One of the key motifs of the Ten Days of Penitence between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is the “Akeida”, in which G-d commanded Abraham to [Bereishit 22:2] “offer [Isaac] as a burnt offering”. Allusions to the Akeida are woven throughout the High Holiday liturgy, from the Amidah prayer recited on Rosh Hashanah to the Selichot (penitential poems) recited each morning at dawn.
The story of the Akeida begins with the words [Bereishit 22:1] “And it was after these things (devarim)…” After what things? Rashi, the greatest of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, quotes the Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin [89b] that addresses this question: “Some of our Rabbis say that it means ‘after the words of Satan’ who denounced Abraham [to G-d] saying, ‘Of all the banquets which Abraham prepared, not a single bullock nor a single ram did he bring as a sacrifice to You?’ G-d replied to him, ‘Does he do anything at all except for his son’s sake? Yet if I were to bid him, ‘Sacrifice him to Me’’, he would not refuse’. Others say that it means ‘after the words of Ishmael’, who boasted to Isaac that he had been circumcised when he was thirteen years old without resisting. Isaac replied to him, ‘You think to intimidate me by mentioning the loss of one part of the body! If the Holy One, blessed be He, were to tell me, ‘Sacrifice yourself to Me’ I would not refuse’”.
According to both opinions in the Talmud, the Akeida was preceded by a theological dispute. According to one set of Rabbis, the disputants were the Satan and G-d. In the previous chapter, G-d had blessed Abraham with a son at the ripe age of one hundred. While the Torah describes how [Bereishit 21:8] “Abraham held a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned”, we are never told that Abraham ever explicitly thanked G-d for his son. Indeed, the Talmud in Tractate Berachot [7b] teaches that the first person ever to thank G-d was our matriarch, Leah, who said after the birth of her fourth son, Judah [Bereishit 29:35], “This time I will thank G-d”. G-d retorts that Abraham is thankful to the core of his being. Abraham knows exactly where Isaac came from and if I ask him to return Isaac to Me, then Abraham will obey without hesitation.
The second set of Rabbis asserts that the disputants were human – they were Abraham’s two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael chastised Isaac claiming that while he, Isaac, underwent circumcision as an infant, without having the option of opting out, he, Ishmael, was an adult and had to willingly agree to undergo the procedure. Isaac retorted that his allegiance to G-d knew no bounds and that he would willingly offer his entire body if asked.
Notice that Rashi translates the word “devarim” not as “things”, as translated above, but as “conversations”, from the Hebrew word “dibbur” – “word”. That is to say, after “these words”, G-d spoke to Abraham and told him to offer up his son. Before we continue, we must introduce Rabbi Yehuda Léon Ashkénazi, better known as “Manitou”, a nickname he acquired in the Boy Scouts (Tzofim). Manitou was born in Algeria in 1922 and died in Israel in 1996 but he is best known for rebuilding the French Jewish community after World War II. Since Pesach, I have been studying his “Sod Midrash HaToladot”, roughly translated as “Secrets of the Midrash”, which has profoundly altered the way in which I understand Torah. The rest of this lesson will be based on Manitou’s understanding of the Akeida.
Manitou directs our attention to another verse in which the word “davar” is used, in the next to last verse of the Book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is a primer in Jewish Existentialism. It begins with the words [1:2-4] “Vanity of vanities, said Kohelet; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit has man in all his toil that he toils under the sun? A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth endures forever.” Albert Camus, a French existentialist philosopher who lived in the previous century, could have been thinking of Ecclesiastes when he said, “The absurd is born of the confrontation between the human call and the unreasonable silence of the world.” Camus defined the human condition as “absurd”, as the confrontation between man’s desire for significance, meaning and clarity on the one hand and the silent, cold universe on the other. The Book of Ecclesiastes is a treatise on Absurdism. It discusses the futility of happiness and the inevitability of death. Ecclesiastes is a book of theology, a book of ideas, a book of words. That is, until the next to last verse [12:13]. It is there that its author, Kohelet, reveals another translation for the word “davar”. Kohelet tells us, “The end of the matter (davar), everything having been heard, fear G-d and keep His commandments, for this is the entire man”. Here davar does not mean “word”. In this instance, davar means “thing” or “matter”. Rabbi Yaakov Lorberbaum, who lived in the Ukraine at the turn of the eighteenth century, writing in “Ta’alumot Chochma” translates this verse as “After everything we have read in this book, the root of everything is to stay away from what G-d has told us to stay away from [and do what he has told us to do]”. Kohelet tells us that a life of words is a life not worth living. At the end, says Kohelet, we are judged according to our deeds. Judaism, teaches Manitou, is not a theology – it is a religion, it is a system of moral conduct. Judaism is not concerned with how a Jew understands his place on earth nor with how we reconcile a cold universe with a warm and loving G-d. At the end of the day, at the end of “the matter”, all G-d really wants from us is to fear him by keeping His commandments. Everything else is gravy.
The Akeida is preceded, according to our Rabbis, by an impassioned theological argument between two skilful opponents: Are we deserving of G-d’s beneficence? Can a human truly express his thanks to the Divine? Who is to be extolled – one who chooses to obey or one who is forced to obey? The Akeida teaches us that all of these questions, while admittedly significant, lie far from the core of Judaism. Before the words must come deeds. The Akeida can be summed up in only one sentence [Bereishit 22:3]: “Abraham saddled his donkey and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. He split the wood for the burnt offering, and he set out for the place of which G-d had told him”. Seemingly trivial actions – saddling a donkey, gathering servants, and splitting wood – had more of an impact on Jewish history than all of the theological arguments ever waged. What was truly important was that Abraham act, merely and specifically (davka), because “G-d had told him”.
Lou Holtz, a former football head coach at the University of Notre Dame, once said, “When all is said and done, more is said than done”. A few days ago I saw a picture of my brother-in-law. He was working at HP at the time and he was wearing a shirt that he had obviously received from work. It said “Exceed, Take charge, Innovate, Focus, Team HP”. While Team HP might find these words to live by, Abraham and Kohelet would most likely find them trite and empty. They’re just “words”. About ten years ago, I spent some time working with Team Raytheon, the largest guided missile manufacturer in the world. My counterpart at Raytheon was always concerned with “executing”. That was his mantra. We would plan, we would execute, and then we would compare the outcome with the desired outcome. Next week, on Yom Kippur, as we stand before G-d Almighty, we will be judged not according to how much we have focused or exceeded but according to how much and how well we have executed – for this is indeed the entire man.
Shabbat Shalom, Gmar Chatima Tova, and stay healthy.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, David ben Chaya and Iris bat Chaya.
 Sephardic Jews include the Akeida motif in their Selichot from the very first day, Rosh Chodesh Elul. Ashkenazic Jews do not insert the Akeida motif into their Selichot until the day before Rosh Hashanah.
 The identity of the Satan is a topic for another shiur.
 It is inconceivable that neither Adam, Noach, Abraham, Isaac, nor Jacob ever thanked G-d, not even when He overtly saved their lives. This, too, is a topic for another shiur.
 Manitou’s teachings are not completely new to me. My Rav and my teacher, Rav Eliyahu Zinni, was one of Manitou’s students. When I study Manitou, I close my eyes and hear Rav Zinni.
 “Davar” is the singular of the word “Devarim”.
 Rabbi Lorberbaum is better known for his writings on Halacha then on his interpretation of Tanach. He is the author of the famous “Netivot” and “Chavat Da’at”, two crucial commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch.