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In Drashos HaRan, Derush 6 (דרוש הששי בד"ה הנה מבואר כי המצוות] ( דרשות הרן]) the Ran says:

ויותר ררחוק הוא מעשה אברהם אבינו בעקידת יצחק כי לא היה נמשך לו עונש כלל אם לא עקדו כי לא ציוהו השם יתברך בזה ... וזהו לשון הפסוק קח נא את בנך וגו' וכבר נודע כי זה המאמר [קח נא] אינו לשון ציווי אלא לשון בקשה שהראה לו שייטב בעיניו אם ימחול אברהם על הבטחתו ויעקוד בנו ולו היה אברהם משיבו הן לי לא נתתה זרע כי אם זה והבטיחני בו ואיך אעשה זה לא נחשב לו עון ולא תשיגהו עונש מזה ואעפ"כ לגודל אהבתו את השם מצא את לבבו לעקדו כדי שיעשה חפץ השם יתברך לבד ואע"פ שאילו לא עשהו לא היה משיגו עונש כלל וזה ענין העקידה וסודו:

And more distant is the act of Avraham Avinu in the binding of Yitzchak, since he would not have been punished at all if he did not comply, because God did not command him in this ... This is the language of the verse: "Please take your son,” etc. And it is known that this article [please] it is not the language of command, but rather the language of a request that [God] showed him that it would be favorable for Him if Avraham would relinquish Him of his promise and bind his son. If Avraham had answered him, "Behold You have not given me offspring other than this, and You promised me, and how could I do it?", he would not be regarded as a sinner, and he would not have received any punishment. Nonetheless, by his love for HaShem he found in his heart to do the Akeida, Only so that he would do the will of Hashem, even though if he had not done it, he would not have attained punishment at all. This is the matter of the Akeida and its secret.

Why, if so, is עקידת יצחק considered the greatest of the עשרה נסיונות, the ten tests of Avraham Avinu? The Gemara (Baba kama 38a and elsewhere) teaches that גדול המצווה ועושה ממי שאינו מצווה ועושה - one who is commanded and does is greater then one who is not commanded and does. So if Avraham was not commanded to do the Akeida, this would diminish the greatness of the act of the Akeida, not show its greatness.

  • I went ahead and put the quote in a block quote to make it clearer to readers where the quote starts and ends. I also fixed up some of your grammar. – DonielF May 18 '18 at 5:20
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    An underlying assumption in this question is that the Akeidah is the greatest of Avraham’s tests. How do you know that this is the case? Perhaps none were greater than others, and they all just tested for different things. – DonielF May 18 '18 at 5:23
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Your citation of the Derashos HaRan is incomplete. Here is the text of the entire paragraph:

ואמנם יתאמת שמי שישען עליו באמת להיות (נשען) [נכנס] בעובי הקורה בעבודתו יתברך שיעשה מעשה יותר רחוק מן הטבע [יורה על היותו נשען על השם יתברך באמת] והיותר רחוק מן הטבע הוא מעשה אברהם אבינו עליו השלום בעקידת יצחק כי לא היה נמשך לו עונש כלל אם לא יעקדנו כי לא צוהו השם יתברך בזה והנה הבטיחו כי ביצחק יקרא לך זרע וזהו לשון הכתוב קח נא את בנך וגו' וכבר נודע שזה המאמר אינו לשון צווי אלא לשון בקשה שהראה לו שייטב בעיניו אם ימחול אברהם על הבטחתו ויעקוד בנו ולו היה אברהם משיבו הן לי לא נתתה זרע כי אם זה והבטחתני בו ואיך אעשה זה לא נחשב לו עון ולא ישיגנו עונש מזה ואף על פי כן לגודל אהבתו את השם יתברך מצא את לבבו לעקדו כדי שיעשה חפץ השם יתברך לבד ואף על פי שאילו לא עשאו לא היה משיגו עונש כלל וזהו ענין העקידה וסודו

The Ran is defining the category of "ישען עליו באמת" "relying on Him (God) in truth". He says that the epitome of this category is doing something that is "יותר רחוק מן הטבע" "most distant from nature", i.e. the most unnatural thing for a human to do. The greatest example of this, he says, is Avraham performing Akeidas Yitzchak. This is so because slaughtering one's child is incredibly painful and difficult. Had the situation been one in which Avraham would have been punished for not complying with the request, it would be less incredible that Avraham did it. Since, however, Avraham had the option to "opt out" at any time with no consequences, the fact that he went through with it is so much more incredible and it demonstrates an unparalleled love for God.

