Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5777 (On the Akedah, the shofar, and teshuvah)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

Today, on the Day of Judgment, we see ourselves as standing in a tenuous situation. As our past deeds are evaluated—by us and by God—will we be written into the book of life, or won’t we? And, today, at the start of the New Year, we celebrate God’s coronation and prepare for a new beginning, for a world where God’s reign is manifest. These two stances are somewhat at odds we look back at the year that has ended and consider our lives to be hanging in the balance, whilst  also committing to improve our lives in the coming year. But they also reinforce the same central theme of this period: teshuvah—turning away from a flawed past and towards a better future.

There is perhaps no better model for this paradox than the account we are about to read: that of Akedat Yitzhak, the Binding of Isaac, a story that has to be read in two seemingly contradictory ways at once. And also a story that, like Rosh Hashanah, contains for us an existential concern.

At the opening of the story, God commands Abraham to take his yehid, his “only son” and sacrifice him. Despite Abraham having two sons, Ernst Simon, the 20th century German-Israeli Jewish thinker and educator, pointed out that, from the perspective of the Jewish people:

Never was our existence more endangered than in the hour of the עקדה. In the sense of Jewish continuation and continuity Isaac was indeed Abraham’s only son. The whole future of the Jewish people depended on him, and with his premature death we would have been obliterated from the history of mankind.

And, despite this danger, it is a story that has to also be read in another way as well. When Abraham says to Isaac:

אֱ-לֹהִים יִרְאֶה-לּוֹ הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה בְּנִי

God will see to the lamb for the offering my son. (Gen. 22:8)

Rashi explains: “God will select a lamb. And if not, my son will be the sacrifice.” That is to say: my son might be the sacrifice. And the sacrifice will be a lamb provided by God. Rashi’s comment begins with the assertion that Isaac won’t really be sacrificed in the end, but then it pivots to our previous reading that Isaac might be killed after all. Thus Rashi highlights the ambivalence that the text itself only hints at: The situation is fraught: Isaacs’s life is in danger. And, at the same time, it actually isn’t at all because a lamb is to be sacrificed instead of Isaac. Both of these opposing perspectives are essential to the story.

For Abraham, one of these stances seems to  be dominant: Back at the opening of the story, he instantly understands that God is ordering the death of Isaac. The Midrash (Pirke Rabbi Eliezer 31:1) describes how Abraham initially seems to feign not understanding the command, but God makes it clear that it is Isaac who must be taken up to be sacrificed. And that seems to be how Abraham’s experience is presented in the rest of the episode, as he moves rapidly from action to action, giving terse answers and instructions revealing his unease.

This is perhaps the simplest reading of the story. In the Mishnah (Taanit 2:4), we find the origins of the piyyut “Mi She’ana”. At a time of drought, when the crops are in danger and lives might be lost, when a point of looming crisis has been reached, the prayer leader asks God to provide rain, recalling the precedent of our ancestors whom God answered in their times of need. The first of these is Abraham on Moriah (where the akedah took place). Abraham was indeed answered, but, as for the agricultural community in the Mishnah, he was first brought to the point of desperation. And worse, he had no precedent for invoking God’s mercy, because he was the first on the Mishnah’s list.

Abraham must have recalled that God’s promise had been to fulfill the covenant through Isaac alone, so perhaps he had some reason to believe that God would not make him follow through with the plan. However, as contemporary Biblical scholar Tzemah Yoreh has pointed out, Abraham may have been expecting some punishment as, after the promise had been made, he displayed a lack faith in God and endangered Sarah when he told the people of Gerar that she was his sister, not his wife. Perhaps this transgression would result in the annulment of the promise that God had made?

Thus, Abraham was only too aware that his son’s life and his covenantal future were on very shaky ground. As we read the story, we not only feel the emotional turmoil of Abraham, but we experience our own: Just before the People, Israel, or even the man, Israel can be brought into existence, our demise too is commanded by God. The national legacy hangs in the balance—as do our lives today on Yom Hadin.

