As a follow up to last week's post on the test of the akeidah I was privileged to have received the following summary of a sicha of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Likkutei Sichos Vol. 20 p. 73-78)from R.A. (thank you!) and am posting it here. I would just add (specifically to answer the question in parenthesis) to also see R' Tzadok in Pri Tzadik at the end of Lech Lecha who also contrasts the early tests of Avraham with the akeidah, but we have to save that for another time as we're up to Chayei Sarah already.
The Rebbe asks the question asked by many commentaries as to why it says that if Avraham failed the test of the Akeidah 'people would say the first tests were meaningless' - how could this be so, especially considering that the test of the Akeidah was such a difficult one.
The Rebbe prefaces by quoting the question of the Sefer Haikkarim (3:36) as to why we constantly quote the story of the Akeidah more than all the other kedoshim who gave their lives Al kiddush Hashem like R. Akiva and his colleagues and all the kedoshim in every generation (and one can't say that it is due that to give ones' child up demands more self-sacrifice than to
give up ones' own life, because also in later generation there was Chana and her seven sons (see Gemara Gittin 77b) as well as the instances throughout history where many others have done the same).
The Sefer Haikkarim answers by quoting Breishis Rabbah (66:10) that there was nothing 'forcing' Avraham to do what Hashem had asked him, as he could have said to Hashem that earlier he had been promised that through Yitzchak he would become a nation etc., yet nevertheless he said 'I didn't challenge your intentions' (kivashti es rachami vloh hirhari acharei midosecha). [The Ran in his drashos (no. 6) mentions this point in the context as to why
Hashem used the expression 'please' when speaking to Avraham, because it was a request as opposed to a command]. On the other hand the kedoshim who gave their lives throughout history did it on the basis of a command (Venikdashti btoch bnei yisroel - Emor 22:32)
This answer however is problematic for two reason: a) When Hashem Himself requests something its definitely a 'hechrech' and b) amongst those who gave their lives their were many who did so under circumstances in which they were not required to according to Torah.
The Rebbe answers by saying that the difference by Avraham was that he was the first one to have self-sacrifice, and by his act he opened up the gates, so to speak, for all others to be have self-sacrifice after him. In a spiritual sense this 'opening of the gates' required a much greater level of self-sacrifice than anyone else that came after him.
(There is another question on this in regards to the fact that Avraham seemingly had such self-sacrifice previously by the test of Ur Casdim but we will leave that for now.)
One could argue however, that seemingly we see that the concept of self-sacrifice also exists by the other nations of the world; they also seem to be capable of giving up their lives for the sake of their beliefs? The answer is that the true concept of self-sacrifice is - the sacrifice of the 'self'. In other words it very possible that a person would give up their life on the basis of a calculation that they stand to gain (even in death) a certain sense of fame or proving their point. This is a 'calculated' self-sacrifice. The true concept of self-sacrifice is that one gives himself entirely over to Hashem without any calculations etc. - one is totally nullified to Hashem's will, whatever it may be. The self sacrifice that Avraham had at Ur casdim was a public one in a sense, it was in connection to Avraham's desire to spread the belief in Hashem in the world as he had been doing until then, to the point that he was willing to give up his life. However in the Akeidah, the self-sacrifice was not about anything that he believed in or stood for, rather it was simply following the command of Hashem. As the Ibn Ezra points out 'at the time that he tied up his son no one was there'. (see note 40, 41 in the sicha). In fact the whole episode was contrary to Avraham's desire to spread Hashem's name in the world, because this was only to have continued through his son who he was about to sacrifice!
This was the unique quality of the Akeidah - It had absolutely no place in intellect or logic, rather it was purely about fulfilling the will of Hashem, which is the true definition of self-sacrifice.
This answers why the Gemara says that 'people would say that the first tests were meaningless', because had Avraham failed it would have shown that he had only passed the first tests because of his own nature, his own (holy) interests. However once he passed the test of the Akeidah, which required him to do something that had no intellectual basis and made absolutely no
sense, to the point that it contradicted everything he stood for, only then it became evident (and proven retro-actively in regards to his previous tests) that it had not been his own 'calculations' that had driven him to self-sacrifice but rather it was simply him fulfilling Hashem's will.