According to this understanding, the test is made harder by the fact that it would have been so easy for Avraham to not go through with it.

How does this relate to the general concept of "gadol hametzuveh v'oseh"? If your question is simply how Akeidas Yitzvhak can be greater than the other tests if it was not commanded and they were commanded**, (and this is the implication of your final paragraph) I would say that this is likely a misunderstanding of "gadol hametzuveh v'oseh". What this concept means is that If Person A is commanded to do XYZ and Person B is not commanded to do XYZ, A's performance of XYZ is greater than B's performance of XYZ. That does not mean, however, that if A is commanded to do XYZ and B is not commanded to do ABC that A's performance of XYZ is greater than B's performance of ABC, because it is possible that ABC is intrinsically greater than XYZ. So in this case the non-commanded Akeidas Yitzchak could still be greater than the other commanded tests because the act itself is intrinsically greater than the other acts. (In other words "gadol hametzuveh v'oseh" is only applicable in a comparison of two identical acts.)

However, if your question is (and this is the implication of the title) why the non-commandedness of Akeidas Yitzchak would increase its greatness relative to itself (i.e. that Akeidas Yitzchak being non-commanded is greater than Akeidas Yitzchak if it would have been commanded) the above does not suffice.

To address this I would say that it depends how you understand the reason for "gadol hametzuveh v'oseh". In this answer I quoted the opinion of Tosafos that it is because doing an obligated mitzvah involves more anguish than doing a voluntary mitzvah because when doing a voluntary mitzvah you know that you can always give up, and the first opinion cited by the Ritva that obligatory mitzvos are harder due to Satan's machinations. Indeed these explanations would seem to be contradictory to the Ran who appears to be saying the opposite – that being voluntary makes it harder.

However, the second answer cited by the Ritva (in the name of the Ramban) is that it is greater when one is fulfilling the King's command than when one is not fulfilling the King's command. I think this could fit with the Ran's explanation here. A general example of "einah metzuveh v'oseh" is someone that was never asked by God to so something at all (e.g. women performing time-bound positive commandments). That would fall under the category of not fulfilling the King's command because it is purely voluntary. By Akeidas Yitzchak it was not purely voluntary; God requested that Avraham do it but just didn't assign a punishment if he wouldn't do it. In this case he was directly fulfilling the request of the King. In other words, it is possible that despite everything the Ran said he would still consider this a case of "metzuveh v'oseh" and not "einah metzuveh v'oseh", and thus no contradiction arises.

A further point is that perhaps the Ran understands the rule of "gadol hametzuveh v'oseh" as referring to general mitzvos. This is because in general mitzvos are not designed to be specifically cruel to the performer. Therefore it is not inherently super-difficult to perform the mitzvah; adding the obligatory nature would make it harder in accordance with Tosafos and Ritva 1. But Akeidas Yitzchak is by design fundamentally difficult, perhaps even cruel. Avraham is being asked to slaughter his own child. In that case it is precisely the voluntary nature that makes it harder, because he had the ability to easily avoid causing excruciating pain to himself by simply opting out. In other words, it is possible that in general being obligatory makes something harder but in unique situations being voluntary makes something harder.


Summary of three main points

  • "Gadol hametzuveh v'oseh" is only applicable in a comparison of two identical acts.
  • It is possible that despite everything the Ran said he would still consider this a case of "metzuveh v'oseh" and not "einah metzuveh v'oseh", and thus no contradiction arises.
  • It is possible that in general being obligatory makes something harder but in unique situations being voluntary makes something harder.

**This is not even taking into account that some of the other tests were commanded. In fact R. Yoel Stanitzky argues (Peri Mussar, Ma'amar Asarah Nisyonos) that Akeidas Yitzchak was a bigger test than getting thrown into the furnace, precisely because the former was commanded while the latter was not.

  • <Akeidas Yitzchak was a bigger test than getting thrown into the furnace, precisely because the former was commanded while the latter was not.> So he is assuming that akeidas yitzchak was a command? not like the Ran? And why wasn't getting thrown into the furnace commanded? what about יהרג ואל יעבור for עבודה זרה? – RibbisRabbiAndMore May 17 '18 at 23:29
  • @RibbisRabbiAndMore A couple paragraphs later he says that he later saw the Ran. He doesn't address if and how it fits with what he wrote; maybe he agreed with my second point. As for your second point, he says that God had never appeared to Avraham and commanded him. – Alex May 17 '18 at 23:47

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