Every time we blow shofar on Rosh Hashana we invoke the Akeida עֲקֵדָה (the binding of Yitzchak) to gain merit for the Jewish people. Avraham and Yitzchak overcame unimaginable obstacles to fulfill God’s directive even though God’s request seemed rationally and morally incomprehensible. Without the help of Midrash one cannot fully appreciate or dimensionalize this critical event that assumes such prominence on Rosh Hashana. I therefore shamelessly plagiarize what I wrote on Midrash Tanchuma in Parshat Vayera. There the Midrash provides the emotional and psychological backstory to the Akeida. Now we can more fully understand the nature of Avraham and Yitzchak’s test and how it was not (as it could seem from the simple reading of the text) the story of two people following a straight and predictable path. Rather, it is a story of their perseverance in the face of major curves along the road.
The challenge of human doubts
The Midrash Tanchuma uses a literary device to depict the nagging self doubts that Avraham experienced. The Midrash conveys these doubts as a conversation between the Satan and Avraham. However, it certainly sounds like issues of grave concern that Avraham asked himself:
וְזָקֵן כְּמוֹתְךָ יֵלֵךְ וִיאַבֵּד בֵּן שֶׁנִּתַּן לוֹ לְמֵאָה שָׁנָה
“Why should an old man, who has a son at the age of a hundred, destroy him” (Midrash Tanchuma Vayera 22:10)?
When this highly-charged emotional approach didn’t work, a threat was made:
וּתְאַבֵּד נְשָׁמָה שֶׁתִּתְחַיֵּב עָלֶיהָ בַּדִּין
“If you destroy a soul, you will be held legally accountable for it” (Ibid)!
When that didn’t work, Isaac was challenged:
כַּמָּה תַעֲנִיּוֹת נִתְעַנֵּית אִמְּךָ עַד שֶׁלֹּא נוֹלַדְתָּ, וְהַזָּקֵן הַזֶּה הִשְׁתַּטָּה וְהוּא הוֹלֵךְ לְשָׁחֳטֶךָ.
“..your mother fasted (and prayed) for your birth, and now this unbalanced, old man is about to sacrifice you” (Ibid 22:11)!
Isaac clung to a simple truth: אַף עַל פִּי כֵן לֹא אֶעֱבֹר עַל דַּעַת יוֹצְרִי וְעַל צִוּוּי אָבִי
“Even so, I will not disregard the will of my Creator, nor the command of my father (Ibid).
Now it’s time to pull out all the stops.
The final attempt to dissuade Avraham constituted a bold, new approach. Maybe God did indeed ask me to do this. But you see, it was all a test. I passed. I can go home – it’s over. In fact, here’s what God’s is actually going to do:
כָּךְ שָׁמַעְתִּי מֵאֲחוֹרֵי הַפַּרְגּוֹד, הַשֶּׂה לְעוֹלָה וְאֵין יִצְחָק לְעוֹלָה
“I have heard from behind the heavenly curtain that a lamb will be sacrificed as a burnt offering instead of Yitzchak” (Ibid 22:13).
Once again, Avraham was unmoved by this logic. He dismissed this notion in the following manner:
כָּךְ עָנְשׁוֹ שֶׁל בַּדַּאי, שֶׁאֲפִלּוּ אוֹמֵר אֱמֶת אֵין שׁוֹמְעִין לוֹ
“It is a liar’s fate that even when he speaks the truth, no one will believe him”(Ibid).
As you can see, right until the end Avraham was still struggling with the fact that God never would have asked Avraham to do something so despicable and so immoral. It’s the antithesis of everything he believed in. In fact the world was full of child sacrifice that Avraham had been railing against ever since he started on his mission to spread monotheism. Surely God would not undermine all of Avraham’s life work and demand something so barbaric. Yet Avraham had to suspend logic, suppress his emotions and follow God’s command.
