For the past four weeks, I have been going to prayers every morning to be inspired and transported by a particular sound. During the month of Ellul, the month leading up to the New Year, the ram’s horn (shofar) is sounded daily in the synagogue — just three short notes followed by one longer one. A fraction of time, incalculable impact, a taste of what we will experience on on the High Holy Days. One hundred notes are blown during the extended prayer services on each of the first two days of the year and the final blast, a single long note, is blown at the end of the prayers on the Day of Atonement.
The idea of blowing a ram’s horn comes from the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac (of Ishmael in Islamic tradition), when instead of offering his son to the Almighty, Avraham (Abraham/ Ibrahim)was instructed by an angel to offer up the ram, caught by his horn in a thicket. The story of the sacrifice is read in synagogues on the second day of the year, evoking strong emotions about the nature of God and about human suffering and the human capacity, or lack of it, for empathy.
Children learn that the key message of the story is that the true God does not want us to sacrifice our children, a practice prevalent in the surrounding cultures in Avraham’s time. The ram was an acceptable substitute. However, while there is no doubt that a complete rejection of human sacrifice is a cornerstone of Judaism, there are difficulties with this being interpreted as the central meaning of the text. Sacrifice is supposed to come from ourselves. We are supposed to cede something that belongs to us for a sacred purpose. This ram was not Avraham’s. It was caught by its horn. How can this be a sacrifice?
In addition, we struggle with Avraham’s attitude. It is clear that he WANTED to sacrifice his son, who, according to most interpretations, was already 37 years old. Isaac himself acceded. They both knew that this sacrifice would undermine the previous Divine promise – but they were willing to obey.
In order to fully appreciate the bizarre nature of the divine instruction to Avraham to sacrifice his son, we need to review the Jewish (and Christian) sacred narrative. Avraham and Sarah were childless until she was 90. Isaac’s was a miracle birth. God promises that through this son, Avraham’s blessing will continue into future generations. The covenant is a covenant for the future, depending on descendents. Killing Isaac before he himself gives birth would be putting an end to the divine covenant before it could be implemented, making a mockery of God’s promise. Yet God seems to demand precisely that.
Perhaps it is this very paradox that makes the story so powerful and important — or, rather, it is Avraham and Isaac’s acceptance of it from which we learn so much. This scenario makes no rational sense — like most of life. We think that God has determined a path for us; we think that world history is moving in a particular direction; we think that we understand the consequences of actions or of natural events. Suddenly, everything changes. Our lives take unexpected turns. The world undergoes revolutions, tsunamis, literal and metaphoric, overtake us, destroying whatever is in their paths.
True faith requires us to accept that what we have always thought to be the natural direction of things is not necessarily so. To know that we know nothing is the essence of belief in divine power. Our rational powers cannot ever guarantee us understanding or absolute knowledge. The more we seek to know the Divine, the more we appreciate how limited we are in our capacity for understanding.
When we hear the shofar, we should be reminded that there is a Power directing history and directing our lives, a Power that we cannot begin to understand. We are commanded to acquire wisdom but we cannot be truly wise. At any moment, everything we believe to be true can be proven false, everything we expect to happen can be erased.
The ram whose horn was caught in the thicket restored Avraham’s life and world history to some level of rationality. Isaac was to live, to marry and have children. But we always have in mind the possibility that God could have determined otherwise and we would never know or understand. We cannot control how our lives play out – our power is in how we respond to the unexpected and difficult challenges.
And our power is in resisting the temptation to believe that we understand the divine will. Abraham thought he ought to sacrifice his son, only to be ordered not to harm him in any way. He learnt that God did not want his zeal but wanted his humility. This has been a very difficult year for me as a committed Jew, seeing so many horrors perpetrated by people claiming to be inspired by the faith-system to which I belong. I hope that when they read this story, those inclined to think that there is a divine imperative to cause pain will hear voice of the angel telling them to stop.