I must confess, since this is the season for confessing, that I have always felt uncomfortable with the story of the Akedah…sacrifice of Isaac… which is read from the Torah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.
How does one deal with the story of a father who loved God more than his own son and who was ready to offer him willingly as a human sacrifice, a practice then very common among the pagan nations?
It lacks a yiddishe taam… a flavor of Jewish compassion. Each year as I read it I am more perplexed. I know that in the end it turns out well, that Abraham puts down the sacrificial knife, that Isaac is released from the altar and a ram is offered in his place, and father and son “holchu yachad”… walked together.
What is the redeeming factor of the story? Was the life of Isaac God’s only way of testing his father’s faith? If God is omnipotent, all-knowing, all-seeing, surely He knew in advance how Abraham would act. What then is the purpose of a test?
Teachers understand that a test serves two purposes: to the teacher, it demonstrates how well the student has assimilated communicated information, and to the student it shows his progress and proficiency. It points out areas of his weakness so that he can strive to become stronger.
Perhaps from this perspective we can approach the Torah reading more clearly.
Abraham believes that God has commanded him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac on Mount Moriah.
Isaac is thirty-seven years old at this time, no longer a child but a grown and mature young man.
The scholar, Louis Ginzberg, shares details of the story in his monumental work, “Legends of the Bible”.
Abraham asks Isaac if he has any regrets, if there is anything that disturbs him about what is to happen. Isaac replies that he is ready to die if that is the will of God and he asks his father to bind him and slay him quickly so that he will not suffer needlessly. But he is also concerned about his old mother. “What will you tell her has become of me? How will the two of you get along in your old age without me?”
And Abraham responds that probably he and Sarah will die shortly thereafter. He then embraces his son and bursts into tears. And Isaac also weeps so the wood of the altar is submerged in their mingled tears.
And all the angels wept and they questioned God’s mercy. “Is this the reward of a man who has served Thee so faithfully and so whole-heartedly?” It is recorded that when God saw this touching scene He had compassion upon Abraham and commanded the archangel Michael to intervene and to prevent the sacrifice of Isaac. Having been restored to life, father and son bless God’s name and offer up a gift of thanksgiving.
Abraham now questions God. “Why did You make me do this? Surely You must have known that I was prepared to sacrifice my son as You asked of me.” And God replied, “I knew it from the beginning. I knew that you would not withhold him from me.”
And here follows the question of eternity, one that is asked in every generation by every sufferer:
“Why? Why? If You knew it all the time why did You afflict me thus?” And God turned to Abraham as He turns to each one of us who ask the same question and He spoke these words: “It was My wish that the world should become acquainted with thee and should know that it is not without good reason that I have chosen thee from all nations. Now it has been witnessed unto all men that Abraham truly loves God”.
But Abraham is not prepared to pack up his bundle and return to his tent so easily. He has suffered greatly. He has bound his beloved son, prepared to take his life, because of his love for God, and now he exacts payment for his love and faithfulness. He demands, and God grants him a covenant, one that is passed from Abraham and Isaac to Jacob and his twelve sons, and from them to you and to me. We are “mishpacha”…family. We are Abraham’s grandchildren and his reward is our reward. His blessing is ours too.
In Abraham’s day the Jewish people did not exist. Abraham was born a pagan in Mesopotamia, son of Terach, an idol-maker, a worshipper of the moon god and a subject of king Nimrod. Guided by a dream and haunted by a powerful churning in his soul, Abraham the pagan taught his belief in the One and Only God who ruled over heaven and earth, a God who caused the sun to shine by day and the moon and stars by night. Because of his unique belief he stood apart from everybody else in his society. And he became “ha Ivri ha rishon”… the first Hebrew.
It was a badge of honor and distinction. As Abraham proudly wore it, so do his descendants. Millions have died and suffered martyrdom because they chose to cling to Hebrew beliefs. Just as Abraham stood apart from the nations of the earth, separated by faithfulness to his dream and ideals, so too must we. For when we begin to abandon the old ways, the old faith, the old teachings….when we go in search of the new and the exotic… we become confused, frightened and lost. And it is often hard to find the path home when one has strayed so far and so long from it.
