Binding the High Holy Days Together

Three times during the Musaf service on Rosh Hashanah we proclaim: היום הרת עולם (today is the birth of the world). Growing up I found it fortuitous coincidence that the school year and the New Year coincided. The act of returning to school to start fresh and going to synagogue to start fresh at the same time that the world renews for another year seemed a perfect nexus to reflect on what has been and what will be.

Yet, for as neatly “packaged” as this seemed, I remained confused why the Torah reading failed to follow suit. As I young child I wanted the creation narrative of בראשית (Genesis) to be read in the distinct High Holy Day trope, not the birth and subsequent binding of יצחק (Isaac). I’ll admit, as an adult I still would prefer the Creation narrative were the Torah reading assigned to Rosh Hashanah. The lofty imagery of the world being brought into existence through words – יהי אור (Let there be light), or כי–טוב (that is was good) seemed far more fitting with the themes of the day. Moreover, reading about God’s epic undertaking leads beautifully into the מלכוית section of Musaf where we coronate God as King. The argument is ironclad: You are King because You created.

For years I remained flummoxed – were the Rabbis that blind? Did they really not see this פשיטה (prima facia) argument? How could they have been so blind even though ויהי אור (there was light)? Over the course of many years I have begun to realize that the Rabbis saw something bigger. They understood that the עיקר (essence) was not each Holy Day on its own, but that they are inextricably bound together. The world was created, yes out of God’s infinite power, but we were part of Creation and given all those faculties that makes us human in order to reflect on what was and what will be. We were given the freedom to make mistakes but also to learn and (a)mend.

The Rabbis recognize this deep truth and found a subtle but ingenious way to connect the High Holy Days not only through liturgical themes but through the Torah narrative.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah we read about the birth of יצחק (Isaac) and the immediate family strive that arose between Sarah/Isaac and Hagar/Ishmael. Sarah’s ultimately demands that this handmaid and her son be exiled and Avraham consents. In the desert without water, when all seems hopeless, a heavenly angel tells Hagar that God has heard the voice of the child. Although the Hagar and Ishmael dwelled in the desert, God with Ishmael as he grows – ויהי אלהים את הנער ויגדל.

On the second day, we read the famous עקידה (The Binding of Isaac). Here, God instructs Avraham to take his son Isaac to a place He shall show him. There, Avraham will bind this child and offer him up to God as a sacrifice.

One is banished to the desert; the other is designated for God.

During the morning Torah reading for Yom Kippur we read in detail the Yom Kippur service as it took place in the Mishkan and ultimately the Temple. The Kohen Gadol is instructed to take two male goats and cast lots – one will be banished to the desert; the other offered to God – גורל אחד לה’, וגורל אחד לעזאזל . The imagery is astounding. One son has his lot cast to be banished to the desert; the other is designated as an offering to God.

When viewed in this light the Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur present a holistic narrative, one that not only connects the two Holy Days, but offers a profound commentary on the possibilities for teshuva and renewal.

Many rabbinic commentators explain that both goats meet a similar end – whether as an offering to God or banished to Azazel, both goats are meet their end. However, both Ishmael and Isaac escape these fates becoming the fathers of great nations. Each of us is a combination of both children – lost in a desert wanderers feeling hopeless. Or we submit to being bound, constricted by external constraints that we cannot shed. Yet, in those moments when all seems dark and we believe we have been forsaken, the path forward becomes clear – we are shown the water, we are saved from atrocity.

As we continue on the path of prayer and repentance leading to holidays of great joy, it is helpful to reflect on the deep understanding the Rabbi had. The Torah reading are not about the lofty imagery of Creation, but instead focus on intimate relationships with God. The banishment of Ishamael, the עקידה, and the Biblical recounting of Yom Kippur offer paradigms for us, both personally and as a nation, to connect with God and find ways to move from banishment and constraint to freedom and שלימות (wholeness).

About the Author
Jonathan S. Hack received his Ph.D. in political science from The George Washington University and rabbinical ordination privately in Israel. He is a Program Officer for the Anxieties of Democracy program at the Social Science Research Council in New York. The Council is an independent, international nonprofit, mobilizes necessary knowledge for the public good by supporting scholars worldwide, generating new research across disciplines, and linking researchers with policymakers and citizens.
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