However, to shift more fully from Abraham’s perspective to our our own as readers of the text, we are certain that Isaac lives–we know that the Torah continues! Indeed, all the intended readers of Genesis already know absolutely, intuitively and viscerally, that Isaac lives on long enough to have children—for we are his descendants.

The later interpreters also hint in this direction, that the story, from its start, could never end in Isaac’s death:

The Rabbis play with the phrase וְהַעֲלֵ֤הוּ שָׁם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ה—offer him there for a burnt offering, suggesting that God meant only the more basic meaning of the verb ע.ל.ה, reading these  words (rather tendentiously) as something like “take him up as … someone that is brought up…?” And so, according to that interpretation, God never even really asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac! (BT Taanit 4a, Bereshit Rabbah 56:8)

When we finally reach the resolution, the symbol of the sacrifice that wasn’t is the sacrifice that was: Isaac is replaced on the altar with the ram whose horns are caught in the thicket. And that ram was not a last minute miracle—according to the Mishnah, it had been created on the sixth day of the Creation just for this purpose (Avot 5:6), because, again, Isaac was always going to be saved.

This brings us to the shofar that we sound today. Typically, when the story of the Akedah is associated with the shofar of Rosh Hashanah, we explain that we sound the shofar to invoke the virtue of Abraham and Isaac who were willing to give up Isaac’s life for God. According to the Talmud:

אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא כדי שאזכור לכם עקידת יצחק בן אברהם ומעלה אני עליכם כאילו עקדתם עצמכם לפני

The Holy Blessed One says: I will recall the binding of Isaac, son of Abraham, and consider you as if you bound yourselves before me. (BT Rosh Hashanah 16a)

This is an example of zekhut avot—the principle that our forebears’ virtue can stand in our merit.

But based on the role that the ram actually plays in the story, the shofar can play a very different role for us. The ram is the reminder for us (and perhaps for God too), that Isaac could never have been about to die on the altar. The symbol of the sacrifice that wasn’t is the sacrifice that was. Its blast calls out to us that there will be a future, for us as individuals, and as a covenantal people. That this is not only the day that judgement is passed, but it is also the potential beginning of a new episode in our lives.

Alluding to ram of the Akedah, Rabbi Hananiah the son of rabbi Yitzhak says:

כל ימות השנה ישראל נאחזים בעבירות ומסתבכין בצרות

All year, Israel is caught by sin and is entangled in suffering,

ובראש השנה הן נוטלין שופר ותוקעין בו ונזכרים לפני הקב”ה והוא מוחל להם

and on Rosh Hashanah, they take the shofar and sound it, and they are remembered by the Holy Blessed One, who forgives them

וסופן ליגאל בקרנו של איל

and their destiny is to be redeemed with the horn of a ram (Bereshit Rabbah 56:9).

Just as this ram was from the days of Creation, its horn also recalls for us the future redemption (ibid.). The moments on Rosh Hashanah when we hear the shofar blast should therefore be moments of uplift. They serve as a contrast with much of the liturgy, perhaps most of all with “u-netaneh toekef” with its list of the various ill-fortunes and worse which may befall us in the coming year, and the uncertainty that fills our lives. Life will re-start today, says the shofar, our people will yet endure.

Rosh Hashanah is a time to hold both of these convictions—that our lives are weighed in the balance, and that God will fulfill the promise to allow us a future—and they work in tandem to direct us towards the ultimate goal of this period—teshuvah, repentance.

These two aspects can also be recalled with two of Rosh Hashanah’s names: Yom Hadin and Yom Teruah. When we feel too comfortable with our flaws, Yom Hadin, the day of judgment  pushes us to cast a critical eye at ourselves and ask what was is not yet good enough. When the work seems to much and our weaknesses seem hopelessly compromising, Yom Teruah, the day of shofar blasts, reassures and encourages us, for we are guaranteed that there will be a future and it can be what we make it.

As we read the events of the Akedah and then hear the shofar, may we feel both the pressure to change and the reassurance we need to make next year a better one.