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Rosh Hashanah D'var Torah

Posted by Roz S.

The Torah portion for the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah is the binding of Isaac. Since it is such a well-known story, I assumed that there would be lots of good information on the internet and so I agreed to do the D'var Torah. A few days later, I Googled the phrase "Abraham and Isaac" and came up with 3,650,000 matches. I quickly decided that that was way more information than I needed to know so I Googled the phrase "Binding of Isaac" and came up with only 884,000 matches. I didn't actually read all of them, but I did peruse enough to get a great education on the subject. Jews refer to Chapter 22 in Genesis as the Aqedah ("Binding") and place the event on Mt. Moriah, which is traditionally considered the site of the Temple in Jerusalem. The story is the last of the 10 trials that Abraham must undergo to prove his faith in God. To refresh your memory, here is a brief summary of the story of the Aqedah:

God spoke to Abraham and said, "take your beloved son Isaac and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering". So early the next morning, Abraham split the wood for the offering, woke 2 servants and Isaac, and they set out. On the 3rd day, Abraham told his servants to wait while he and Isaac went up to the mountain. Abraham gave Isaac the wood to carry for the sacrifice while he himself took the knife and the two walked off together. Then Isaac said to Abraham, "Father, here is the wood but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?" And Abraham answered, "God will provide the offering, my son". When they arrived at the place which God had chosen, Abraham built an altar and bound Isaac. He laid Isaac on the altar and picked up the knife to slay his son. Then an angel of the Lord called to him and said, "Do not raise your hand against the boy. For now I know that you fear God since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from me". When Abraham looked up, he saw a ram, caught by its horns in a thorny bush. He captured the ram and offered it up in place of his son. Abraham then returned to his servants and they departed.

The 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah began about 2 hours ago and the Aqedah is the traditional Torah portion because it represents the ultimate in the Jew's devotion to God. The shofar or ram's horn comemorates the ram that was used as a substitute sacrifice. On Rosh Hashanah, when we stand in judgment before God, we evoke the Binding of Isaac by sounding the shofar as if to say: "God, if we have no other merit, remember Abraham's devotion; remember how the first Jew bound all succeeding generations of Jews in a covenant of self-sacrifice and think about this as we stand in judgment today".

The binding of Isaac is a truly horrific tale of attempted infanticide and sages have struggled from the beginning to deal with a story that is so problematic. I would like to give you a small sampling in rough chronological order of how this story has been viewed by theologians and philosophers over the ages. Time constraints prevent me from giving you the perspectives of Maimonides, Kabbalah, the Existentialists and others but if you bear with me, I think you will find some of these interpretations interesting and I do have some worthwhile points to make at the end. And by the way, in my research I came across a very funny joke based on the Aqedah. It is not appropriate for the solemnity of this service but I will be glad to share it with you afterward.

Even ancient Talmudic scholars gave differing interpretations of the Aqedah. There is the idea that the firstborn, or beloved child belongs to God. There is the repudiation of human sacrifice and the view that human life is fundamentally sacred. There is the notion that life is a series of tests which people (especially the people of Israel must pass. Some saw it as Abraham testing God's mercy and love. Some of our sages emphasized the fact that Abraham lived centuries before God even gave the Torah to the Jews. He came from a culture that didn't know there was anything wrong with child sacrifice so the purpose of this trial was to bring Abraham to a new higher level of understanding.

Christianity has viewed the Aqeda as foreshadowing a later sacrifice on another mount called Calvary. Just as Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son, Christians believe that God did in fact sacrifice His son on behalf of fallen humanity. Christian scholars see in the binding of Isaac many parallels to the later event: in both, a father must sacrifice his most beloved son; Isaac carried the wood for his own sacrifice just as Jesus was forced to carry the wooden cross; the thorny bush in which Abraham caught a ram is compared to the crown of thorns and so on.

Many centuries later, the Koran retells the Aqedah but never mentions the name of the sacrificial child. Traditionally, Muslims believe that it was Ishmael rather than Isaac whom Abraham was told to sacrifice. Muslims note that the text of Genesis (Beresheit) indicates that Abraham was told to sacrifice his only son. Since Isaac was Abraham's second son, he could not have been Abraham's only son. This supports the belief of many Muslims that there was an earlier text naming Ishmael rather than Isaac as the intended sacrifice.

In the 18th century, the Chassidic Masters explained the Aqedah with a metaphor: Once there was an untamed wilderness with no trails and no map. But one day a man came through and accomplished the impossible; he cut a path through this impregnable land. Many followed in his footsteps and it was still a difficult journey but they had his charts to consult and his trail to follow. All their achievements were an extension of the original explorer's own great deed. Abraham was the original pioneer of self-sacrifice.

