Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Satan preceded Abraham to the journey (to sacrifice Isaac) and said to him: “Is it proper that the One who loves you should try you and grieve you to kill your son?” Satan continued: “You have instructed many, and you have strengthened the weak hands. Your words have upheld him that was falling…but now it [a stressful matter] comes upon you, and you are weary” (Job 4:2–5). Abraham replied to Satan: “And I will walk with my integrity” (Psalms 26:11). Satan said to Abraham: “Is not your fear of God your foolishness?” (Job 4:6). In other words, your fear will culminate in the slaughter of your son. Abraham said to Satan: “Can you think of any innocent man who ever perished?” (Job 4:7). Once Satan saw that Abraham was not heeding him, he said to him: “Now a word was secretly brought to me, and my ear received a whisper thereof” (Job 4:12). This is what I heard from behind the heavenly curtain: “The sheep is to be sacrificed as a burnt-offering, and Isaac is not to be sacrificed as a burnt-offering. Abraham said to him: “Perhaps that is so. However, this is the punishment of the liar, that even if he speaks the truth, others do not listen to him” (Sanhedrin 89b).
Who is Satan? This refers to our instincts which seek emotional gratification and avoiding difficulty. In this case, Abraham's conflict was between the love for his son and the love for God's and His commands. This midrash addresses the core conflicts Abraham confronted en route to sacrificing Isaac. Let us now interpret this midrash with the understanding that Abraham is having a conflict with his emotions, expressed as Satan's words…
Satan preceding Abraham to the journey means that as soon as Abraham set out to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham was confronted with a conflict. The first thing Satan (Abrahams instincts) do is question God's command: “As God loves me, how can He possibly ask me to kill my son?” Abraham asked himself. We notice that Abraham replies to all the other arguments which Satan presents, but he does not reply to this argument. The reason is because one cannot know God's mind to answer this question. As Maimonides says, there is no response to “Why did God create man?” All we can say is that it is God’s will. Similarly, Abraham realized that there is no way to understand God's command here, how it is just, as Isaac had not sinned. So there is no response. Abraham continued on his journey.
Satan then accuses Abraham of being so strong and steadfast in his philosophy when advising others, but when it comes to himself, he's finding difficulty with his own philosophy. This means that Abraham now sensed a reluctance to sacrifice Isaac due to his love for his son. But Abraham corrected himself, he realized that although there is pain now when he and not another is the subject of a trial, he must overcome his subjective feelings and react to his own trial with objectivity: “I will walk with my integrity.” Abraham strengthened his convictions and did not allow subjective feelings to dilute the integrity with which he directed others throughout his life.
Satan's third approach was a response to this answer: “Your fear (integrity) will ruin you as you will kill your son!” Abraham felt by adhering to God through his fear and integrity, he will kill his son. Abraham then corrected that emotion and ignored personal gain or loss, but focused solely on God's justice, as he said, “No innocent man ever perished,” a statement concerning justice. Meaning Abraham extricated his mindset from a subjective personal loss, and responded to the situation from God’s perspective of justice. That is, “God commanded me and I must subjugate myself to Him and kill Isaac.”
Satan's final argument is important: “Once Satan saw that Abraham was not heeding him, he said to him…” We are forced to immediately stop, and ask that if Satan saw he failed, why did he keep talking? But we must be mindful that the rabbis who scripted this allegory, intentionally wrote, “Satan saw Abraham was not listening.” What the rabbis mean to teach is that Satan now took a different strategy. At first, Satan was presenting arguments stemming purely from instinctual responses: “Why would God harm one whom He loves? You're so strong for others but you can't take your own advice! Your integrity is going to ruin you!” He first argues from God’s perspective, and then from Abraham’s perspective. These were Satan's first three approaches. Now Satan changes his strategy and claims that he “Heard a secret from behind the curtain,” meaning he knows God’s true intent…to sacrifice an animal and not Isaac. This means that Abraham now was hit with a different type of emotion that stemmed not from a pure instinctual source, but from a religious source, “Behind the curtain” means what is in heaven, or what is God’s actual intent. This teaches an important lesson: the instincts don't always confront us from a purely emotional argument; sometimes they will use our sense of religiosity to ruin us. In other words Abraham now contemplated, “What is God’s real wish: Does he want innocent people to be slaughtered? No!” Abraham momentarily entertained this. Abraham's response was “Although there may be some truth to that sentiment, I cannot follow that path of thought since it was generated from my instincts.” With the words, “The fate of a liar is that even if he says the truth, he must not be listened to,” Abraham meant to say, “I cannot abandon God's command to kill my son despite my religious thinking because this is all stemming from an emotional conflict.”
Rabbi Israel Chait taught similarly:
Chofetz Chaim said, “Satan gets us from the front and the back.” The front I understand [our instincts attack us face-on]. But what is the back? This means the instincts get behind you and push you in your current direction, from the “back.” For example, a person learns many hours and wants to sleep. But Satan says, “Keep learning all night.” That is Satan pushing from the back, and this will run him down. Sometimes one’s mistakes are not due to desires, but because one does not see reality due to an incorrect self-image that blocks the truth. The answers are all found in Judaism, but you have to be able to see them (Pirkei Avos, Chap. 5/6 pg 464).
Of course the rabbis do not know precisely what went on in Abraham's mind and heart on his journey to sacrifice Isaac. What they mean with this allegory is that even someone as great as Abraham cannot escape emotional difficulty and conflicts when asked by God to kill his son. Even Abraham most certainly will have certain conflicts which are covered in this midrash. Judaism greatly differs with Christianity which deifies man and creates saints, humans devoid of any emotion. But Judaism accepts reality, sharing all of even the greatest people’s faults, for our edification.
What is Satan’s language? It is the language of the emotions. When confronted with a conflict, our emotions “talk to us,” seeking the more pleasant route of not sacrificing our son. Our emotions then question God, or we cave to our weakness and don’t comply. The language of our emotions can also take on a religious bend, where we find a religious justification to reject truth, as the Crusades justified murder in the name of religion. The story of the snake and Eve too is a metaphor for how Eve’s instincts manipulated her to sin.