Why would a midrash actually contradict the Torah’s plain meaning?
בראשית יז כג וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יִשְׁמָעֵאל בְּנוֹ וְאֵת כָּל-יְלִידֵי בֵיתוֹ וְאֵת כָּל-מִקְנַת כַּסְפּוֹ כָּל-זָכָר בְּאַנְשֵׁי בֵּית אַבְרָהָם וַיָּמָל אֶת-בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתָם בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אִתּוֹ אֱלֹקים: כד וְאַבְרָהָם בֶּן-תִּשְׁעִים וָתֵשַׁע שָׁנָה בְּהִמֹּלוֹ בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתוֹ:
And Abraham took his son Yishmael and all those born into his household and those he had acquired – all males of the men of Abraham’s house – and he circumcised their foreskins on that very day as God had spoken to him.
And Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he circumcised his foreskin.
It would certainly appear that, despite the obvious difficulties it entailed, Abraham did not hesitate to fulfill God’s Will. Nevertheless (as others have observed), the midrash in Braishis Rabba 42:8 suggests otherwise:
בשעה שאמר הקב”ה לאברהם לימול, הלך ונמלך בג’ אוהביו. אמר לו ענר: כבר בן ק’ שנה אתה, ואתה הולך ומצער את עצמך. אמר לו אשכול: מה את הולך ומסיים את עצמך בין שונאיך.אמר לו ממרא: אלהיך שעמד לך: בכבשן האש, ובמלכים, וברעבון, והדבר הזה שאמר לך למול, אין אתה שומע לו.
When God told Abraham to circumcise himself, (Abraham) went and consulted his three friends. Aner said to him: “You are already 100 years old and will you go and cause yourself such suffering?”
Eshkol said to him: “Why would you destroy what standing you still have among your enemies?”
Mamre said to him: “This is your God who saved you from the burning furnace, from the four kings and during the famine, and He now tells you to circumcise yourself. Should you not listen to Him?
The fact that the midrash portrays Abraham consulting with his friends before performing the circumcision suggests most strikingly that he wasn’t entirely sure what he should do. But the enthusiasm for the task that the Torah attributes to Abraham suggests a different conclusion. While it’s true that the rabbis describe the fulfillment of this mitzva by Abraham as a “test” (that it was, in other words, something difficult for Abraham to do), there really is no definite source proving that he faced internal conflict. So from where was the midrash drawn?
Perhaps, then, the midrash proposes the hypothetical possibility of Abraham’s self-doubt just to highlight his eventual compliance. In other words, it’s less about the historical record than the practical lesson we can learn: even if you do sometimes encounter emotional or theological challenges that leave you unsure how to act, don’t allow them to overwhelm you and trap you in some endless cycle of moral confusion. Seek help where it is available and then, one way or another, decide. And act.
“On that very day…”