By the 20th century, the Aqedah is illuminated by psychoanalytic interpretations. The Torah does not mention Isaac descending the mountain with his father. From that point forward in the Torah, Isaac and Abraham never speak directly to each other again. Psycho-analysts have speculated on the mental state of Isaac. Although his father did not kill him, something inside of Isaac was annihilated as he lay on the altar. Like a good son, Isaac had totally trusted his father; we can imagine a horrified and stunned Isaac, climbing down the rocky slopes, scratched and bruised in more ways than one. Isaac's condition could easily be labeled post-traumatic stress syndrome. Isaac was traumatized by his own father who betrayed him by destroying a child's most important anchor - parental protection and security. Carl Jung wrote that the ram symbolizes Abraham's aggressive, instinctual id, the metaphorical angel is actually part of Abraham, his Super-ego or conscience and God saved Isaac only after seeing that Abraham's ego had completely surrendered to God's command.

Feminists point to the Aqedah as a prime example of the near-absence of female influence in the Torah. The mother, Sarah, plays no role in the drama and in fact disappears from the text of Beresheit. She is mentioned again only because she dies. For feminists, Sarah's total lack of involvement in the Binding of Isaac is the epitome of the historic silencing of women. The story of the Aqedah is immediately followed in Genesis 23 by the death of Sarah. Her husband had taken away her only child as a sacrifice. Did she die of fear and anxiety? Or did she perhaps, die of passivity, of her inability to protect her own child? The binding of Isaac precedes Sarah's death because it precipitates her death. Isaac could not be the one sacrificed; it was through his children that God promised Abraham a great nation would arise. Our first matriarch, Sarah, was the sacrifice taken in Isaac's stead. For feminists, she is the true victim of the story.

In the later 20th century, the Aqeda found a unique place in Israel's history. Israeli writers, particularly poets, have used the binding of Isaac as a metaphor for the sacrifices, which the nation and parents have asked their children to make. Many Israelis believe that, just as Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac, modern Israel has sacrificed its youth to protect its territory and its security. In the words of the Israeli poet, Haim Guri, "he (Abraham) bequeathed that hour to his heirs; they are born with a knife in their hearts".

Rosh Hashanah is the time when Jews examine our consciences, explore our actions and evaluate our choices. As we go through this process, I suggest that the community of Bet Tikvah is very fortunate to have three tools to help guide our way:

This may sound foolish to some, but the first tool on my short list is modern technology, specifically the computer. I hope there is a special place in heaven for the people who create search engines. And I want you to know that this is coming from a teacher who publicly stated that I would rather grow old and die than be required to do my grades on a computer! But, many weeks ago, I typed three words: Abraham-and-Isaac and found well over 3 1/2 million sources of information: D'var Torahs from every stream of Judaism, ancient Talmudic commentaries, Christian and Muslim sermons, documents written by historians, philosophers, psychiatrists, theologians, and modern Israeli poets. The computer gives us instant access to the knowledge of every civilization through the ages; it allows us to learn from people who live thousands of miles away and whose language we cannot understand. Imagine the difficulty a novice like me would have trying to write this Drash without computer access. In a hundred years, I could not have gained the information that I acquired by striking a few keys. As we struggle for understanding during the High Holidays or at any other time, we should utilize and appreciate the unlimited resources that technology can provide for us.

The second tool that the Jews in this sanctuary are so lucky to have is the philosophy and membership of Bet Tikvah. This is not a group that tolerates diversity; it is a congregation that revels in it. Anyone and everyone are welcome at Bet Tikvah, Jews from every stream of Judaism, Jews who are religiously observant and Jews who are not; the doors are wide open even for non-Jews to share our sense of community. The members of Bet Tikvah are not bound to accept the Aqedah or any other tradition or ritual exactly as our ancestors understood them. But we come together as seekers to share our spirituality and respect the diverse ways that we approach our religious beliefs. On Rosh Hashanah, as we consider our deeds and misdeeds, how fortunate we are to be part of a congregation whose Jewish identification and values help us transcend our individual lives yet offers support and respect for that same individuality.

The third and most important tool to help us cope with modern life is Torah and what a magnificent tool it is. Every word, every nuance is so pregnant with meaning, every phrase is so deep and insightful that even after 3000 years of study, new significance and inspiration continues to be discovered by every generation. Whether you believe it was given by God, inspired by God, or a product of human intellect, Torah is an incredible document that is so complex yet simple, mystical yet rational, universal yet personal; it has bound Jews together and insured our survival for thousands of years. Today, as we pause to reflect before plunging into the New Year, let us be grateful for Torah, study Torah and use its insights to guide our lives.

L'shana Tova to you all, and best wishes for a New Year of peace, health and happiness.