There are two pieces in the Mei haShiloach of the Ishbitzer that I think need to be read side by side. The first piece concerns the Midrash which compares Avraham’s discovery of G-d to someone who observed a burning building and wondered where its owner was, whereupon the owner revealed himself. Similarly, Avraham’s observations of the world raised questions in his mind, whereupon G-d revealed himself. The Ishbitzer notes that G-d’s revelation was not predicated on Avraham developing a new philosophy, culture, or ethic – it was predicated on his sense of wonder and his asking questions. And indeed, this is the root of all religious experience.
The second piece concerns the parsha of the akeida, the command given to Avraham to sacrifice his son. The Ishbitzer explains (this shiur by my rebbe, R’ Blachman of KBY, discusses) that there was a certain ambiguity to the command given to Avraham, starting with G-d’s use of the term “ha’aleihu”, to bring Yitzchak up, but not the word “slaughter”. Had Avraham opened his mind to questions, he would certainly have wondered how a loving G-d of kindness could command him to sacrifice his son; he would certainly have seized upon the possibility of reading G-d’s command to mean something less than actual slaughter; his rational mind would have rejected the possibility of performing an unethical act in G-d’s name and reinterpreted the command. Yet, Avraham closed his mind and unquestioningly accepted the irrational with complete faith.
Two pieces of the Ishbitzer, two seemingly opposite messages. Is religion advanced through questioning and wonder, or through close minded and blind adherence to the discipline of faith? The answer, of course, is both. Our society has lost its sense of balance between these two messages: segments of the Jewish world have seized on “rational” questions as an excuse to reinterpret (or reject) the most basic truths of mesorah, while other segments remain so enveloped in their cocoon of faith that they have lost sight of the value and need to question and probe. There is a need for an “akeidah” of intellectual inquiry in the face of truths too great to be explored or explained by rational thought alone; there is also a need to think deeply, to inquire and explore, if one is to encounter the “ba’al habirah”. Avraham’s journey reminds us of both.