Everyone remembers Grimm’s fairy-tale of Hansel and Gretel who marked the path from their home into the deep, dark woods with crumbs of bread, only to discover that their guideposts had been eaten by the birds of the air. Without those signs to mark their way home they were inextricably lost in the forest of hopelessness and despair. Thank God, our guideposts are more visible and audible.
The shofar…the horn of redemption…is blown to proclaim our liberation from shackles which bind us, shackles which we have placed upon ourselves. The sharp, piercing, warning notes of the shofar serve to awaken us from our spiritual slumber. They serve as a clarion call to arms. We have forgotten who we are and the shofar’s blasts remind us. When much of the world lived in damp caves, illiterate, savage, fire-worshippers, your ancestors and mine were singing psalms to the glory and praise of the Most High God in His Holy sanctuary in Jerusalem. We are sons and daughters of kings, princes, prophets and priests.
Like Hansel and Gretel, we too have often been forced to wander in a wilderness of despair. But Rosh Hashanah and the interim ten days of penitence with its bright promise of repentance and its eternal hope for Divine forgiveness are the beacon of our salvation. Those who believe in the message of the Days of Awe shall never be lost, shall never be abandoned, shall never be doomed to desolation.
Rosh Hashanah brings us hope for a better tomorrow and reminds us that we have an obligation to ourselves…. To keep our faith inspite of everything that mitigates against it. When a man has his faith in God and in himself, he can face the whole world with courage and with confidence. Abraham, of whom we read on both days of Rosh Hashanah, knew that. We cannot know his intimate thoughts, and the Bible records his life and events many centuries after they happened. But it was his historic conversion which ultimately made Jews of us. And we welcome converts into the ranks of Judaism, into the “brit Avraham”..the covenant of Abraham.
I once had a congregant who attended synagogue services only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I noticed that he sat always silently, never opening a prayerbook and never participating in the service, only sitting quietly as if in meditation or trance. I asked him why he does not join in the prayers and he replied, “Forgive me, Rabbi. I had no Jewish education and I don’t know how to pray.” I shared with him two brief Chassidic stories which I had learned in my childhood.
In the first one, a Jewish shepherd is tending his flocks and while walking with them to pasture, he proclaimed “Master of the Universe. I am only an ignorant shepherd and I do not know how to pray to you. I don’t know the right words. But if you had cattle or sheep that needed tending, I would gladly freely take care of your flock.” A religious Jew passing by overheard the shepherd’s words and told him “that is not the way to pray as a Jew. Let me teach you what to say.” The religious Jew taught the shepherd but the illiterate youth soon forgot the words and so he stopped praying. That night, Hashem appeared to the religious man in a dream and said to him “what have you done? You taught a poor shepherd what you thought were the right words but he has forgotten them and now he has stopped praying to me.” Immediately upon arising the next morning, the religious Jew went in search of the shepherd. “Why have you stopped praying,” he asked? The shepherd replied, “I forgot the words you taught me.” And the religious Jew said to him, “Continue praying as you have done all these years. God has heard your prayers and they are genuine.”
The second one tells of a young boy who was mute. He entered the synagogue on the eve of Yom Kippur to hear the Kol Nidre being chanted. When it came time to respond with “Amen”, he was unable to do so. He reached into his pocket and took out a whistle and blew it fervently and loud. The worshippers were furious with him and were about to throw him out of the synagogue when the Rabbi cried out,
“Stop! His whistling is as acceptable to God as all of your Amens.”
These stories I shared with my congregant to make him aware that God hears the prayers of our hearts. Even silent prayer directed to Heaven with firm devotion are acceptable to the Holy One, Blessed be He.
We cannot know what Abraham prayed nor what Isaac prayed at the moment of the Akedah. But we do know of a certainty that God heard their prayers and He responded out of His love and mercy.