A heart to heart discussion between Avraham and God
According to Midrash Tanchuma, Avraham was grappling with another issue as well – God’s contradictory statements: He was asked to sacrifice the very son through which all his descendants were promised to come. In light of this, Avraham has a request for all future descendants of Yitzhak:
כָּךְ כְּשֶׁיִּהְיוּ בָנָיו שֶׁל יִצְחָק חוֹטְאִין וְנִכְנָסִין לְצָרָה, תְּהֵא נִזְכָּר לָהֶן עֲקֵדָתוֹ שֶׁל יִצְחָק וְתֵחָשֵׁב לְפָנֶיךָ כְּאִלּוּ אֶפְרוֹ צָבוּר עַל גַּבֵּי הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְתִסְלַח לָהֶן וְתִפְדֵּם מִצָּרָתָן.
“Therefore, when Isaac’s descendants sin and are being oppressed, recall the binding of Yitzchak, consider it as if his ashes were piled upon the altar, and pardon them (the Jewish People) and redeem them from any adversity (Ibid 23:8).”
God shares what is in His heart”
The Midrash depicts God as engaging in a warm, emotional embrace of Avraham’s feelings:
אָמַר לוֹ הַקָּבָּ”ה אַתָּה אָמַרְתָּ אֶת שֶׁלְּךָ וְאֹמַר אֲנִי אֶת שֶׁלִּי. עֲתִידִין בָּנָיו שֶׁל יִצְחָק לַחֲטוֹא לְפָנַי וַאֲנִי דָן אוֹתָם בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה. אֶלָּא אִם מְבַקְשִׁין שֶׁאֲחַפֵּשׂ לָהֶן זְכוּת וְאֶזְכֹּר לָהֶן עֲקֵדַת יִהְיוּ תוֹקְעִין לְפָנַי בְּקֶרֶן אַיִל וְאוֹשִׁיעֵם וְאֶפְדֵּם מֵעֲוֹנוֹתֵיהֶם…..
“God, answered: ‘You have spoken what was in your heart, now I will say what is in my heart. In the future, Yitzchak’s descendants will sin against Me, and I will judge them on Rosh Hashanah. If they want Me to find something to their credit, ….“Let them blow the ram’s horn … and I will save them and redeem them from their sins” (Ibid).
Avraham’s ability to suppress his compassion for Isaac is a major theme in our Rosh Hashanah prayers:
וּזְכָר לָֽנוּ הֹ’ אֱלֹקְינוּ אֶת הַבְּרִית וְאֶת הַחֶֽסֶד וְאֶת־הַשְּׁבוּעָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּֽעְתָּ לְאַבְרָהָם אָבִֽינוּ בְּהַר הַמּוֹרִיָּה וְתֵרָאֶה לְפָנֶֽיךָ עֲקֵדָה שֶׁעָקַד אַבְרָהָם אָבִֽינוּ אֶת יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ עַל גַּבֵּי הַמִּזְבֵּֽחַ: וְכָבַשׁ רַחֲמָיו לַעֲשׂוֹת רְצוֹנְךָ בְּלֵבָב שָׁלֵם כֵּן יִכְבְּשׁוּ רַחֲמֶֽיךָ אֶת כַּעַסְךָ מֵעָלֵֽינוּ
“… Remember the Lord, our God , the covenant, the kindness and the oath which You swore to our father Avraham …and how he suppressed his compassion to do Your will with a whole heart; so may Your compassion suppress Your anger against us” (The זכרונות Zikhronot section of the Musaf in the Rosh Hashana Prayer Book).
The shofar reminds God that Avraham bartered his personal anguish for future forgiveness, come what may.
The Curves of the shofar
The Talmud says that the shape of the shofar is derived from the fact that it looks like someone bowing and contrite. (Talmud Rosh Hashana 26b)) Perhaps another reason for its shape is that Avraham and Yitzchak’s journey, like each of ours, was anything but straight and predictable. In fact the shofar reminds us of the immensity of their winding path and the faith and the fortitude in which they overcame their challenges.