-day journey with his son Isaac. Within the narrative we can readily see, in the Akeidah, the template that anticipates Israel's Sinai experience:
Abraham must journey to a mountain.
The Patriarch sees the mountain topped with a pillar of smoke.
Abraham offers his First-Born son to HaShem on the mountain.
The Hebrew text never states that Abraham was commanded to slaughter Isaac — only to bring “the son that he loved” for an offering at the very same place Noah made an offering after surviving the Flood. Abraham was also aware that the site would be the future location of the korbanot offered in the Temple. Yet, he was so unwavering in his faith and so obedient to G-d, he was ready to carry out the command as he understood it. Isaac also understood. He was no mere lad, according to Seder Olam, he had just turned thirty-seven, a man in the prime of his life.
HaShem spares Isaac at the very last moment, telling Avraham:
“Do not harm the lad. Do not do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God. You have not withheld your only son. Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught by its horns in a thicket. He got the ram, offering it in his son's place. Abraham named the place 'God will See' [Adonai Yir’eh]. Today it is therefore said, 'On God's Mountain, He will be seen.' God's angel called to Abraham from heaven a second time, and said, 'God declares, 'I have sworn by My own Essence, that because you performed this act, and did not hold back your only son, I will bless you greatly, and increase your offspring like the stars of the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your offspring shall inherit their enemies' gate. All the nations of the world shall be blessed through your descendant because you obeyed My voice.” — Genesis 22:9-18
The ram caught in the thicket was a unique creature created at the twilight of the First Shabbat of Creation. The ram connects Avrahm's descendants to the Exodus experience when they slaughter a ram for Pesach. The ram was considered a symbol of a major god by the Egyptians.
When a ram was offered in place of Isaac, Avraham understood the role of his children in the scheme of the Creator’s grand plan. Those ashes smoldering on the altar were actually a dramatic affirmation of life. From that point on, when an offering was made on the altar in the Temple, HaShem will see the ashes of His firstborn, Israel. He will see the unquestioning faithfulness of Avraham instilled in his descendants offering--not useless death--but life in daily service to God and humanity.
Isaac was bound so that he could give his life, willingly. At Sinai, his descendants willingly offered themselves as God's servants. Today, the Jewish People remain bound (even binding themselves with tefillin) to Torah as a nation of living priests who will serve at the very site of the Binding in a House of Prayer for All Nations. That's why site of this dramatic event was called Yerih-shalem or "G-d will see." Interestingly, the gematria of Yireh Shalem is 242, also the gematria for the Ha Bechora (The First-Born)
The contemporary Western mind is frustrated by the written narrative of the Akeidah. It seems to create more questions than it answers. But that quality of the narrative is a lesson in itself. By not providing easy answers, G-d is demonstrating that His people must always maintain that state of mind known as emunah, or trust.
The Akeidah was the turning point that represented a unique individual’s commitment to G-d. It flowered at Sinai when a unique multitude made their commitment to the Creator when they heard the words of Torah for the first time, their unquestioning response echoed the faith of Avraham when they said, “We will do and we will hear!” The creation of Israel represented a unique partnership with G-d. The being of every Jew is rooted in the Akeidah, a model of utter, unquestioning faith and lives lived fully in holy service to the Creator and all of humanity.